Society Staples: All Inclusive!

Puja Chandra

Society Staples offers team building activities

“Inclusion begins with the simple mindfulness that others may have a different reality than us.” - Patti Digh

Mindfulness towards persons in society who are different from us but who possess an equal right to be accepted and included is the driving force behind Society Staples, an organisation that is championing the cause of inclusion through sports.

With a mission to create and leverage platforms of engagement between ‘Persons with Disabilities’ (PWDs) and society, Society Staples helmed by Ryan Ng and Debra Lam is being seen as the harbinger of an ‘all-inclusive’ society in Singapore.

Co-founder Debra Lam recently got featured as one of the 55 millennials in the Her World Singapore’s 55th anniversary edition adding another feather to the young entrepreneur’s hat.

Last month, we spoke to her on the story behind Society Staples and more.

Q. Society Staples was founded with a goal of building an inclusive gym in Singapore where PWDs could work-out along able-bodied people. Is that still your main aim?  

Debra: Yes, we did start with that idea. However, along the way our idea changed from building an inclusive gym to maximizing opportunities for integration and interaction between persons with disability and the rest of society through social activities and sports. This is because:

(a) The resources and logistics involved in building an inclusive gym are humungous

b) When we talked to various stakeholders we realised that the required mind-set was lacking at present, so sustainability of our initiative would be a big challenge.

We are still open to the idea. However, our priority right now is to dispel the negativity and awkwardness associated with PWDs.

Q. What is the thought behind the name ‘Society Staples’?

Debra: It’s two-fold actually. Like other sections of society, ‘PWDs’ are also staples (i.e. important elements) of society and must be treated with equality. We also think of our work as stapling where we piece together the fragmented parts of society into a cohesive, inclusive entity.

Q. What are the current initiatives taken by Society Staples and how are they promoting inclusion?

Our initiatives are designed keeping in mind the value-addition that will accrue to both the PWDs and the able-bodied.

“The uniqueness of our programs lies in role-reversal that we bring in by allowing PWDs to take on roles that are predominantly held by society, such as that of facilitators. This puts PWDs in a position of authority which they rarely enjoy in the real world, imbuing in them a sense of pride and confidence. At the same time the abled participants see the PWDs in a different light than the usual pitiful manner. This role-reversal brings in a positive shift in mind-sets leading to acceptance and inclusion.”

– Debra Lam

For example, we currently run 2 programs - the Team Building Program aimed at corporates and the Strongman Sessions for the general public.

Our Team Building Program is a customizable program that leverages on dragon boating. Here, the participating corporate members are guided to dragon boat by the deaf and the hearing impaired. Participants sportingly learn sign language so they can take cues from their PWD facilitators making it a unique and enriching experience for them!

The team building program continues at ‘Gardens by the Bay’ where the participants simulate blindness.  Again, guided by our PWD facilitators, participants perform simple activities such as climbing stairs blindfolded.

We have received feedback from corporates that the program has gone a long way in sensitizing the participants and eliminating misconceptions about PWDs. Participants realise that PWDs are lagging only because of the lack of opportunities and not due to disability.

One of our proudest moments came when a McDonald’s manager hired 2 PWDs at the IMM, Jurong East after attending our Team Building program.

Our second program, ‘Strongman Session’ is a monthly community outreach initiative held currently in collaboration with REACH Community Services Organisation. It is a regular fitness boot camp but with a difference! Unlike other boot camps, this is an inclusive camp where PWDs (a mix of deaf, blind, physically and intellectually challenged individuals) can work-out and challenge themselves along with the able bodied members of society.

Q. What inspired you to encourage inclusive sports?

Debra: I grew up with two autistic brothers, which made me realize how lucky I was. I saw that they were continually denied of numerous opportunities that I was offered. At that time, I dreamt of being an entrepreneur. In college, a shared passion for dragon boating and for enabling a level playing field for the differently-abled, gave Ryan and me the required stimulus. Thus, began our journey with Deaf Dragons and subsequently Society Staples!

Q. Ryan and you are both very young. Do you see your age as an advantage or an impediment?

Debra: It’s both actually. We are young and fairly inexperienced in the corporate sector which has resulted in the lack of a structural framework in place. However, the advantage is that we have no preconceived notions. When faced with a challenge, we are fairly open - be it for outsourcing or seeking collaborations. This brings with it the ability for flexibility and innovation. Since we are young and have no strings attached, we can take risks, experiment and walk the extra mile!

Q. Society Staples began its journey in 2013 and is already lauded as a path-breaker. To what do you owe this early success?

Debra: (laughs) We have been plain lucky. We have had more hits than misses and met the right people at the right time. Media has also been kind to us. We have had generous mentors along the way and the right kind of networking has given us valuable partnerships and insights to constantly improve and innovate.

We have also been lucky in terms of timing as recently the Singapore Government has also ramped up its efforts to give opportunities to PWDs to maximise their potential in society. On Nov 30, 2012 Singapore signed the UNCRPD (United Nations Convention on the Rights for Persons with Disabilities) and adopted the Enabling Masterplan for 2012-2016.

Of course, Ryan and I have worked very, very hard and it is heartening to see our efforts and determination paying off.

Q. What have your most notable achievements been?

Debra: In June this year, we received a $25K grant by raiSE at the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia under the Youth Social Entrepreneurship Programme (YSEP) for Start-Ups. This is a resounding recognition of our efforts. Our recent public outreach programme at the DBS Marina Regatta was a huge success both in terms of the impact it created and as a path breaking fundraiser. Over 750 kms paddled by participants using dragon boat ergometer machines raised a total of S$150k.

Q. How can the public help champion the cause of inclusiveness with Society Staples?

Debra:  a) Help us spread the word.

b) Volunteer/participate in strongman sessions and other upcoming initiatives (Connect with us on Society Staples' Facebook Page  to stay updated.)

c) University graduates/undergraduates can join us as interns and may be absorbed in our team as we expand operations.

d) Finally, be open minded, be inclusive and give the PWDs a chance in your world!

“There is no greater disability in society than its inability to see a person as more.” - Robert M Hensel

Support Society Staples is unlocking the potential of ‘Persons with Disabilities’ and is building a society that is truly inclusive!

- AsiaForGood

[Photo Courtesy: Debra Lam, Co-founder Society Staples]


If you want to find more about socially conscious living in Asia, check out Asia For Good's social enterprise directory.


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