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DPA Statement on Budget 2024

On Friday, 16 February 2024, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong delivered Budget Statement 2024 entitled “Building Our Shared Future Together”.

While Budget Statement 2024 contains some very important measures, it also leaves some unanswered questions pertaining to optimising equal and equitable opportunities for persons with disabilities.

The Disabled People’s Association (DPA) Singapore would like to outline some of such questions, along with some initial recommendations, pertaining to Budget Statement 2024.   

Ensuring Disability Inclusion within Key Pillars

For example, a considerable portion of Budget Statement 2024 was dedicated to outlining several new measures pertaining to SkillsFuture – with DPM and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong noting the importance of skills upgrading to meet the current economic times – calling for the need to “establish SkillsFuture as a key pillar” in Singapore’s social compact. Such new measures in Budget Statement 2024 pertaining to SkillsFuture mainly noted more support for mid-career workers (age 40 years and above) in the form of a $4,000 SkillsFuture top-up, subsidised fees for such mid-career workers to pursue another full-time diploma, and a SkillsFuture mid-career training allowance.

While such measures are important to assist the general category of mid-career Singaporeans, questions remain about how the SkillsFuture ecosystem will be enhanced to address the barriers faced by various demographics within and outside the general category of mid-career individuals.

As DPA has raised following last year’s Budget Statement, and in previous articles, including in the ST Forum section, persons with disabilities continue to face many barriers in accessing the SkillsFuture system. In particular, there are no requirements for training providers to provide reasonable accommodations to persons with disabilities in SkillsFuture courses and modules. As a result, it is left to chance as to whether persons with disabilities will receive reasonable accommodations – that are essential and necessary for persons with disabilities to participate in education – including in life-long learning through SkillsFuture.

While SkillsFuture SG works with the Enabling Academy to design resources and financial supports that training providers can use to implement various reasonable accommodations, and while DPA is appreciative that we have been able to work with SkillsFuture SG on such resources, it is still up to the training provider to tap on such resources and supports to make their courses more accessible and inclusive. Despite such resources from SkillsFuture and the Enabling Academy, DPA has received reports from persons with disabilities about training providers dismissing persons with disabilities from taking their courses without even having a discussion with the person with disability on how the course can be made more accessible despite the person with disability being willing to educate.        

Currently, the Enabling Academy offers specially-curated courses for persons with disabilities. While such efforts are an important positive step and should be well-noted, courses offered through the Enabling Academy are a small fraction (less than 5%) compared to the number of courses offered through the wider SkillsFuture system. Persons with disabilities should not feel restricted to just the courses at the Enabling Academy, but rather have access to as many courses through the wider SkillsFuture system as possible, and thus the focus needs to be on ensuring accessibility and inclusivity through reasonable accommodations in the wider SkillsFuture system. Courses through the Enabling Academy are also only available to persons with disabilities and thus focusing on optimising accessibility and inclusivity within the wider SkillsFuture system will better assist efforts in promoting social inclusion within Singapore society.  

This includes any upgrades in measures to and around the SkillsFuture system. For example, one of the new measures under SkillsFuture in Budget Statement 2024 is a new temporary financial support scheme for the involuntarily unemployed while such individuals undergo training or look for better-fitting jobs. While specifics on this scheme are yet to be unveiled, Budget Statement 2024 notes that the goal of this new financial support scheme is to support displaced workers to “upgrade their skills, and to find a job that fits their aptitude and talent”.  

As we have noted in previous publications, persons with disabilities face higher unemployment rates compared to the general public. The current employment rate of persons with disabilities is also less than half that of the general public – at 31.4% compared to 67.5% respectively. Moreover, from our research and conversations with persons with disabilities, under-employment – both time-related under-employment and under-employment in terms of low utilisation of one’s skills – is a very prevalent issue in the disability community.

