Enabling inclusion with assistive technology, community efforts
By Yogesh Hirdaramani
At Singapore’s annual Tech 4 Good innovation festival, participants showcased their assistive technology solutions developed in collaboration with disability community groups. GovInsider delves into the emerging initiatives that aim to make the country more inclusive for people with disabilities.
This year’s Tech 4 Good Festival gathered youth groups to build innovative assistive technology solutions for persons with disabilities. Image: Engineering Good via Facebook
“Our experience over the past two years is a powerful reminder of how tech can help overcome significant barriers. Tech enabled us to carry on with our daily social and work lives despite the various physical and social safe distancing measures,” said Eric Chua, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth & Ministry of Social and Family Development, Singapore.
Chua was speaking at this year’s Tech 4 Good showcase, an annual innovation festival organised by non-profit Engineering Good that encourages youths to develop innovative solutions to improve the lives of people with disabilities in Singapore. This year’s showcase was held on 1 October at Singapore’s National Library. It featured 30 teams responding to six challenges based on the lived experiences faced by people with disabilities.
The event came hot on the heels of the announcement of the country’s Enabling Masterplan 2030 a few weeks prior, which comprised 29 recommendations from a committee convened by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).
The masterplan highlighted three key strategic goals that the country will be focusing on to improve inclusion for persons with disabilities: strengthening support for lifelong learning options, supporting independent living, and creating infrastructure that is inclusive to people with disabilities.
The committee consulted more than 300 persons with disabilities, their caregivers, and disability sector professionals in articulating key challenges and goals for building a more inclusive Singapore for people with disabilities. Chua, who co-chaired the 27-member committee, shared some of the key focus areas of the 2030 masterplan at the Tech 4 Good showcase.
Assistive technology to support independent living
“As part of the EMP 2030 we have made assistive technology one of the 14 focal areas … this will better enable persons with disabilities to live independently and to participate fully in the community,” said Chua. He commended the teams for their innovative spirit in developing assistive technology projects and highlighted some of the initiatives and funds set up to develop the assistive technology sector in Singapore.
Groups at Tech 4 Good developed solutions ranging from independent wheelchair transfers, tools to support people with visual impairment measure specific volumes of liquids, and tools to support people with muscular dystrophy take photos independently.
Hari, who grew up with cerebral palsy, shared during the event that assistive technology was critical in supporting people with disabilities. Yet, he noted that there are rarely one-size-fits-all tech solutions, as each person’s needs are unique. Hari runs a Facebook group that helps link members of the cerebral palsy community with assistive device providers.
Chua highlighted to teams during his keynote address that agencies Tote Board and SG Enable provide funding for assistive technology and other scalable initiatives through the Enabling Lives Initiative grant. Since 2015, the grant has supported over 40 projects.
SG Enable and SPD, a local charity for people with disabilities, have also set up Tech Able, which aims to promote the awareness and adoption of assistive technology. Since Tech 4 Good’s inaugural festival in 2019, Tech Able has supported the teams in engaging community groups and developing their products beyond the festival, said an MSF spokesperson to GovInsider.
Tech Able helps match persons with disabilities to suitable assistive devices and assists these individuals with the daily use of the devices, Chua explained. Through Tech Able, individuals with disabilities also have access to a loan library where they can borrow some of these devices and try them out before they commit, to find one most suited for their needs, he added.
Tech Able’s loan library is located at Tech Able’s Enabling Village. MSF’s Assistive Technology Fund also supports persons with disabilities in acquiring, replacing, or repairing their devices.
A community approach
Part of building solutions that can effectively meet the diverse needs of various communities and individuals is by working closely with them, highlighted various panellists throughout the event.
For instance, one of the challenges at this year’s Tech 4 Good festival included creating solutions to support persons with intellectual disabilities in practising socially-appropriate interactions. This was a problem statement submitted by the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS).
A team responding to this challenge developed an AI-based social companion app which can provide a space to practise online communication. The team of Secondary 3 students from the School of Science and Technology, Singapore won the Most Empathetic Award for going above and beyond in engaging with community partners.
Team members told GovInsider that working with MINDS helped them understand the unique challenges different groups of persons with intellectual disabilities face, and ensure that their app was “holistic and all-encompassing”. Feedback led the team to include a sign language recognition system to support users who rely on non-verbal means of communication.
MSF also shared with GovInsider that the public sector is working closely with the private sector, social sector, as well as persons with disabilities and their caregivers to bring about the vision of an inclusive Singapore.
For instance, they have formed a task force on promoting inclusive employment practices. The task force is responsible for finding ways to support employment for persons with disabilities, from alternative employment models (such as microjobs) to encouraging organisations to commit to disability-inclusive employment.
In 2020, SG Enable launched an accreditation framework to recognise organisations for best practices and outcomes in disability-inclusive employment, and provide frameworks to help employers improve their employment practices.
MSF will also be piloting Enabling Services Hubs, which will reach out to persons with disabilities and caregivers living in the surrounding area. These hubs will provide continual learning courses and social inclusion activities, said the MSF spokesperson.
Collaborations to improve physical and digital infrastructure
The masterplan also emphasises the importance of improving physical and digital infrastructure, so that persons with disabilities can carry out their daily activities fuss-free. These improvements to public spaces and services will require a coordinated approach, with community-driven partnerships leading the way.
Public agencies and social service agencies are working together to design and implement alternative housing and care models to better enable persons with disabilities to live and age well in the community, said the MSF spokesperson. Recently, the country announced that one such public housing town will incorporate dementia-friendly features, such as vibrant colours and bigger block numbers by 2025.
As part of the Accessible City Networks, community partnerships are identifying locations with accessibility challenges in the country’s central business district and public housing towns. These partnerships are co-developing solutions to address these challenges, said the MSF spokesperson.
According to the masterplan, the MSF is also developing a centralised disability register to consolidate data on persons with disabilities across different government sources. In turn, this will enable agencies to analyse anonymised demographic, socio economic, and programme-related data to enhance the delivery of services and improve outcomes.
For example, the country’s Land Transport Authority has used available data to identify the towns where more people with visual impairments live and installed 24/7 audio traffic light signals in these areas, said the MSF spokesperson.
MSF is also working with GovTech to improve the adoption of inclusive design in digital services, such as websites and mobile applications. For instance, the country’s Covid-19 check-in system, SafeEntry, was tested extensively to ensure it was accessible for the visually and physically handicapped.
Other avenues the MSF is pursuing include working with the Singapore Land Authority to make navigation more accessible on OneMap – the country’s national map service, as well as the Building and Construction Authority to make older buildings more accessible.
In Jakarta last month, 53 member countries of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) agreed on the Jakarta Declaration, which aims to pave the way for disability inclusive development in the region, reported Antara News.
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