Singapore is a tiny island nation near the equator in Southeast Asia. Its history of social and political engineering of human activities has contributed to Singapore becoming one of the most affluent and successful countries in the world. Its economic success has been attributed to the government's proactive response to changing global forces and achieving its visions. The new millennium with its new set of challenges has once again rallied the Singapore government to set another vision: In the 21st century the goal has been set of valuing each citizen and the encouragement of active citizenship. Being a small country without any natural resources except human resources, such a vision makes much sense. For Singaporeans with disabilities, their families, and professionals in the disability field, this new vision, known as Singapore 21, offers a most propitious opportunity to participate as active citizens in rethinking and reshaping their individual and collective identities. A major avenue through which this can occur is by restructuring services to focus on “person-centered” approaches.

In this article we offer a situated perspective on the adaptation of the person-centered approach to a disability service in Singapore that began as an initial response to this country's new 21st century vision. We first discuss Singapore's response to globalization in terms of recent educational and social reforms and directives. The new vision is outlined and used to justify and support the person-centered approach to disability services. We also describe a confluence of other events that fortuitously occurred to strengthen our resolve and abilities to implement person-centered planning. We then describe how the Singapore 21 vision was translated into reality for a group of individuals with disabilities in a vocational setting through the adaptation of the person-centered approach.

Globalization and Singapore's Response

Globalization is the reality, not a choice, in today's technologically advanced and interdependent world. In this information age, lifelong learning and education for the broad population will be necessary to cope with rapid global and societal changes (Keating, 1996). Reflective of its proactive stance towards progressing as a nation since independence, Singapore's response to preparing for a globalized future is already well in place. In its relatively short history as a nation, Singapore has consistently been able to focus its energies and resources to gaining global recognition and prominence as an economic powerhouse and progressive city–state. At the cusp of the new millennium, the message for Singaporeans is ever so clear that in order to maintain and enhance Singapore's competitive edge on the global stage, proactive globalization is the road that must be taken.

Fundamental changes occurring in educational and social policies and directions signal a level of preparedness for the future that Singaporeans, as much as they are used to change, have seldom witnessed in their nation's history. These changes involve nation-wide reforms that serve to align educational as well as social agendas to build the “heartware” of Singapore in the 21st century in order to maintain cohesion as a nation amidst rapid globalization changes. The heartware refers to society's intangibles, such as social cohesion; political stability; and the collective will, values, and attitudes of a people (Government of Singapore, 1999). Recent public discourse on being a “gracious” society and the “Kindness Movement” also reflect Singapore's concern with developing its heartware. The careful management of this heartware is quite evident in recent educational reforms that emphasize values education, national education, an ability-driven curriculum, and the value of the “whole person.”

In August 1997, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong launched the Singapore 21 Committee to discuss and clarify what Singaporeans wanted for the future of their country. Members of this committee and its five subject committees, comprised of individuals from all walks of life, participated in discussions on key issues related to building the heartware. A new vision for affirming this approach is detailed in a book entitled “Singapore 21: Together We Make the Difference” (Government of Singapore, 1999). Five new ideals are contained in the vision: (a) every Singaporean matters; (b) strong families; (c) opportunities for all; (d) feeling passionately about Singapore; and (e) active citizenship. These ideals form the core issues that Singaporeans, individually and collectively, need to grapple with in order to achieve the Singapore 21 vision.

Singapore 21 represents a social agenda that is inclusive of all citizens. Similar to inclusion, Singapore 21 is a “one size fits all” social agenda that must be consciously customized for and by each citizen in order to be truly effective because each citizen matters. The emphasis on unity through diversity, and together making a difference, is an acknowledgement and celebration of each citizen's uniqueness and abilities.

