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Speech by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped Charity Banquet cum SG50 Celebration

17 Mar 2015

Mr Phillip Lee, President of the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH)

Executive Committee Members and staff of SAVH

Distinguished Donors


Visually Handicapped Friends

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. Good evening. I am very happy to join you this evening, to celebrate SAVH’s 63rd anniversary and Singapore’s Golden Jubilee.

2. Things have come a long way for the visually handicapped community in Singapore.

- In 1951, organised efforts to cater to the needs of the visually handicapped were practically non-existent. Thus when a person was born blind or became blind, it often meant the loss of any chance for education or employment, and little hope for a better future.

- For them, the founding of the Singapore Association for the Blind was the first beacon of hope.

- Today, SAVH reaches out to about 3,300 visually handicapped individuals – about ten times as many as when you started. It helps the visually impaired to overcome adversity and acquire new skills, so that they can lead happy and meaningful lives. The corporate video screened earlier gives us a glimpse of the good work that SAVH is doing.

3. Indeed, this is the experience of many of our VWOs. Starting out small, growing, and adapting to new needs. Along the journey, building on the dedication of their staff, Government support and community participation.

4. This spirit where volunteers and trained professionals pitch in together, and empower the more vulnerable among us, is really at the core of what we all want: an inclusive Singapore, where everyone contributes to a better society. Community action, coupled with Government support and interventions, and all aimed at empowering people to develop themselves and stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Singaporeans.

5. SG50 is a time for us to commit ourselves to going further in helping our fellow Singaporeans.

- The Government is progressively strengthening our social safety nets, through efforts like the enhanced Workfare, the subsidised and universal MediShield Life scheme, and the new Silver Support scheme.

- We should all also give where we can: give to the causes that we believe in and feel make us a more inclusive society. And for every dollar that you donate, the Government will more than double it – with the Care & Share matching grant support, and 300% tax deduction for donations made in this Jubilee Year.

Encouraging Greater Use of Assistive Technologies

6. But reaching out to the more vulnerable among us is not just about increasing financial support. It is about empowering people in need.

7. For persons with disabilities (PwDs) in particular, we want to encourage greater use of assistive technologies (AT), at every stage of life.

8. We currently provide funding support for use of AT in education and work, through MSF’s Assistive Technology Fund (ATF), together with MOE’s Special Education Needs Fund.

9. There is scope for PwDs to make greater and better use of technology, not just in education and jobs, but also for rehabilitation and daily living. The technologies themselves are advancing, making them better designed for use by PwDs. Also, Singaporeans today are generally more comfortable with using technology in daily life.

10. The Government will therefore further encourage and support the adoption and use of AT by PwDs. We will do this in two ways.

11. First, the government will enhance financial support to help Singaporeans take advantage of AT devices. We will enhance the ATF in the following ways:

(i) Today, the ATF is only extended to PwDs who are students in schools and workers in open employment, in other words for the purpose of purchasing the devices for the purpose of education or work. We will expand the scope to cover PwDs at all ages and for all purposes: besides those in education and open employment, we will include those who are in supported employment, therapy or rehabilitation, or seeking more independence in daily living.

(ii) To enable more families in the middle income group to benefit from our subsidies, we will also raise the monthly per capita income cap for eligibility from $1,500 to $1,800.

(iii) Today, there is also a lifetime cap of $20,000 in AT subsidies for each beneficiary. However, as most AT devices have a limited lifespan, PwDs may need a replacement over their lifetime. And as they move from one life stage to the next, such as from education to employment and then later into retirement, their AT needs may change. We will therefore double the lifetime cap for subsidies from the ATF, to $40,000 per beneficiary.

12. MSF will implement these changes in subsidies from August 2015. With these enhancements, the number of ATF beneficiaries is expected to double from 200 to 400 each year.

13. The second approach that we are enhancing is the development of new and innovative solutions to help PwDs. Not all their needs can be met by existing off-the-shelf devices or solutions. They often need customised solutions. Last year, I launched the new “Tote Board-Enabling Lives Initiative”, which will support VWOs, social enterprises and research institutes to work together on innovative solutions.

14. We will make use of this new fund to support the design and piloting of new solutions that improve the lives for PwDs and their caregivers. This can be in a wide variety of domains, including mobility and navigation, independent living, work productivity and care. I encourage all VWOs in the sector, like SAVH, to take advantage of this initiative, and work together to co-create solutions in the interest of PwDs.

15. With these two enhancements, I hope that many more PwDs can benefit from technology, gain independence and lead fulfilling lives. We are taking a leaf from SAVH’s mission – “To help the (visually) handicapped help themselves”.

16. Many of you would have read the story just two weeks ago of Ong Hui Xin. She was blinded by cancer when she was one-month-old. Hui Xin persevered, with the support of her friends and teachers. She kept up with school work using a laptop installed with text-to-speech converter software. Hui Xin did well in her ‘A’ Levels, and hopes to study psychology at the Nanyang Technological University. I wish her all the best!

17. There are many other inspiring stories in our visually impaired community. I met Tan Siew Ling in October last year when we were launching the “Tote Board-Enabling Lives Initiative”. She was in Primary 5 when she lost her eyesight. Siew Ling had to re-learn everything.

- She was determined. Siew Ling went to SAVH, where she learnt to use the white cane for mobility. At SAVH, she was also introduced to AT – learning to use the computer and related tools such as PAC Mate, which is an electronic organiser with Braille display, and JAWS screen reading software. Her social worker helped her apply for the ATF, which took care of a large part of the cost of these devices.

- Today, Siew Ling has graduated with an honours degree in Economics and Finance, and is now working at SG Enable so that she can help other Singaporeans with disabilities.

18. She’s another example of how the human spirit overcomes adversity, and helps others overcome adversity. Indeed, all that we are doing – by the VWOs, social enterprises, donors, volunteers, the community in general – is made all the more meaningful by the strength and courage that our visually handicapped friends show us every day.

19. Thank you all for the efforts you are making to take this further, and to help every PwD to have a good and happy life.

20. I wish all of you an enjoyable evening.