This new financial support scheme thus has potential to assist persons with disabilities – if the new financial support scheme is accompanied with proper and inclusive provisions. For example, one common issue and concern raised by persons with disabilities in our research is that many of the current and existing means-tested financial support schemes have stringent monthly household income eligibility requirements that make such schemes only available to those in the more extreme of circumstances – and thus not accessible to individuals who still require financial supports. As persons with disabilities face higher rates of unemployment, lower rates of employment, and the prevalence of under-employment, the government should ensure that the unique barriers faced by persons with disabilities are particularly taken into consideration when designing this new financial support. Such realities further emphasise the need for the wider SkillsFuture system to be truly accessible and inclusive for persons with disabilities.

If SkillsFuture is to be rendered as a “key pillar” in Singapore’s social compact, then ensuring accessibility and inclusivity within the SkillsFuture system – including within new measures to enhance affordability to SkillsFuture – is a must.

Disability-Specific Provisions in Budget Statement 2024

In addition to more general items such as SkillsFuture, Budget Statement 2024 also made mention of a few disability-specific provisions – namely the reduction of school fees for Special Education (SPED) schools and the increase of more sheltered workshop placements.

Pertaining to fees for SPED schools, Budget Statement 2024 notes that the maximum fees families will have to pay will be $90/month – a reduction from the current maximum of $150/month. Budget Statement 2024 further notes that the fee caps at special student care centres will also be lowered to reduce out-of-pocket costs for families.

Such a reduction in fees for SPED schools and special student care centres are very important and much needed for families who need to rely on such educational options.

However, while the government seeks to expand access to SPED schools, there needs to be a focus on optimising the accessibility and inclusivity of mainstream schools so that as many students with disabilities who can attend mainstream schools have more options to do so. As we have noted in previous publications, there are limitations to the current accessibility and inclusivity infrastructures and supports at mainstream schools. Yet, it was disappointing that there was no mention of provisions in Budget Statement 2024 to enhance the current accessibility and inclusivity infrastructure and supports in mainstream schools.

The need to enhance accessibility and inclusivity within mainstream schools is a priority if Singapore is to remain within its obligations to the standards of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) – which the Singapore government has ratified in 2013. More specifically, in 2022, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in their Concluding Observations to Singapore noted their “concern About the slow progress towards achieving inclusive education” in Singapore and “the prevalence of special schools and classes for students who are assessed as having ‘mild to moderate special needs’” in Singapore.

Pertaining to the increase of sheltered workshop placements, Budget Statement 2024 did not specify the quantity or implementation of such additional placements. However, pertaining to sheltered workshops, it is important to note that sheltered workshops should be used as an absolute last resort towards the aim of equipping persons with disabilities with vocational skills, and that the goal and focus should be open employment. To this, DPA notes some potential of the sheltered workshops-to-work (SWW) programme, and hopes that the Committee of Supply (COS) debates will outline more information on how this programme can be enhanced to progressively realise a shift away from reliance on sheltered workshops. 

How the government addresses the use of sheltered workshops is important if Singapore is to remain within its obligations to the standards of the UN CRPD. As specified in the UN CRPD General Comment on employment, “segregated employment for persons with disabilities, such as sheltered workshops, is not to be considered as a measure of progressive realization of the right to work, which is evidenced only in employment that is freely chosen or accepted and performed in an open and inclusive labour market”. Similar to their comments on SPED schools, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities noted in their 2022 Concluding Observations to Singapore about their concerns of the current state of sheltered workshops in Singapore.

To summarise, a focus on increasing access for persons with disabilities to entities such as the Enabling Academy, SPED schools, and sheltered workshops, while yielding some positive outcomes in the short-term, may result in the unintended consequence of creating more separate spaces for persons with disabilities and subsequently a lack of inclusion in the wider Singapore society.

As the government and the rest of Singapore discusses how we can build our shared future together, DPA hopes that the focus will primarily centre on transforming and enhancing everyday shared spaces to be inclusive for persons with disabilities.

In addition to our on-going efforts in collaborating with existing partners, DPA continues to invite any new collaborations with individuals and groups from the public and private sectors towards addressing such outcomes and objectives.