When not done properly, policies or interventions that claim to be 'inclusive' can be patronizing or even oppressive. Through interviews and focus groups with employers, service providers and the disability community in Singapore, we helped to articulate what counts as ideal or sensible inclusion of people with disabilities at work. Against those that might seek to mainstream disability wherever it exists, our findings suggest that enclaved spaces for work serve an important function despite charges of being exclusionary. Some enclaves operate as 'work villages' that provide a protected, familiar space to accommodate unique needs while others serve as 'diversity incubators' that provide scalable lessons for more mainstream contexts. Within the Singapore context, policymakers largely operate within a 'business case' paradigm that focuses on incentivizing employers and an 'industrial model' of vocational assessment and job placement. While this has a role to play, we demonstrate the importance of attending to the neglected 'moral case' for hiring people with disabilities.


Unlike many countries facing austerity cuts to disability programmes, the Singapore government has demonstrated an increased willingness to spend on social policies that affect people with disabilities. State attitude towards disability has gradually shifted away from that in the early years of nation building, which viewed persons with disabilities as "economic liabilities on society and state, to viewing them as human beings deserving of dignity and state support" (Wong and Wong, 2015, p.147). Such a shift has occurred because an ageing population is expected to increase the numbers of persons with disabilities, coupled with the activism of civil society (Wong and Wong, 2015). The government's interest in disability issues has resulted in its adoption of a roadmap to improve the lives of disabled persons, through the Enabling Masterplan, now into its third five-year plan from 2017-2022. In this latest masterplan, the government has committed to spending around S$2 billion over five years to support the inclusion of disabled people in Singapore, a substantial increase from the S$1 billion allocated for the second plan (Chia, 2017; Ministry of Social and Family Development 2012). In particular, the Enabling Masterplan also lays down Singapore's approach towards inclusion, across the 3 masterplans; it notes that,

"People with Disabilities should be given the opportunity to become equal, integral and contributing members of society. Children with special needs will receive effective intervention and education services to maximise their potential and opportunity to eventually work and contribute to society. An employment framework will cater to persons with special needs, and help them access employment opportunities so that they may be self-reliant through work…." (Enabling Masterplan 2007–2011 2007, iv; Enabling Masterplan 2012–2016 2012, 4)

This emphasis towards inclusion in Singapore thus sets the context for our discussion. While inclusion has been the underlying principle in Singapore's disability policy, it has remained unclear what it actually entails. What can be done to equalise opportunities for people with disabilities? This emphasis is given greater impetus as scholars (Barnes, 1996; Oliver 1990) have also traced the evolution of modern forms of employment and how the category of people with disabilities was created as a result employment exclusion.

Globally, concepts such as inclusion have become broad guiding principles underpinning many initiatives at different life stages: in childcare, in schools and the workplace. However, services claiming to be 'inclusive' can be patronizing or even oppressive when not done properly. Milner and Kelly (2009) have explained how inclusion can be potentially oppressive in ways that may not be obvious to the able-bodied. For example, chaperoning people with disabilities to highly public spaces is simplistic evidence of community participation—as it may come at the expense of their comfort or choice. People with disabilities may feel like they are being put under the spotlight when they may actually want to avoid unwanted public attention. Such studies show how inclusion can take a tokenistic 'tick-box approach' and that amounts to some basic compliance to a set of regulations (Hyder & Tissot, 2013). In the same way, when employers simplify or 'dumb down' jobs in order to hire people with disabilities they risk devaluing the worth of that employee.

We should therefore be careful about promulgating a kind of 'exclusionary inclusion' (Hodkinson, 2012) where discriminating practices operate under the cloak of inclusion. This happens when inclusion becomes not so much a right but an obligation and duty. When inclusive initiatives are implemented, people with disabilities feel obliged to participate because it was done for them. In such cases, inclusion does not leave choice: "it is not a human right but rather is forced participation" (Hodkinson, 2012, p. 681).

Getting inclusion right is exacerbated by the fact that the concept is broadly defined and encompasses many possible meanings and dimensions. 'Social inclusion' has been defined as a process that ensures all members of society, whatever their personal characteristics, participate equally in the political, economic, work and cultural spheres of life (Pallisera, Vila & Fullana, 2011). The term social inclusion is often used interchangeably by policy makers and professionals to mean social cohesion, social integration and social participation, or simply, as the opposite term to social exclusion. The latter is a contested term referring to a wide range of phenomena and processes related to poverty, deprivation and hardship but it is also used in relation to a wide range of categories of marginalized people and places (Rimmerman, 2013). In disability-related social policy, 'access' and 'participation' have also become synonyms for inclusion (Wilson, 2006).

