The need to enhance life-long learning through Singapore’s SkillsFuture ecosystem to meet the uncertain economic times we are living in has been a topic that has arisen frequently in recent months – whether it be in President Halimah Yacob’s President’s Address last month, or Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Lawrence Wong’s recent Labour Day speech.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) also noted in their recent addendum the need to strengthen SkillsFuture – making “training accessible for adult learners”. However, in the MOE addendum, or in recent statements and speeches on SkillsFuture, there is usually no mention on how there still exist many gaps and barriers within the SkillsFuture ecosystem for adult learners with disabilities.
When it comes to making life-long learning such as SkillsFuture more accessible for adult learners with disabilities, there remains much room for improvement.
The topic for the need to make SkillsFuture more disability-inclusive and accessible is not a new topic. We at the Disabled People’s Association Singapore (DPA) have noted the need for such improvements in our past research and on-going conversations with various relevant government agencies. Persons with disabilities having written Forum letters and noting in past interviews in recent years on the great need for improvement in making SkillsFuture accessible for persons with disabilities. Yet our recent research shows that a lack of disability inclusion and accessibility still remains in the SkillsFuture ecosystem.
With the recent focus on SkillsFuture in public discussions, DPA finds it fitting to once again reiterate the call to ensure that such life-long learning opportunities are truly optimised to include persons with disabilities.
The Need for Accessibility and Inclusion Standards Across SkillsFuture Programming
In a recent Parliamentary statement responding to questions on making SkillsFuture more accessible to persons with disabilities, MOE noted that “As far as is practicable, training providers will admit PwD learners into existing courses by making the necessary adjustments. SSG is working with SG Enable under MSF and other stakeholders such as Social Service Agencies to further expand CET opportunities for PwDs. This includes providing grants for training providers to customise courses for them. We appreciate that PwDs have very varied learning needs, and training providers assess them on a case-by-case basis to provide customised training support.”
While DPA notes the government’s efforts in expanding accessible options for various SkillsFuture courses, especially through the newly launched Enabling Academy, there needs to be enforceable accessibility standards for all SkillsFuture courses in addition to a current case-by-case approach.
As of now, persons with disabilities still face barriers and limited options in accessing the courses through SkillsFuture because many still remain inaccessible. For example, persons with disabilities have shared that many of the images and graphics – including charts, diagrams, etc. – used in such courses have no image descriptions, which poses as a very significant barrier for persons with disabilities such as visually impaired individuals who rely full-time on screen reader software.
Furthermore, DPA has heard reports, through our research and from our membership, of SkillsFuture lecturers and training providers not being willing to consider accommodation requests or denying learners with disabilities from their courses because such learners required reasonable accommodations.
For example, a participant in DPA’s recent research, Wilson (name changed to protect anonymity), who is blind, recounted his experience of trying to take a training course offered through SkillsFuture as a requirement for his job and that this is not a unique occurrence within the visually impaired community.
“Then they should have been more inclusive in the training as well. Things like they should include, you see the SkillsFuture are done without any consideration to include the blind. It’s that I actually bulldozed my way through. And there are some friends who I encouraged to go, they were so disheartened because when they tried, the lecturer actually sometimes even ignore them … There are blind friends that actually shared with me. They tried and then they realised they couldn’t do it and the lecturer didn’t even bother.”
Other examples include training providers being unwilling to repeat instructions to neurodivergent adult learners who have requested elaboration of instructions as a reasonable accommodation. DPA has also heard reports of training providers denying adult learners with disabilities from taking their courses simply because the training providers cited not having “had such learners in their course before” and were “unsure on how to accommodate” despite the learner with a disability providing suggestions and being willing to educate on how to do so.
There needs to be systems in place to ensure the “necessary adjustments” that MOE mentioned above, otherwise known as reasonable accommodations, are offered as standard practice for learners with disabilities rather than leaving requests to what seems “practicable” to the individual training provider. Accessibility should be a criterion from the get-go, and this can also potentially reduce costs in having to spend on re-formatting and customising various course materials.
While it is true that the needs of learners with disabilities might be diverse, the above examples and others are common accessibility barriers that persons with disabilities have faced in accessing SkillsFuture programming. Basic accessibility standards can begin to address such common barriers. Additionally, entities such as the Enabling Academy, in addition to curating select courses, can serve as a “disability-support office” in assisting training providers in making their courses accessible if there are no current plans to do so. Additionally, there should be regulations mandating that training providers must first approach such entities as the Enabling Academy or disability organisations regarding reasonable accommodation requests if training providers are unsure on how to implement such accommodation requests, rather than out-right rejecting adult learners with disabilities from their courses.
The Importance of an Inclusive SkillsFuture
Optimising accessibility within the SkillsFuture ecosystem for persons with disabilities will not only boost participation rates within the SkillsFuture ecosystem – especially recent reports showing a dip in SkillsFuture participation in 2022, but such inclusive efforts will also and more importantly boost economic prospects for persons with disabilities.
According to MOE statements, annual surveys on SkillsFuture work-study programmes consistently show that “more than 90% of the trainees were employed within six months after completing the programme. Their median salaries were also higher than what they received at the start of the programme”. Therefore, if persons with disabilities had better access to reap the full benefits of the SkillsFuture ecosystem like those without disabilities have been able to, it will no doubt improve economic outcomes for the better for the disability community in Singapore.
Strengthening assurances of accessibility in SkillsFuture will not only make navigating the SkillsFuture ecosystem easier for persons with disabilities, but it will also lead to greater ability for persons with disabilities to gain skills in diverse sectors – increasing the employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. This is important as studies show that persons with disabilities tend to be concentrated in lower-paying occupations. For example, according to the Singapore national census data in 2021, where disability-related data was included for the first time, persons with disabilities tend to be under-represented in mid – higher- income occupations and significantly over-represented in lower-paying occupations – with the census data showing that persons with disabilities comprise 6.93% of the total resident employed population aged 15 years and older, but persons with disabilities comprise 12.03% of those who earn below $2,000/month. This is not because persons with disabilities lack skills, but rather because of many inequities and barriers that persons with disabilities still face regularly in Singapore society – including discriminatory barriers in accessing income opportunities.
As Parliament entered its new session last month with the goal of extending opportunities to all, such recommendations on improving SkillsFuture are just a few examples of ensuring upcoming Parliamentary efforts addresses the realities persons with disabilities face on a daily basis.
Additionally, such recommendations above in creating a more inclusive SkillsFuture are just one of many necessary steps as Singapore looks to refresh its social compact to ensure that no one is left behind.
DPA welcomes conversations with decision-makers from the Singapore government and other sectors regarding working together on such objectives.