As the co-founder of Society Staples in Singapore – “an award-winning social enterprise that offers innovative experiences for formal and informal groups” with a “mission to build an inclusive society where persons with disabilities (PWDs) can realise their true potential” – Debra Lam has witnessed first-hand how capable and amazing PWDs are.
But even with all the good work that they’ve done, and with all the PWDs who’ve been such an inspiration to them, stereotypes and preconceived notions about PWDs still abound.
“It’s a complex, multi-layered problem,” Debra observes. “The most common answer is it stems from a lack of awareness, exposure and understanding. When people are unaware, many issues go unnoticed. But I do acknowledge that increased awareness alone will not bring about inclusivity or changed mindsets. People need to be educated on the actions they can take and there must be resources to support that, which brings me to the next point.
“For a layman to enter the disability sector, there seems to be a lot of barriers to do so. There’s little information available and resources are so scattered,” she continues.
“In our culture where we’re used to accessing information quickly, this alone makes it very difficult for you to find what you need. Top that with the many negative comments you hear about PWDs – that they’re weird, difficult to manage, stupid, slow and so much more. It hardly seems like an open invitation to befriend this community. It makes you feel like they’re a huge potential source of danger, so you step away.
“When we're afraid, our instinctive response is always to walk away.”
But this doesn’t faze her
Or anyone else at Society Staples, for that matter. Referring to herself as “the hands and legs of Society Staples who does everything: branding and marketing, finance, operations, HR and administrative matters”, Debra has had many unforgettable interactions with PWDs and Society Staples volunteers, all of which tell her that they’re on the right track.
On top of creating and organising activities and programmes for PWDs, Debra says they “also take on training and consultancy projects to support businesses in being inclusive”.
It’s actually through one of these activities that Debra received a “gift”. It goes like this: “‘This is one of the best volunteering experiences I’ve ever had. It was so much fun. Why would people say they’re difficult to work with? People just need a chance to interact with PWDs and their mindsets will start changing.’
“This was a reflection made by one of our volunteers at the sports event we organised,” Debra recounts.
“It was her first time volunteering with PWDs, but that experience made her question all of the misconceptions she’s heard about PWDs before. Her words have stuck with me till today, because it shows the importance of creating that opportunity for people to get to know PWDs, which is so crucial. It also reaffirms the purpose and role that Society Staples has undertaken.
“Our programmes are conducted with persons with developmental disabilities of varying functioning levels, so figuring out the best way to work with them and seeing them progress is always something that warms our hearts,” she adds.
“Going beyond our interactions with PWDs, I also treasure moments when we show caregivers their child’s potential. With all the worries and concerns caregivers have, sometimes hope is the best gift we can offer them.”
Curious about Society Staples’ programmes?
You’re not alone. To find out more, you can read Debra’s favourite approaches and encounters below. You’ll see for yourself how much they’ve achieved – and the many ways you can join in. :)
#1 Experiences | Active
“Activities under Experiences | Active include our dragon boat programmes. Clients have the option to choose between Deaf Dragons, Blind Dragons or Hybrid Dragons.
“In Deaf Dragons, they get to learn sign language and a taste of what dragon boating’s like for the deaf community. Similarly, participants will get to experience how the visually impaired community paddles. Hybrid Dragons is a combination of the two.
“The whole idea is to bring across the message that it doesn’t take a lot to be inclusive; all that’s needed are simple adaptations and modifications, and things can be made accessible for the PWD community.
“As our signature programme, Experiences | Active is probably what Society Staples is most recognised for. Individuals of all ages and nationalities participate in it. It’s consistently being raved about by all of our clients, and has even inspired others to adopt the concept and start something similar in their home country. It also has a very special place in my heart because it’s Society Staples’ first programme; it’s what Society Staples started with.”
#2 Experiences | Build (A Bicycle)
“It’s a blended team building and CSR activity wherein participants build bicycles from scratch while undergoing simulations to understand the challenges faced by persons with developmental disabilities; they earn the parts and tools needed to build a bicycle. The bicycles are then donated to voluntary welfare organisations serving PWDs.
“This directly creates opportunities for PWDs to get active, teaches them a new skill that we’re all familiar with, and addresses the problem of shortage of equipment.”
#3 VWO programmes – Movement Based Activities and Cycling
“Activities under movement-based programmes include doing drills on basic functional movements. For example, we’d tape boxes on the floor and get participants to perform progressive movements, starting from walking from box to box to squatting down after stepping on each box, to tip-toeing after taking each step and finally jumping from box to box.
“Some of our team members love these activities the most, because they get to work with PWDs on a long-term basis and journey with them through all the progress that they’ve made. Linking back to what I said earlier, these are the programmes where we show individuals the untapped potential of PWDs as long as they’re given the right guidance, patience and nurturance.
“In one session of our movement-based activity, we heard a caregiver say, “This is the first time I saw my child jump.” For us, a jump might be such a basic move that we don’t even think much about; but for them, being able to jump means that they’ve gotten much better at controlling their body functions, which translates to greater independence and a better quality of life.”
#4 Giant Games Festival
“We have a whole slew of giant games, ranging from childhood games such as Jenga, pick-up sticks, Connect 4, ring toss and Cornhole toss, to more sports-based ones like tennis and badminton. The only difference is that they're much larger than your regular-sized ones!
“We were the ones who introduced the concept of giant games as inclusive play equipment back in 2016 with the support of Sport Singapore. We also popularised giant games as a must-have activity at community events.
“Two years later, at another event, one PWD asked us, ‘Were you the ones who did the giant games in 2016? I loved it. When’s the next one?’ If a participant still remembers an activity done two years ago, you can be assured that he definitely had a great time.”
#5 Paddle For Good at DBS Marina Regatta
“Back in 2015 when we first started, DBS Bank Ltd was one of the first big brands that threw their weight behind us. Together, we made the sport of dragon boating accessible and inclusive to PWDs by using rowing machines. We had nothing to our name then, but the team at DBS believed and invested in us right from the get-go. That partnership continued on for three years and we’re very thankful for all the team has done for us.
“The common thread throughout all five activities listed above is opportunity creation, finding innovative ways to bring our mission across to different audiences, and the strong belief that PWDs can and should be doing so much more – which explains our relentless pursuit of pushing the status quo, and our constant experimentation of how things can be done better,” Debra concludes.
What makes them so memorable and effective?
It’s the people, and their input. “The average age of our team is 23 years old, and everyone’s either fresh out of school or still in school,” Debra relates.
“While others might see us as an inexperienced team, it also means that we have no preconceived notions of how things should be done. Our inexperience and naivety have brought us to do and achieve things that others thought were too crazy, and the outcome is the one-of-a-kind programmes that we offer.
“In the process, we also ensure that everything we deliver is based on grounded experience and knowledge, so that we can accurately portray what’s happening in the real world,” she says.
“The golden rule of prioritising our client’s experience is never forgotten, and we do everything we can to make sure it’s the best activity they’ve ever participated in.”
We can help make that happen. Moved by their cause? Why not share your talents to promote Society Staples’ and PWDs’ successes? (And assist the team in developing even more meaningful activities in the process.) Visit their site, Facebook and Instagram for details.
Or why not see for yourself what the Experiences programmes are like? Society Staples promises a 10 per cent discount if you use the quote "TSCLxSS". You'd need a minimum of 20 people to qualify. :)