Even within specific contexts (e.g. education, work, community), 'inclusion' is still a concept that means too many different things. For example, there is considerable heterogeneity within which 'inclusion' is interpreted and implemented in discussions about education. Inclusion can refer to learning together in one school, but it can also mean that everyone has a good education that meets their own needs, leading scholars like Williams (2013) to conclude that 'inclusion' is a problematic and shifting concept. In a commentary, a prominent scholar wrote that inclusion was "virtually meaningless, a catchword used to give a patina of legitimacy to whatever program people are trying to sell or defend" (Kauffman, 1999, p. 246) It is therefore no surprise that the way organisations address the agenda for inclusion often represents a superficial interpretation of this concept rather than being a true application of what is meant (Hyder & Tissor, 2013). Therefore, the concept of inclusion, while seemingly simple, remains highly contentious.

Since inclusion is an ill-defined ideal, it is tempting to simplify matters by assuming more inclusion is better. Scholars who conceptualize inclusion may classify it along a spectrum with an implicit valuation that higher degrees of inclusion are better than less. For example, Thorn, Pitmann, Myers and Slaughter (2009), writing about community inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities, argues there are different categories of community involvement, ranging from presence to participation to integration to inclusion. Policymakers and service providers also sometimes assume simplistically that inclusion is better than exclusion, and more of it is better than less, and therefore seek to 'mainstream' as many people with disabilities as possible. Even people with disabilities themselves may take a hard approach to inclusion. For example, parents of children with special needs may be quite insistent either on inclusion or separation: "Those who want their children in regular classrooms all day long may accept no less than full inclusion. Those who feel their children need the security of a separate classroom out of the mainstream, may be no less insistent" (Connor & Ferri, 2007, p. 71).

It is therefore important to coherently articulate what inclusion should mean, because it will have important implications for how to determine success of disability policies. Our discussion on Singapore will specifically focus on employment of disabled people. Across the globe, the centrality of work in the understanding of disability and the construct of disabled individuals has often been stated (Hunt, 1966; Barnes 2003a, 2003b). Traditionally this meant the creation of a variety of schemes and programmes to facilitate the entrance and maintenance of people with disabilities in the labour market. This can come in the form of reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, alternative labour market policies like quotas, or universal design for workplaces (Mallender, Liger, Tierney, Beresford, Eager, Soeckesser & Nafilyan, 2015). Some forms, like sheltered workshops, are more hotly contested than others.

In Singapore, and across the three Enabling Masterplans, work/employment has also been a consistent feature. Specifically, the masterplans reaffirm the importance of work in Singapore's society, and the need for a continuum of employment and work options to be made available to persons with disabilities, who are acknowledged to have varying abilities (Enabling Masterplan 2012-2016, 47; Enabling Masterplan 2017-2021, 54). In this context, this means having a spectrum of different models of employment to cater to people with disabilities, ranging from various types of training and (vocational) education, sheltered employment, group employment models, supported and customised employment and open employment. Specifically, the Singapore state has seen the need to maximise potential of disabled people across different settings (Zhuang 2016). In this project, we focus on the ideals of 'inclusion' for people with disabilities in the context of Singapore's model of employment. Success [of employment] therefore hinges upon how well this ideal is articulated. If left vaguely defined, many programs can claim to be 'inclusive' or 'empowering' or 'innovative' with impunity.


Through interviews and focus groups with employers, service providers and the disability community in Singapore, we sought to articulate what these stakeholders count as ideal inclusion of people with disabilities at work. In order to take into account the multiple values of different key stakeholders, we tried to capture the views of people with a variety of different disabilities (that attempted to include physical, sensory or developmental disability1), their caregivers, employers and service providers who offered employment services for people with disabilities (e.g. job placement, job support). We approached various Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWOs)2 who specialised in supporting different types of people with disabilities, and also relied on snowball sampling through contacts. Some of our participants for the study occupied overlapping categories, for example, they may be caregivers of people with disabilities who have started a social enterprise to help their own child, and have hired other people with disabilities. Or, some respondents may be people with disabilities who have started their own company and are also employers in their own right. Focus group discussions and interviews were conducted with people with disabilities, professionals, caregivers and other stakeholders to seek empirical verification of such normative ideals in Singapore. We organised 6 focus groups and conducted 15 interviews. The number of respondents from both the focus groups and interviews made up a total of 42 people.