A challenge to achieving Singapore 21 is seeing people with disabilities as people with abilities, with unique gifts who can contribute in diverse ways. The values and principles of the person-centered approach are congruent with the vision of Singapore 21 for individuals with disabilities. Shortly after this new vision was announced, the National Council of Social Service (the funding body for disability services in Singapore), held its first ever disability research conference in March 1998. One of the key points emphasized and shared by local and overseas speakers and participants was the importance of embracing a community-based approach to rehabilitation efforts for people with disabilities in Singapore. Discussions at the conference highlighted quality of life as an important issue in and context for planning and evaluating services for people with disabilities. The confluence of the nationwide Singapore 21 vision and the affirmed ideals of what should happen to disability services resulting from the conference provided the impetus for disability agencies to rethink and improve their services.

Our response to Singapore 21 for people with disabilities and the challenge from the conference to move to a community-based service model was to adapt the person-centered approach to the conversion of a workshop catering to the vocational development of adults with disabilities. Before we could start planning the process of conversion, another fortuitous event happened. A colleague of the first author from the United States who was on vacation in Singapore, Professor Diane Browder from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, generously offered to address an invited audience from many disability organizations on using person-centered planning for creative vocational planning and development for adults with disabilities. Her excellent and inspirational presentation gave us further encouragement and motivation to implement the person-centered approach. What we describe next is the process of how we adapted the person-centered approach under local conditions and constraints.

Adapting the Person-Centered Approach

Services in Singapore for people with disabilities, including those with mental retardation, are run by voluntary welfare organizations that are purportedly flexible and autonomous enough to respond quickly to changing needs and demands. The workshop where we adapted the person-centered approach was part of a voluntary welfare agency that operated traditional center-based adult day programs. Approximately 100 individuals, who had been with the workshop for 10 to 20 years, were served. They had been taught a limited number of assembly tasks (e.g., folding and inserting magazines into envelopes, pasting stickers on milk bottles), which they performed daily.

A manager and two production workers were in charge of the workshop. Minimum communication existed between the supervisors and the clients' families. Communication between the workshop personnel and families usually occurred only when significant behavioral problems arose. There were little or no efforts to place or support any of the clients in supported employment. Because client attrition occurred only when there were medical or family issues that warranted the client to leave the agency, the number of individuals attending the center as well as the number waiting to enter kept on increasing. It was due to this situation that alternative models of service provision were called into consideration for changing the operations and direction of the workshop.

The first author worked closely with the manager of the workshop (the second author) to convert the workshop services using person-centered values and principles. With management approval, we hired five additional supervisors and trained them using O'Brien and Lyle's (1987) lifestyle planning model as a framework. We recognized that we could not use the person-centered approach for every client because of limited staff resources. We applied the principles of the lifestyle planning model to guide us in our decisions on how to adapt the approach to our situation. We wanted to respect our clients' abilities and preferences, provide them with choices in what they wanted to learn, improve their competence in a variety of skills to enable them to have a better chance of obtaining a job in the open employment market, and increase their community presence and participation in society through real jobs or experiences that approximate such jobs.

The person-centered approach began with supervisors having informal chat sessions with clients to get to know their abilities and preferences. Questions posed by the supervisors to clients included what their likes and dislikes were, what they were good at, what they wanted to do in their lives, and what their dreams were. The format of these informal chat sessions consisted of each supervisor speaking with a group of 4 clients. Supervisors also made home visits to meet the clients' families in order to develop an idea of how supportive families were of clients' goals and dreams. During these meetings, family members were asked whether and how they would like to actively support the clients to realize their goals and dreams.

We adapted the person-centered approach to converting the workshop by forming two main groups. Clients could choose to be in either one. The first group catered to individuals who wanted a program (we named this the person-centered program) where they received one-to-one support in preparing for preferred jobs in the community or something that they desired to do (e.g., going to a technical institute—equivalent to a community college—to learn a new skill). Five individuals chose to be in this group. We noticed that these 5 persons shared similar characteristics. They possessed higher intellectual capacities, were determined to procure a job out in the community, were more verbal and expressive, and were certain of the types of jobs they wanted. One supervisor was placed in charge of the person-centered program.

