by Nigel Chin on

She’s a part-time worker at Far East Orchid, and her shifts start at 9am and end at 4pm. Her responsibilities include sorting flowers such as gladiolus and lilies, and typha leaves, packing them into bundles and sticking price tags onto them.

As she works, an older colleague stands across her, observing and guiding. It is, after all, only her third week at work. They chat while working and both parties can be seen breaking into laughter often.

It may seem like a typical day at work at the wholesale fresh flowers centre, but 23-year-old Olivia Chua isn’t your typical worker.

That is because Chua has a mild intellectual disability. According to the Association for Persons With Special Needs (APSN), those with mild intellectual disability generally have a measured IQ level of around 50 to 70 (an average person’s IQ is between 90 and 110) and have limitations in adaptive behaviour.

Chua herself had graduated at the APSN Delta Senior School, and has held various jobs previously. Some of those roles had been in the F&B, retail and logistics sectors. But Chua never lasted more than a few months in those jobs.

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Image Source: The Pride / Nigel Chin

“When I was working previously at a restaurant, I had to face many different customers and it was tough,” Chua explained to The Pride in a mix of English and Chinese. “I don’t think I was suited for such a job.”

She added that while working at a warehouse previously, her colleagues had looked down on her and made things difficult for her because of her condition. “They were better at mathematics than me as I’m not very good at counting. (Because of that), they always judged me,” she said.

This time around, things are much more promising. While it’s still early days, Chua already feels comfortable at work – she says she’s able to communicate easily with her colleagues, whom she feels are treating her very nicely.

More importantly, Chua has a support network in place – thanks to Inclus, an organisation that seeks to provide employment support opportunities for people with special needs.

Inclus was founded last July by 31-year-old Shaun Tan, 34-year-old Anders Tan and 28-year-old Arudra Vangal. Shaun and Anders were university mates who had started an unrelated mobile app company in their final-year at the Singapore Management University, while Anders used to tutor Vangal, who has high-functioning autism, when he was younger.

Anders, who also has a brother-in-law with high-functioning autism, reconnected with Vangal’s dad and Inclus’ investor, Ramesh, early last year to explore ways to help people with special needs become more independent in the future.

Inclus runs a four-week training course aimed at providing its trainees such as Chua, who pay a heavily subsidised fee, with soft skills and job-specific skills, before placing them with employment partners such as Far East Orchid.

“Before they come for their training, the employment opportunities are already there. When they were interviewed and screened for training, we would already have earmarked them for specific jobs (with our employment partners) that are available to them once the training is over,” explained Albert Lee, Inclus’ lead trainer.

“Unless we realise that these individuals have other issues that require more training or support beyond the four-week phase, there should be a direct placement from training to the job.”

Even after the trainees start work, Inclus continues to keep tabs on them and ensure they are comfortable in their working environment. They also communicate regularly with their employment partners to track their trainees’ progress.

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Image Source: The Pride / Nigel Chin

So far, Chua has adapted well to her new surroundings. When asked to describe her current colleagues, she recited readily: “Nice, friendly, caring.” As part of their training, the trainees were taught how to better express themselves, so they could understand and communicate better with people they are meeting for the first time, such as prospective colleagues.

They are also tested on their cognitive abilities, via a Lego Mindstorms set – an educational robotics set that comes with a programmable software.

But even as the trainees are able to fit in well, there are also procedures and precautions in place should anything go wrong.

Ooi Sze Jin, Inclus’ inhouse psychologist who visits the trainees at their workplace at least twice a week to check on their well-being, told The Pride that while Chua has been coping well at work, she has reported feeling tired because she hasn’t been working for quite some time. That is where Ooi steps in to communicate with Chua’s employers and colleagues.

“I will educate their colleagues about their condition and help them to understand that they might struggle with certain tasks,” Ooi told The Pride.

“I help manage the expectations of colleagues… and coach the trainees on how to communicate with others and who to approach when they have problems. I also work with the trainees’ supervisors on managing expectations and how to allocate work tasks to the trainees.”

Thankfully for Chua, her colleagues are familiar with workers who have special needs, and have been understanding. Manager Agnes Chioh said that the company has had workers with special needs among its ranks for the past three years.

“The most important thing is that the colleagues around are all very supportive in this. They are all willing to help out and accommodate them. They don’t mind staying behind to finish up the work that they can’t finish,” said Chioh, 47, who has worked at Far East Orchid for six years.

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Image Source: The Pride / Nigel Chin

So it’s a very conducive environment for workers with special needs to thrive, according to Chioh. In fact, she recalls one particular special needs worker who proved herself capable, and eventually left the company for a better job opportunity. Chioh sees it as a positive thing, as the staff was able to move on to do something she likes after gaining confidence on the job with Far East Orchid.

That is something she hopes Chua can achieve in her time with the company. But of course, the latter will need to do her part, too.

Ooi explained that it can be hard to tell when a person with special needs in the workplace is struggling as they might not communicate it to them directly. They have to be vigilant and observe for signs in the trainees, such as increased absenteeism, having trouble sleeping, or coming to work fatigued.

For example, a trainee may take sick leave often to avoid work, whereupon Inclus will work with the employment partner to help the trainee adapt to the work routine.

Meanwhile, Chua, who currently works three days a week, is slated to begin a five-day work week – a testament to her willingness to work hard. The news got her excited, said Ooi, who added that Chua usually comes to work about an hour early.

With some experience under her belt, Chua hopes that she can eventually learn to wrap the pretty bouquets that will be sold on occasions such as Valentines’ Day and Mothers’ Day.

As trainees like Chua successfully integrate into the workforce, Inclus is looking to expand the frequency of their courses and increase the number of trainees. The aim is to be able to run an intake every few months.

“Many voluntary welfare organisations already have systems and models to help these individuals find employment but due to the high number of people seeking their help and other constraints, they may not have enough bandwidth to support them as much as they would like to, ” said Inclus’ lead trainer Lee.

He added that this could be due to poor job matches or insufficient support provided during the employment period. And this is also where Inclus comes into the picture, by working with these organisations to provide closer guidance to these individuals at the workplace.

Citing Inclus’ targeted approach to helping each trainee find their best work fit, Shaun added: “Ultimately we want to help them (people with special needs) to achieve independence and social integration as much as possible.”