Table 1. Taking into account some overlaps in these identities, these are the numbers in each category we interviewed:
People with Disability21
Employer / Self-employed10
Service Provider or Voluntary Welfare Organisation (VWO) 12
Table 2. List of respondents:
Respondent #1Female scientist in her thirties with visual impairment.
Respondent #281 year old professional counsellor with visual impairment.
Respondent #3Male employee at a VWO; wheelchair user.
Respondent #4Female employee at a VWO; in her early twenties, has a university degree; wheelchair user.
Respondent #5 Female employee at a VWO; in her early twenties, has a university degree; upper limb disability.
Respondent #6 Male wheelchair user in his fifties; currently running his own training company that offers courses on disability awareness.
Respondent #7Female wheelchair user who has left work and now is a housewife. Has been using a wheelchair since she was a child.
Respondent #8Female employee of a social enterprise wheelchair user; has muscular dystrophy.
Respondent #9Female employee at a telemarketing firm with visual impairment. Mother of 3.
Respondent #10Male, with an acquired disability (stroke). Previous business owner, now looking for employment.
Respondent #11Male with hearing impairment. Holds senior management position in a VWO.
Respondent #12Female with hearing impairment. Has tried several jobs and 'enjoys job hopping'.
Respondent #13 Female with hearing impairment. On the board of a VWO.
Respondent #14 Female with hearing impairment. Used to do job placement at a VWO
Respondent #15 Female with hearing impairment; works with a VWO
Respondent #16Male wheelchair user, above fifty, who used to be on the board of a VWO.
Respondent #17 Male with visual impairment.
Respondent #18 Male with partial visual impairment, works in in a social enterprise for people with visual impairments.
Respondent #19 Male with hearing impairment. Worked in a fast food chain, has a degree.
Respondent #20 Male, above fifties, wheelchair user, retiree.
Respondent #21Father of 18/19 year old girl with down syndrome.
Respondent #22Female, has a child with ASD. Recently started a social enterprise. Spouse of respondent #23.
Respondent #23Male, has a child with ASD. Recently started a social enterprise. Spouse of respondent #22.
Respondent #24Female, ex-service provider.
Respondent #25Spouse of person with visual impairment, works with VWO serving people with visual impairments.
Respondent #26 Male in his forties, middle management in a VWO.
Respondent #27Executive Director at VWO. Female, does advocacy work, has a Doctorate.
Respondent #28Male in his forties. Currently in senior management role in VWO. Formerly an occupational therapist.
Respondent #29Female employee in VWO. Wheelchair user.
Respondent #30Female employee in VWO. Wheelchair user.
Respondent #31Male service provider. Community project manager at a VWO.
Respondent #32Male employee of VWO. Does job placement in a VWO.
Respondent #33Female employee of VWO, sports therapist.
Respondent #34 Female employee of VWO.
Respondent #35 Female employee of VWO.
Respondent #36Female, advocacy role at an NGO.
Respondent #37Female boss of social enterprise, has a child with disabilities. Spouse of respondent #38.
Respondent #38Male boss of social enterprise, has a child with disabilities. Spouse of respondent #37.
Respondent #39 Female boss of social enterprise that hires people with disabilities.
Respondent #40Manager at a Japanese public retail holding company.
Respondent #41Female entrepreneur with hearing impairment.
Respondent #42 Founder and CEO of Social Enterprise that hires people with disabilities.
Table 3. Focus group sessions
FGD 1Employers: Respondent 37, 38, 39
FGD 2Service Providers: Respondents 32 & 33
FGD 3Caregivers: Respondents 21, 22, 23, 24
FGD 4People with Disabilities: Respondents 5, 7, 8, 9, 10
FGD 5People with Disabilities and Practitioners: Respondents 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 34, 35
FGD 6People with Disabilities, Service Providers, Caregiver: Respondents 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25

The interviews and focus group discussions were recorded and then transcribed verbatim. We read transcripts carefully to identify themes and patterns that could explain the subjective perceptions and rationalizations that our respondents gave about how the disabled could be best included in the workplace. Once themes emerged we coded for similar explanations so that we can ascertain whether a theme was a recurring pattern. We refined themes to ensure that those which could best explain the phenomenon were used.

From 'Inclusion-at-all-Costs' to 'Sensible Inclusion'

From our data, we find that some professionals adopt an almost 'inclusion-at-all-costs' view because they are banking on 'inclusion' being able to solve the problem of 'exclusion'. The argument is for as much 'mainstreaming' as possible, because any form of enclave is considered to be a kind of segregation. Exclusive settings or enclaves are only grudgingly accepted when the persons with disability have very severe needs. A typical view of this position is to regard enclaved work settings (such as sheltered workshops) as less desirable than open employment because they do not encourage interaction with the non-disabled. This is a common view in some countries which have moved towards community integration.

In the United States, federal disability law like the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) emphasise the need for people with disabilities to have the opportunity to interact with non-disabled peers in all aspects of life. This includes education, employment and even independent thinking. Such legislation could then contribute to a greater sense that sheltered workshops are detrimental to inclusion and many have advocated for the closure of sheltered workshops in countries like the US, UK and Canada in the last decade, in favour of community integration and supported employment (Gill 2005, Barnes, Thornton & Maynard 1998; Sayce, 2011; NDRN, 2011; Gaier, 2014).

"Enclaves" and sheltered employment settings can be seen to lower expectations and might even propagate negative public attitudes about people with disabilities (Wehman, 1981). They are said to unnecessarily isolate individuals from the rest of their community, and not many are able to subsequently progress into competitive employment. Low or inconsequential earning often result in individuals having to remain dependent on cash benefit programmes (Bellamy, Rhodes, Bourbeau, & Mank, 1986).

