A neighbourhood is more than just a collection of schools, residential blocks and kopitiam. At its heart are the residents: the elderly folks who gather every Sunday to play chess, that stray cat everyone has a different name for, and, as Debra Lam would tell you, those living with physical disabilities.
Debra is the co-founder of Society Staples, a social enterprise that hopes to raise awareness for people with disabilities (PwDs) and make the streets safer for them. "We see PwDs and other marginalized groups as staples of society – 'staples' as in essentials, like rice and noodles," explains the 24-year-old. "And just like staplers in stationery, we strive to be a binding force that 'staples' fragmented and forgotten groups into one inclusive society."
On 4 March, Society Staples brought these groups into the spotlight. Together with URA and the Society for the Physically Disabled (SPD), it has put together a special sort of street party: it’s the first-ever road closure with PwDs at the front and centre. This is part of URA’s Streets for People, an initiative that transforms streets into pedestrian-friendly public spaces.
Peng Nguan Street in Tiong Bahru was closed off for disability-friendly sports and games such as bowling, flea markets, and craft displays by SPD’s artisans. PwDs and the able-bodied can embark on specially curated heritage trails around the neighbourhood, too, which stops at cafes, specialty shops and even an air raid shelter. Debra’s personal favourite? An oversized game of Jenga, which, according to her, was a hit at previous Society Staples events.
Society Staples was founded by Debra Lam and Ryan Ng in March 2015, and it was birthed from a deeply personal core: both Debra and Ryan have siblings who live with disabilities.
“Growing up, I was given a lot of opportunities as a privileged kid in primary and secondary schools,” recalls Debra. She participated in foreign exchange programmes and held various leadership positions. However, the same could not be said for her two brothers, who have autism. “They were bullied, left out of social events, and people often classified them as strange and awkward.”
Debra’s mum constantly worries about them. “Will they have jobs like everyone else? Can they live independently? Who’s going to take care of them when she passes away? These questions flood her mind,” she says.
Ryan shares similar sentiments. The 26-year-old grew up with a brother with Williams syndrome, a developmental disorder that causes mild to moderate intellectual disability. When he saw a local news story in 2011 about a teacher who made demeaning remarks to a student with special needs, Ryan felt compelled to do something about it.
Ryan turned to his hobby: dragon boating. And he got in touch with Debra, whom he met while pursuing the sport in secondary school.
“Ryan had this idea of using dragon boat as a platform to raise awareness for the less fortunate,” Debra explains. And so Deaf Dragons was born, a team that welcomes those with disabilities – from those with hearing impairments to the intellectually challenged. With additional funding from deaf dragon boaters conducting team-building training for groups such as social enterprise CityCare, the team grew in both size and stature. This motivated Debra and Ryan to expand their work in 2014, laying the groundwork for Society Staples.
Society Staples is on a mission to bridge the gap between the able-bodied and the disabled – and not through words alone. It has conducted sign language classes for the able-bodied, enlisted hearing-impaired people to facilitate team-building workshops, and adapted strongman bootcamps to ensure PwDs can participate. In last year’s DBS Marina Regatta, the social enterprise even went back to its dragon boating roots, getting rowers to experience simulated blindness and deafness while racing.
“As long as the initiatives create conversations and shift people’s perception about PwDs, that’s right up our alley,” sums up Debra.
One step at a time
While the inclusive Streets for People party is a great start, it remains just that: a start. Debra believes that the city as a whole has to change and embrace PwDs. “Our infrastructure has improved tremendously over the years, now we have accessible lifts at every single MRT station and more buses equipped with wheelchair ramps,” she notes. “But we could do with wider pedestrian walks for wheelchairs, for instance!”
Besides changes in the built environment, Debra is quick to emphasise that programmes such as Streets for People are good first steps on the path of real change. “I cannot over-stress the importance of being inclusive. Achieving inclusivity begins with every individual. And altering our mindsets, being more educated on our misconceptions, and spreading the word around go a long way.”
For more information on Society Staples, check this out.
Interested to turn a street in your neighbourhood into a wonderful space for the community, go to the Streets for People site to find out what you can do.