Persons with disabilities are more likely to experience economic and social disadvantage compared to the general population across several dimensions of social and economic well-being. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal Number 10 (SDG 10) deals with reducing all forms of inequality within and among countries.
Despite the widely acknowledged intersection of disability, poverty and inequality, national and global efforts to combat poverty and inequality have not always adequately included disability. No internationally agreed development goal can be achieved without including the rights, needs and perspectives of over one billion persons with disabilities.

As a global communications company, the Singtel Group has pioneered some innovative approaches in its support for disability employment while strengthening its diversity agenda across the board.
We were grateful to have the opportunity to talk with Singtel’s VP for Group Corporate Social Responsibility and Talent Coach, Andrew Buay, about how Singtel has played an important part in helping people with disabilities find better employment opportunities. Andrew has over 25 years experience working with Asia’s leading communications company and is also a professionally accredited internal coach to the Group’s young and upcoming future leaders.

What challenges do people with disabilities still face in today’s world?

At an event launched by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) in Singapore to raise awareness of disabled people this year, I watched a social experiment video in which individuals were shown portrait upon portrait of disabled persons. When asked what their impressions of these disabled people were, everyone assumed that they were lowly educated, unemployed and fully dependent on others, even when the reality was that each person was successful in their own right. A survey conducted by NCSS this year shows that about six in 10 people with disabilities do not feel that they are socially included, accepted or given opportunities to achieve their potential.

The other side of the challenge is when family members do not see opportunity for their disabled children, and sometimes unintentionally create a vicious cycle or self-fulfilling prophecy that inhibits the disabled from realising their fullest potential.

In relation to SDG 10, why is it important to support better skills and employment opportunities for persons with disabilities?

At Singtel, we actively promote all aspects of diversity – be it gender diversity, multigenerational workplace, multicultural diversity or differing abilities. That is what our community and customer base is made up of, and where we draw our workforce from in a tight labour market. We have found that our diversity has enabled us to be adaptable and innovative. We also believe that it is important to harness our diverse workforce to serve the common good, and our most significant community initiatives address various aspects of diversity and inclusion, including the education and employability of people with special needs, such as persons with disabilities.

When people, including persons with disabilities, are more independent and productive, businesses will be able to benefit from greater efficiency and growth.

How significant an impact has Singtel had on contributing to SDG10 and reducing barriers for people with disabilities?

Our efforts started 15 years ago when we began funding the education of special needs children, in the early days where funding support from government and corporates was nascent. Through the Singtel Touching Lives Fund, the company has directly invested over S$33 million to support this sector.

Each year, our staff come together to organise a mega carnival for special needs children. Events like these help to build awareness and a culture of inclusion.

As these children reached working age, we realised that many still lacked the necessary skills to become gainfully employed. One of our recent efforts was to set up the Singtel Enabling Innovation Centre, a S$2 million training and assistive technology centre to help young people with special needs and disabilities in Singapore prepare for their transition to the workforce. It offers customised training in the area of ICT and contact centre operations – skills that the larger corporations in Singapore would need and where there is a skills shortage. The centre consolidated assistive and IT technologies from around the world to help raise awareness among individuals, caregivers and employers so they understand how such technologies can augment and help persons with disabilities be equally capable in a work environment.

As a key ICT player, we also launched the Singtel and Optus Future Makers Programme across Singapore and Australia to help attract, fund, support, mentor and incubate start-ups and social ventures developing technology and innovations that can help the vulnerable, including those in the disability sector. We brought in partners from the social services sector, voluntary welfare organisations, venture capital, staff volunteers and successful social entrepreneurs to foster an ecosystem of support.

In anticipation of hiring more persons with disabilities into our workforce, we also worked closely with disability experts and started retrofitting our various workplaces and office premises to make them more accessible.

Our efforts paid off when the business began hiring and accepting internships from persons with disabilities, in our customer contact centre and IT groups.

For disability employment to be successful, we also see collaboration and advocacy playing a big role. Last year, we became a founding member of the Singapore Business Network on DisAbility. The network hopes to advance equitable employment opportunities for persons with disabilities through awareness, shared expertise, network and resources.

Given our presence in Singapore and Australia, we also connected Singapore’s government agencies in disability employment with their Australian counterparts and service providers as part of a study to foster learning, collaboration and partnerships.

As you can see, we have tried to take a holistic approach towards supporting disability employment, which has required us to leverage education (Goal 4), innovation (Goal 9), partnerships (Goal 17) to support decent work (Goal 8) in order to reduce inequalities (Goal 10).

Has this experience influenced your own views and helped give you a better understanding of the struggles many people in society face today?

In our contact centre, we have a staff named Madiah, a 35-year-old wheelchair-bound lady who was born without limbs. She graduated from the Singtel Enabling Innovation Centre and currently works as a customer webchat agent. She told us that this was her first permanent job, hired on equal terms as an able bodied person. In her words, “I never thought I could get a job and go to work like a normal person. I am not treated differently when I am serving customers through our webchat channels. I feel useful. Most people like me think we will always be ‘takers’. But I can be a ‘giver’ too.”

We recently had a visually impaired computer science student, Dickson, who did an internship with our IT department. He “reads” and codes three times faster than an able-bodied person using simple text to voice translation technologies.

In Optus, we have an enterprise accounts sales executive, Matthew, who is visually impaired. He is also a medal winning cyclist with the Australian Paralympics team, a motivational speaker and soon-to-be talent coach in our Optus talent programme.

These examples, amidst others, has reinforced my view that when people with disabilities get equal opportunities, they can be independent and contribute to the community. They secure other rights in their life, such as gaining access to job opportunities, healthcare and other services. This in turn enables upward mobility for them in society, and fosters an inclusive and sustainable community for all. We would not have discovered just how competent people with disabilities can be if we had not stepped up our efforts to hire them.