However, the movement toward an open labour market is sometimes not entirely motivated by reasons of exclusion by people with disabilities. It is also underpinned by a need to relieve economic pressures on government to make short term savings and therefore withdraw support to traditional sheltered workshops (Mallender, Liger, Tierney, Beresford, Eager, Soeckesser & Nafilyan, 2015). Others like agencies, parents and even disabled workers themselves have also contested the closure of what they saw as conducive environments for work and respite (Blick et al 2016; Dague, 2012; Migliore, Grossi, Mank, & Rogan, 2008; Siperstein, Parker & Drascher, 2013).

This divide is also mirrored in some of our conversations with the respondents. A manager from a VWO regarded enclaved work settings to be non-inclusive "because they are in a 'set aside zone'" and added that people with disabilities "don't interact with their other able bodied colleagues; they are still on their own so they are never integrated with the society" (Respondent #26). An implication of this view is that inclusion should happen as early as possible, and wherever it is possible. Referring to special needs children, one service provider argued that the lack of integration with the mainstream will lead to continual segregation later on in adult life with negative consequences for employability.

At the same time, other respondents think that enclaves or mainstreaming need not work at cross purposes and may in fact be a false dichotomy.

"Trying to achieve inclusion in the workplace is not about trying to force people with varying disabilities into what is considered 'mainstream job roles'. Employment can be redefined/reimagined to include some form of sheltered workshops within companies, modified roles at the office and at home, rather than being a stark contrast between some enclaves and the typical workplace. Modified roles are already being looked at for parents trying to get back into work or for those that want a better family/work balance. In this way inclusion is seen as a spectrum of education or employment roles, rather than a race to place persons with disabilities in what is considered mainstream roles" (Respondent #27).

Another respondent put it more simply: "I don't think it's necessarily possible to just pick one. I really think you have to go back to the individual. To me, inclusion is about honouring the individual's abilities. There are some people who need that kind of enclave environment, and I don't think that's a bad thing." (Respondent #36). In fact, many respondents recognised that enclaves can offer protection and security, although that protection can also entail the curbing of individual freedom or choice. A person with disabilities who is employed in a VWO recognized that the organization provides an especially conducive environment for him. When asked why he would not want a job in open employment, he said: "When you are in a VWO, it's much more protective. But when you are in the outside world, I am pretty sure people aren't as nice." (Respondent #3)

Respondents therefore offered multiple ways to think about inclusion that does not assume a simple dichotomy between mainstreaming and enclaving. The 'inclusion-at-all-costs' approach may be oversimplifying the problem because enclaves themselves do not necessarily led to segregation or stigma. An enclave (whether a special school, a reserved social space or a sheltered workshop) where people with disabilities gather, is stigmatised not because of the boundaries that demarcate the space, but because of the stigma that follows people with disabilities wherever they go. Similarly, an exclusive club for the rich and famous has high status and prestige exactly because of the people who are members, not because of the boundaries or enclaving in itself. Removing the boundaries of demarcation will not somehow change the social status of these marginalised groups.

In other words, the problem is not exclusion per se, but unfair exclusion; the problem is not the lack of inclusion per se, but the lack of sensible inclusion. From the employer's point of view, doing inclusion well does not mean the simplistic removal of all forms of exclusions; it simply means making employment related decisions using fair and relevant criteria. Doing inclusion well does not simplistically mean getting rid of all sorts of exclusions. Being inclusive does not entail removing any of the discretion and judgment required in making hiring, matching and promotion decisions; it merely means that employers use fair and relevant criteria. For example, at a very basic level, employers should not disqualify a person with disability if the disability has no bearing on the person's ability to perform the required job. One should not be dismissed as a candidate for a digital marketing job just because they have muscular dystrophy, but whether one has the ability to do search engine or social media optimisation.

Where possible, holistic assessments are often more relevant than broad characterizations that may not fully capture a person's abilities. Holistic understanding of a wide range of dimensions such as a person's skills, work experiences, specific transport and access needs, occupational aspirations, assertiveness and ability to communicate will help assess the person's fit to a job. This can involve fine-grained criteria, for example, when an individual is assessed for dexterity and hand movements, useful for certain industries like fine arts. Therefore, where possible, vocational assessment and job placement officers should go beyond crude disability categories or general qualifications. Some of our respondents argue that job placement officers are unable to match them up with suitable jobs because they over-generalize or jump to conclusions about their abilities and interests.

