No Hope For Progress For Some of Us

Everyone wants to progress. In fact, it is one of the national goals enshrined in the Pledge. We go to school to progress, we move on to working life to progress and moving from one life phase to another, like having one’s own family, is a kind of progress. Even the penances of the season of Lent are meant to help us progress in our spiritual life. The desire for progress and the confidence in achieving it give us a sense of meaning and, therefore, hope that there it is worth struggling against the great challenges of life. It is all the more poignant, then, to step back and consider that there are those of us who can hardly look forward to progress.

It is a great thing that Special Education (SPED) schools exist today. They cater to persons with special needs where previously there were fewer options in educational institutions for them. In such places, at least a minority of trained professionals who know better than the average person is given better resources in educating children with special needs.

But children, with special needs or not, eventually grow up to become adults. Yes, that adorable kid does not stay young forever like Peter Pan. They become like us. But while many of us can hope for progress when we leave school, whether it is furthering our studies or beginning to earn money towards that coveted “financial freedom”, not all graduates of SPED schools who are adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) can hope for the same.

Some adults with mild ID may be able to do “mainstream” jobs. But let’s face it. Working life is tough. Who has not experienced difficult colleagues or bosses that can make quitting look so tempting? For them, their struggle at work is far, far greater. Moreover, few individuals are used to working with adults with ID. It is not difficult to imagine the kind of challenges they would suffer in an environment that does not cater to them.

But many of SPED school graduates would not even have the chance to do this because many have severe ID and existing approaches to evaluation often make it impossible for such persons to qualify for even a chance at getting a “mainstream” job. To graduate, then, is not to leave school with hope for progress. Rather, it is to enter a time of total uncertainty with very few institutions to cater to persons with ID. Too often, they will end up staying at home for the rest of their lives. For them, to graduate is to encounter the inevitable stagnation, or more probably, regression. Can one have hope in life without a chance for progress?

Yet, the Church teaches that the griefs and anxieties of the suffering and the marginalised are the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ (Gaudium et spes, 1). It is the duty of Christians to strive for the common good so that every person, whether one has ID or not, is able to achieve their fulfilment as easily as possible with equitable access to resources for nurturance (Gaudium et spes, 26). We cannot do nothing when so many cannot hope for progress, let alone achieving fulfilment.

What is the way forward then?

In this season of Lent, we prepare for the Resurrection of Christ, the Son of God who is God himself in every sense. But how can God die so as to need to undergo the Resurrection? Because God came down to become man, becoming like us in all things but sin. Knowing what we can and cannot do, God came down to teach us and to save us so that we can rise up and become more like him. He accommodated to our needs so that we can progress, as individuals and a society, in our journey towards eternal life.

Can we not do the same for adults with ID? Should we really be expecting them to adapt, no matter how impossible, to “mainstream” roles or level of performance? Should we not, as an entire society, adapt to adults with ID instead through the formation of attitudes and genuinely enabling institutions that can help them acquire hope for progress?

SUN CLUB by SUN-DAC is a recent attempt by Sr Julia Ong, a Sister of the Infant Jesus, and a team of concerned individuals, to reach for a “downward inclusion”. It aims to provide adults with ID a space for lifelong learning, continuous development through work and formation of community. SUN CLUB accommodates to the many who have been left out by the “mainstream” system, which may be ill-suited and yet often used to evaluate persons with special needs. In SUN CLUB, flexible learning and on-the-job training opportunities are available in time slots and durations that are suited for the individual with ID. Pioneering initiatives like this, however, are difficult and need a lot of support from the wider community in order to successfully form a structure and space that would be nurturing for persons with ID.

Another example is Mamre Oaks, which is a non-profit organisation founded by a group of friends who believe that persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities are gifts from God with their rights to a fulfilling life like anyone else. They are on a mission to empower them and to create an environment where they are welcomed, respected and valued regardless of their different abilities.

Of course, there is always more to be done. An oft-quoted proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. Indeed, it takes the entire Church and human society to realise God’s dream on earth, that we shall have a society where every child of God can develop and be fulfilled.

Erwin Susanto is a staff member of Caritas Singapore. He enjoys boring his friends with his interest in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible studies and finds it hard to resist commentating on all kinds of contemporary issues. He is often asked to try his best not to sound “cheem”.