Society Staples creates a more inclusive future and maximises opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) through two platforms — experiences and engagement. By involving the entire ecosystem, Society Staples delivers multidimensional impact and constantly challenges the status quo, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.
Thinking of myself as an entrepreneur is weird, to say the least. I never felt like I fit into the characteristics of an entrepreneur, neither did I have the aspirations to run my own business. Similarly, there was no desire to serve the community. I never saw myself as someone with the ability to create any sort of change. I was a very materialistic kid whose dream was to hold a high-level position in a global organisation with a spacious office and a nice water feature wall at the entrance.
But ever since I co-founded Society Staples, I find myself doing many things that I never thought was in me. I took the less trodden path, went through a tremendous amount of point-breaking moments where I thought “this was it” and yet, still find myself deeply rooted in the work that I do.
My interactions with persons with disabilities (PWDs) began at home, as my elder brother and younger brother have autism spectrum disorder. The one thing that stood out to me most was my younger brother’s temper or in autism language, “meltdowns”, in his formative years. While my older brother did not have violent outbursts, his rigidity and perspective on things were always something that we could not comprehend.
I very quickly grew apart from my brothers. It proved to be extremely difficult to form a relationship with them, void of understanding their condition and barely having any commonalities as we were growing up. Through it all, the one consistent thought I had for years was, “Why can’t I have normal siblings?”
Apart from my brothers, I otherwise had a very typical Singaporean childhood. I was told to study hard, get good grades and set my sights on climbing the corporate ladder when I become an adult. It was the only route I was aware of, the one that my parents took, and I very naturally gravitated towards it. Life was also very comfortable. My parents provided me with more than enough.
It still intrigues me how I never saw the discrimination my brothers faced, or disability as a social issue despite having personal experiences. It was only a year after doing this work that I started to understand the magnitude and complexity of the issue.
My foray into the disability sector started in late 2011 when Ryan (my co-founder who also has a brother with disability) came across an online article documenting a group of special needs teachers criticising their students. That was the first time he witnessed such overt discrimination. It stirred up enough emotions and determination in him to decide that he was going to right the wrong. Being a dragon boat
enthusiast, he pitched the idea of using dragon boating as a sport to combat the condescending attitudes towards PWDs, for a youth ideas competition.
By a stroke of luck, we emerged as winners and were awarded some prize money to start this crazy idea. Deaf Dragons (Singapore’s first full-deaf dragon boat team) was thus formed in early 2012. I never supported the idea but felt the responsibility to follow through as I was part of the team that participated in the competition.
It made absolutely no sense that the 20-year-old Ryan and 18-year-old me could succeed in this initiative and change the mindsets of others. But somehow, we did. For the next two years, Deaf Dragons allowed me to connect with my paddlers and opened my eyes to the challenges faced by the deaf community. As we spoke to other PWDs, we uncovered an endless list of visible and invisible barriers that inhibit them from achieving their fullest potential and a better quality of life. It was a switch we could not turn off. Everywhere we went, we witnessed obstacles that made life difficult for PWDs. We decided it was an issue worth addressing and investing our time in. Armed with naivety, stubbornness and the extra boost of confidence from the success of Deaf Dragons, Society Staples was incorporated in 2015.
It has been four years since this social enterprise began, and I still struggle to explain and quantify the work we do. When the sector is so fixated on creating employment opportunities for PWDs and them gaining financial independence as the ultimate goal to unlock, everything else pales in comparison — from a person’s well-being to their quality of life and the opportunities to participate in society and community.
But that does not mean those aspects of a person’s life should be overlooked. Based on the quality-of-life survey for PWDs, conducted by the National Council of Social Service in 2017, among the aspects that scored the lowest were recreation and leisure, social support and opportunities, as well as information acquisition and skills.
I see worry in the eyes of caregivers and hear it in the voices of PWDs when I communicate with them. I feel it deep down in my heart too, because my brothers and friends with disabilities are faced with the same situation.
The purpose and motivation of doing this work are clear, but by no means is it an easy journey. I have lost count of the number of times I questioned the significance and value of our work because little has changed despite all of our efforts. But the toughest challenge I had to battle with is the flood of insecurities thinking I was not good enough to do this work.
Why continue on with this work then?
Because deep down, I still believe we have more to give and I have never lost sight of our ambitious goal of building an inclusive future for PWDs. Society Staples stands for so many things. We raise awareness for PWDs. We educate our society about this community and how every individual has a role to play in order for an inclusive society to materialise.
We organise inclusive events for PWDs and non-PWDs to connect with one another, believing that greater exposure will ignite changes in mindsets. We work with lower-functioning PWDs who are often left out, conducting programmes that provide meaningful engagement for them. We create opportunities for PWDs to partake in sports because participation in exercise sharply declines upon graduation from special needs school.
Recently, we started to explore inclusive employment and curriculum design for disability homes and activity centres. By doing so, we hope to help more people to better understand the disability ecosystem, beyond the conditions of PWDs they observe. We also want to establish a standard and develop a process for the programming of inclusive activities, to guide more vendors to get involved.
That is the essence and beauty of Society Staples. We see a gap, we try to address it. Many have said, we are doing too many things — and they might be right. But as Ryan puts it succinctly, “Without us, the world will die.” Clearly, streaks of naivety and stubbornness are still deeply etched in us!
“It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” I heard this in a speech once, and it deeply resonates with me. I have dreamt of a world where Society Staples and similar organisations have all closed down, because PWDs have become fully integrated and included in all spheres of everyday life, and there is no longer a need for us anymore. Yet, I am fully aware that this work will take an extremely long time before we witness that level of inclusion we are striving towards.
Who knows what will happen in the years to come? Maybe it will turn out to be that one thing I will do for life. Whatever the outcome, I know advocating for PWDs and pushing forth the message of inclusion will always be a significant part of me and definitely something I will do in whatever capacity I can.
Till then, wish me luck!
Debra Lam is the co-founder of Society Staples, a social enterprise that creates a more inclusive future for Persons with Disabilities through awareness and advocacy initiatives, community events as well as training and consultancy projects. For more information, visit www.societystaples.com.sg.