While more can be done to accommodate people with disabilities, an inclusive social system is not one that simply seeks to include as much as possible, along all dimensions, across multiple contexts. In fact, inclusion, and on the flip side, exclusion, are part of the larger social mechanism of classifying, sorting and understanding people. If we were to say that more inclusion is better under all conditions, then we are simply removing our ability to exercise discretion, discernment, and good judgment. Here, our findings show that we can move from a simplistic to a more sophisticated position—the point is not more inclusion is better than less, but to use the right criteria for determining inclusion or exclusion. People with disabilities want to be hired based on relevant criteria. They neither want to be hired based on a charity case, nor do they want to be dismissed based on untrue assumptions that they cannot work. As one respondent put it, there is no need to celebrate just because a person with disability is hired; it depends on whether they were hired for the right reasons:

"So someone might look at (an employee) in a wheelchair and think, "Yay! They are employing someone in a wheelchair!" But that is extremely patronising…If a human being who is terrible at math, they shouldn't be a math teacher." (Respondent #36)

However, the relevant criteria is often very difficult to get right, and proxies are often imperfect. Because of the lack of clarity, the selection of criteria is often contested, and it will be complicated to meaningfully distinguish who can and cannot access certain services or receive certain forms of support. Policymakers want to make every resource or service accessible to those who require it, and keep out those who do not, but it is challenging to come up with universally suitable inclusion and exclusion criteria to do just that. One respondent pointed out that the diversity of disabilities make it challenging to make relevant distinctions for all sorts of different circumstances, and any concrete attempt to do so can become a kind of analytic "nightmare" (Respondent #27).

Diverse Models of Inclusion

While some participants argue that enclaves are at times necessary, there is also a sense that congregating just one type of disability in one place does not constitute a 'good mix'. For example, when asked if they prefer to work in a context where their colleagues have similar disabilities, some disagree: "Like the blind work this call centre, the staff in the call centre are blind people, no. I rather have a mixture. So that we can understand each other" (Respondent #9). A manager of employment services in a VWO argued that "When you have a people with disabilities enclave, people will say, 'Oh, this is an autism store.' Then people will feel very uncomfortable. Then the caregivers or the parents will feel uncomfortable. No I don't want to be there." (Respondent #26).

There is therefore a sense that inclusion at a workplace should involve categorically diverse people with disabilities. However, others also suggest that conscientiously seeking to create such a mix of people seems unnatural and forced, giving an example of ethnic inclusion: "We don't (intentionally) go out to say we must have Malay, we must have Chinese, we must have Indians…not that we must have representative from this and that community"(Respondent #11).

This dimension of categorical diversity (one type of disability or many types) helps to introduce a way of classifying different models of inclusion when used together with the dimension of openness (mainstream or enclave). We classified existing employers based on these two dimensions—the first being how mainstream they are, and the second one based on how categorically diverse or specialized they are in terms of the people with disabilities they employ:

  1. Mainstream vs enclave: jobs can fall along a spectrum with open employment at one end and sheltered workshops at the other. Enclaves offer a safe environment and typically generous forms of accommodation to the employees with disability.
  2. Categorically specialized vs diversified: employers can also hire one type of disability or hire multiple types of disability.
Figure 1: Typology of Employment Inclusion

('open' employment)
Corporate 'Specialized' Responsibility (CSR)

Large companies that work closely with charities to help people with specific disabilities
Diversity-Ready Employers

Large organisations and companies with recognised diversity policies and resources to provide accommodation

e.g. Multinational Corporations, government
Enclave ('protected' employment) 'Work Villages'

Sheltered employment

Social enterprises specialising in one disability type
Diversity Incubators / Showcase

e.g. Disability concept store that hires wide range of disabilities
Categorically Specialized Categorically Diverse

Work Villages

Work villages are typically small social enterprises set up with the specific purpose of helping a category of disability. Because of this, such enterprises tend to be designed with the purpose of meeting the employees' needs. For example, one food and beverage business was conceptualised and developed around what the founder thought those with intellectual disabilities could do.

These are usually cosy and supportive communities where employers and employees regard one another almost as family. Some of the enterprises were in fact set up by parents so that their children are productively engaged in employment. These work environments are therefore typically more accommodative to the needs of employees with disabilities compared to open employment. Businesses with a social cause are more likely to make a case that the current work settings need to be adapted to the employee with disability. A social enterprise is more likely to be shaped to fit the person while in open employment, the person is made to fit the enterprise:

"What do we want to achieve really? Is it trying to fit special people into the current setting or is it trying to change the current setting so that our special people can better fit in? It is two different goals…Are we trying to accommodate them, or are we trying to just keep the current setting and see how we can 'flank' around the current setting. It is two different objectives." (Respondent #23)

Because of this social calling, employers here often have to balance the purpose of helping people with disabilities with the need to stay afloat. An owner of a social enterprise recounted how tough it is to reject applicants and says she often decides to take them on especially when she meets them personally, despite those decisions not making financial sense:

"I really didn't want her, but you know, when I look at them, like I said you know—Pay it forward. My daughter is also special. If I start saying no to a lot of people, somebody will say no to my daughter. So anybody comes to me I say yes…So, special needs children need (employers) to say, "I will take". But there will be a time, when you cannot "take" anymore. Cause you are not making money. So how are you going to "take"?…I treat them all like family. So it's a different bonding." (Respondent #37)

When asked how they felt when their employees get poached by others, the response from the same owner of the social enterprise was, "Oh we are very happy. In fact when they get poached, we feel very proud." (Respondent #39)

Diversity Incubators / Showcase

Other social enterprises may instead hire a wide diversity of disability types. An example of this in Singapore is a company that hires a wide range of disabled people to run a food court. Whereas other establishments might make use of the strengths of the disabled people they hire, this company insisted that the blind they hired will also be trained to become cashiers even when that job task is particularly challenging for them. These diversity 'incubators' often have a strong advocacy agenda, setting out to demonstrate that people with disabilities can achieve the same level, if not even better performance.

Incubators also typically employ more than one category of disability to demonstrate that diverse categories of disabilities can productively work together. Sometimes such companies may actually choose a 'challenging' case to see how that will work out in the company. One respondent recounted such a company who had hired "the worst scenario to see how it's like" so that "hopefully other companies will learn from their example" (Respondent #7).

Such incubators are useful for learning how to accommodate different types of disability, but can become problematic if the person hired eventually feels that he is merely there as a showcase and not sincerely needed there. One respondent wondered whether such showcases "are just like beautiful examples, but how does that translate into real life?"(Respondent #6).

Corporate 'Specialised' Responsibility (CSR)

The broader Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) movement has encouraged companies to be more aware of the impact of their businesses and motivated some of them to contribute to sustainable development economically, socially and environmentally. Companies that have CSR initiatives may take up the cause of hiring a specific type of disabled people as one part of their broader CSR strategy.

We have characterised companies in this category to be engaging in Corporate "Specialised" Responsibility as a play on the CSR term. They might start by trying out one category of disability, embark on training their staff and redesigning their work processes so that such disabled employees can be integrated. They also typically work closely with the disability association who will provide a steady stream of manpower as well as support if any issues crop up during the course of work that the employers are unable to deal with independently.

Over time, some they may move towards co-opting more diverse categories of disability. For example, a clothes retailer told us that they are exploring moving beyond hiring those with intellectual disabilities to trying to hire those with hearing impairment. They have equipped their staff to learn how to interact and integrate employees with intellectual disabilities, and had worked closely with the relevant disability organisations. However, focusing on a new type of disability will require scaling up the training and preparation in new areas, such as sign language.

Unlike diversity ready employers that have more generic inclusion policies, CSRs may be able to provide a customised regime of accommodation that suits the disability type and also provides targeted training to support integration.

Diversity-Ready Employers

The polar opposite of work villages are large diversity-ready employers. These are typically large multinational corporations or the civil service, which are typically more diversity-ready given international Human Resource norms to be inclusive. Examples of this in Singapore, which the press and the government have lauded as inclusive, include Uniqlo Singapore, Starbucks and Deutsche Bank (Enabling Village 2016, Kan 2016). One respondent recounted his experience seeking employment in a multinational company, which hired him without asking any detailed questions about his disability, only looking at his capabilities and experience. They also typically do not have special preferences for hiring a specific type of disability.

Open employment in large companies is often regarded to be the gold standard of inclusion because of the prestige of securing a job in such companies. Given that such large employers are also more able to absorb a larger number of the working population, policymakers often focus on encouraging large organizations to hire people with disabilities in open employment. These employers however, typically adopt a business case for inclusion, and will only hire when it makes financial sense to do so.

Employers who hire people with disabilities are often mainly motivated by the business case alone: "companies want to hire disabled people…I think they just need staff to be very honest; they just need staff to get the work done…They just want to get things done. I hire you…can you do the work for me?" (Respondent #35). A job placement officer suggests that this is typical of what employers care about: "I guess most of the Singapore companies, they are very direct. They will be like 'if I employ your students, what will I get from it? What is the difference between employing your student and a 'normal' person?' " (Respondent #31).

An additional trait of diversity-ready employers is that these companies have a 'mix' of diverse types of people from different ethnic groups, nationalities, gender and age. Disability is merely another dimension of diversity in such diversity ready corporations. This is regarded to be 'natural' rather than 'forced' or artificial.

The different models of inclusion have different trade-offs that are well-recognised by people with disabilities. The diversity-ready employer is likely to have a 'natural mix' of diverse people, but they are also only likely to hire based on a strong business case. The CSR and social enterprises may hire based on reasons of social justice, but they may not be large enough to absorb all people with disabilities into the workforce. With targeted support, a work village and CSR is more likely to provide a supportive environment customised to the needs of their specific employees, but also risks artificial segregation. A diversity incubator can be a powerful advocacy instrument with scalable insights for other employers, but can also become merely an empty showcase. Given the wide diversity of disabilities and diversity of their preferences, many respondents refused to regard a mainstream context or enclave work space as necessarily better than the other. As one respondent put it, "there is no such thing which is better than which, I think is good to have both." (Respondent #26).

This typology hence illustrates the spectrum of inclusive employment that exist. The categories are ideal types and can be fluid. For instance, companies that engage in Corporate "Specialised" Responsibility initiatives could become a "Diversity-Ready Employer", having gained the expertise and knowledge on more diverse groups of people with disabilities. As a whole however, these different models of inclusion counters "inclusion-at-all-costs" arguments that consider open employment as the only viable form of inclusion. This typology mirrors the situation in the EU where some member states have also developed new forms of sheltered employment closer to the regular labour market, but not yet considered 'open employment'—they aim to be more transitional and can include on-site work, secondments, outplacements, and mobile units (European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities, 2012). This illustrates a much wider range of employment contexts than traditional notions of sheltered workshop.

The Moral Case for Hiring: so that 'All Can Contribute'

The business case for hiring typically also utilises an 'industrial model' of vocational assessment and job placement that focuses on how to fit people into jobs (and not jobs to people). An early pioneer of the vocational assessment and job placement in Singapore explains the thinking behind its origins:

"We have to work out targeted job openings for people. In other words, they should analyse each job activity. Because you should know, what you need to do. For each job. See, even if you are in a factory, you know, floor, and each was to have a job. Then you have to know who has to put the screws in, who has to turn the screws, and how you are going to package the article you have produced, and pack it in packages… We would decide the job openings and opportunities. First, let's look at the people that we are going to put out there. Firstly, you have a medical check-up. The doctors are there to say what is the degree of arm movement, vision acuity, of hearing acuity, you know, and physical abilities, intellectual abilities. So you have to have a department, a section on assessment and evaluation, of a person with disability. To know the exact degree of movement of the arm, the leg, their stamina, and so on. Once that has been established, then you do your psychological tests. To see how much they can control, how much they can in fact, task, to do." (Respondent #2)

In fact, he explicitly argues that it does not make sense to fit the job to the person:

"You got a disability, we see if we can match you for this job. You're matching the person to the job, and not trying to match the job to a person…You can't ask the person who has got visual problems to start measuring, using one of these scales, to handle it when there is no voice or speech on it. They can't do it!" (Respondent #2)

Using the business case on its own also means that we might choose only to invest in those who can do well (to raise overall productivity) instead of investing in those who are disadvantaged (to level the playing field). Using a group running metaphor, one job placement officer argued that Singapore has progressed 'too fast', such that those who are running ahead no longer know what is going on with those falling behind. The implicit criticism is that the sense of belonging and togetherness as a community is challenged when the differences become too large.

The business case ponders whether hiring persons with disabilities will allow companies to be profitable and competitive and has been one that is often repeated in the past quarter century at least. In comparison the moral premise asks: "Is this a workplace where 'we' is everyone?" (Roosevelt, 1990). As one professional emphatically put it using a metaphor, "If we went to a shop and bought a puzzle, is your puzzle complete if you are missing a piece? You will probably be really pissed!" (Respondent #33). Put more poignantly from the point of view of a sibling who questioned her parents' devotion to her disabled sister: "Why are you spending so much time on my sister, when it is I who can go to university?" This illustration encapsulates what is at stake here. We do not have to disagree with the business case for inclusion, but only have to see that it is insufficient in itself. If we disagree with growth-at-all-costs, or that attention should only be paid to those who have potential, then there is enough justification for the validity of the moral case.

To us, an inclusive society is thus one where those with varying abilities are given an opportunity to participate and contribute in ways big or small, and to get rewards commensurable with those skills. Unlike a winner-takes-all market that where top performers dominate and only elites are celebrated, an inclusive society on the other hand values diversity, including the diversity of talent and abilities. An inclusive society is one where all those who want to contribute can contribute, whatever their level of ability.

This point of view requires challenging the problematic but still common assumption that the wages that one earns from open employment is a key indicator of the worth of a person. 'Work' has been defined primarily as paid employment, and a wider range of productive activity is not recognised. This includes unpaid volunteer work, community participation or even domestic contributions. Open employment is regarded as the highest ideal, preferably with large prestigious companies that pay high wages, than social enterprises, non-profits or sheltered workshops that provide special support for people with disabilities. If regarded as unemployable, people with disabilities are mostly shuttled to day care centres that offer recreational activities or worse still, stay at home with nothing to engage them. Instead, a diversity productive contributions can be considered for them.

This requires a recognition that almost everyone always has something useful to contribute, in one way or another, in ways that may be large or small. This view was put simply this way: "As long as they are willing and able, people should not be denied an opportunity to work." It also means that the social system and environment should be equipped to allow people with disabilities to contribute in ways that they can and prefer to. As a visually impaired respondent remarked, she required help to even handle small tasks, and hopes that "society can progress to the extent that we are also willing to help everyone to be able to contribute in some way." Taking a moral case towards the hiring of disabled people challenges and transforms the conventional logic of the business case; instead of just hiring for profit we should be hiring as part of social progress.

Discussion and Policy Implications

Moral responsibility is distributed differently

Taking the moral case for hiring seriously requires challenging the dominance of market logic, where the best jobs are given to the best people. Instead, it requires accepting people with disabilities as part of the community, group or even regarding them as extended family. In a family unit, a different kinship logic is in operation, where you will try to find something for everyone to do, to chip in where they can, and be useful in their own ways.

If there is a moral case beyond the business case, we also believe that moral responsibility for economic inclusion is distributed differently:

  1. Private enterprises should continue to hire based on the business case, with incentives from the government helping to make it more financially feasible. The moral case for hiring should be made by private companies on a voluntary basis. However, the larger the enterprise and the more absorptive capacity an organization has, the more they should voluntarily include people with disabilities.
  2. Social enterprises and non-profits who have a specific mission to hire people with disabilities are already motivated by a strong social justice cause. The government can consider giving more support to social enterprises, given that they have 'double bottom lines' because they have a social as well as financial objectives that double their challenges.
    But because there are only so many social enterprises or incubators you can set up, mainstream employers should still be the focus of policy efforts because they have more absorptive capacity.
  3. There is a strong social justice case for larger employers who have a public role, like the civil service to hire people with disabilities because the constituency of the civil service should approximate the society it is serving in order to better understand how to serve them. Arguably if the prevalence rate of disability in the population is 3% then the civil service should aspire to hire at least 3% people with disabilities.
    As some respondents from the interviews suggested, perhaps persons with disabilities should also be represented at the legislature and have voting rights so that they can represent the needs of the community.

Experimenting with different models of inclusion

It is problematic to assume that if a company hired people who had different forms of disabilities, they are more inclusive than companies who hire just people with a similar type of disability. It is also problematic to consider any type of enclave or specialized work settings as less inclusive than mainstream work settings or open employment. We argue that there is a place for multiple models of inclusion, and work enclaves like sheltered workshops—that we might assume are not 'inclusive' when examined in isolation—can nonetheless serve important functions that allow for inclusion when you look at the whole of society.

In other words, doing inclusion well does not mean getting rid of all forms of enclaves. Doing inclusion sensibly means recognizing the role of multiple models of work for people with disabilities, some of which are mainstream while others are enclaved; some of which entail hiring people with a similar type of disability, while others entail hiring an employee base with diverse types of disabilities.

Doing inclusion well also does not mean removing all forms of exclusionary behaviour (as we might be tempted to think), but merely making employment decisions using fair and relevant criteria. Therefore, employers and service providers should continue to exercise discretion and judgment in hiring, matching and promotion decisions to determine what makes sense for the business. However, a business case for hiring people with disabilities will not always exist and there are sectors where key players can start to accept the validity of the moral case for hiring people with disabilities.

Mainstreaming need not be regarded as the only successful model of inclusion as enclaves provided much needed customized support. When ready, enclaves can be encouraged to open up their borders so that people without disability can enter disability contexts—another route to inclusion.

Inclusion at different levels of analysis

At the level of a firm, rational decisions are already being made about the sequence of what groups of disability to include. However, at the policy level, it will be challenging to indicate what kind of disabilities are suitable for what kind of jobs, because of the internal heterogeneity of both the disability and occupational categories. There is a wide diversity of deaf people as there is a wide diversity of tasks that may or may not be suitable for them in the 'retail' or 'food & beverage' industry. As our respondents pointed out, within the deaf community, there is great divergence: some use sign language, some can enunciate and communicate verbally; some are highly educated while others are not. Furthermore, the mere presence of certain categories of disabilities in certain occupations does not mean that they are well-suited to those occupations—e.g. the blind in telemarketing and massage services—but merely due to the historical acceptance of these people by certain employers or industries in our local context. Therefore, it would be risky to attempt to design policies based on such categorizations as they are fluid and dynamic. We would be hard pressed to determine what kind of jobs that the 'deaf community', or the 'visually impaired' or those with 'learning disabilities' can do.

To conclude, we argue that at the system level, all should be able to contribute; but flexibility should exist at the industry, occupational or firm level as to where people with disabilities should participate in productive activity. An 'all can contribute' social system is not one whereby all parts of it can absorb all categories of people. This is because who can work depends on the requirements of the type of job and industry, and besides qualifications and skills, certain job requirements may disqualify certain functional impairments. If we can recognise all these complex aspects of the economic inclusion of people with disabilities, then we move beyond simplistic exhortations to be inclusive-at-all-costs, and arrive at sensible inclusion. In the end, hiring people with disabilities because "it is good for business" is insufficient in itself. There is an urgent and critical need to consider the moral case for hiring in order for social progress.


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  1. Developmental disabilities in the Singapore context refers to those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to definitions in Enabling Masterplan: https://app.msf.gov.sg/portals/0/files/em_chapter1.pdf
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  2. 'Voluntary Welfare Organisations' is a term used in the Singapore context to describe non-profit or non-governmental organisations that provide welfare or social services to vulnerable or disadvantaged groups. They are charities set up for the purpose of offering direct social services and are independent of the state although many receive government subvention.
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