The rest of the clients chose the second group, which consisted of six interest subgroups managed by the other six supervisors. The subgroups were based on information obtained during the client interviews and covered the broad range of interests expressed. These subgroups were created in such a way that they afforded opportunities for the clients to learn new and diverse skills: (a) production work (i.e., working on routine work activities such as assembling folders); (b) cleaning and housekeeping (e.g., janitorial duties); (c) office skills (e.g., photocopying, data entry); (d) recreational and public awareness activities in community sites (e.g., participating in the dragon boat festival, representing the agency's booth at exhibitions and fairs); (e) continuing education for those clients who would like to obtain their basic school certificates; and (f) independent living skills to improve clients' functioning and social interaction in the community. A supervisor took charge of each subgroup. All the clients who chose not to join the person-centered program chose to join one or more of the interest subgroups. In a few of these subgroups, as in the person-centered program, work experiences for further skill development were provided for clients to learn new skills in community jobs. About 30 clients could not make up their minds and chose to do what they were previously doing (i.e., production work). The clients could transfer to another subgroup or the person-centered program at any time (or vice versa). A follow-up interview later revealed that the majority of the clients chose the interest subgroups as opposed to the person-centered program because they wanted to be with their friends.

In retrospect, the challenge was how to adapt the person-centered approach appropriately for the clients involved using limited resources. Adapting the person-centered approach meant that we had to consider the transitional process and pace at which conversion occurred. The group-centered interest subgroups offered an alternative service arrangement that upheld and honored the clients' desire to be with their friends. Our observation that the vast majority of the clients expressed their preference to be in the interest subgroups rather than the person-centered program because of wanting to be with their friends appears to support a group-centered approach to planning preferred activities and lifestyles. We also observed that over time, more clients opted to join the person-centered program. As a result, we learned two important lessons from our experience of adapting the person-centered approach in converting the workshop services. First, we found that it was important to respect the clients' choices with regard to what they wanted and where and with whom they wanted to be, during the conversion process. Second, through the sheer necessity of having to adapt the person-centered approach, we discovered the value of creating multiple options that offer a respectful pace for each client to cope with the changes of conversion.

Concluding Comments

In this article, we presented a situated perspective of how the person-centered approach was adapted to a disability service in Singapore. Our efforts began as an initial response to this country's new vision for itself in the 21st century. Extending the ideals of this vision to Singaporeans with disabilities was easy; more challenging was the translation of this vision into reality. A series of events fortunately occurred that further supported and guided us in implementing the person-centered approach in Singapore.

In this article we have contextualized the transplant of a Western-based disability-related idea and practice to a foreign country in the East. Our context is an interdependent world, where globalization is an increasing fact of life. In today's society where boundaries between countries are rapidly opening up, new knowledge and ideas about improving disability services inevitably flow to many countries around the world. As different countries adopt these ideas, it appears the globalization leads to the homogenization of disability practices and services worldwide. To illustrate, an American special education professor who visited us in Singapore experienced moments of cultural Diaspora when he visited various types of our disability services and commented how similar they were to those in the United States. The homogenization of disability services around the world, however, does not assume that services and practices are adopted “hook, line, and sinker.” Because of differences between countries, the flow of ideas across cross-cultural and cross-national boundaries involves an interactive and dynamic negotiation process between the ideas and local conditions and constraints. Our description of the conversion process provides an insight into this process in Singapore.

We saw how globalization played a significant role in our conversion process. The response of Singapore to globalization in developing a vision for its citizens, the discussions between the internationally diverse audience at the disability conference, and the sharing of Western-based information and experience by Professor Browder, all acknowledge the role and benefits of a more globalized learning society. However, the effects of and responses to globalization are context-specific and need to be located within a “situated perspective” (Luke & Luke, 2000). Hence, we “situated” our presentation of how we adapted person-centered planning within the Singapore context. This is important because the adoption of cross-cultural ideas must be contextualized within larger societal issues that are (as in Singapore's situation) in themselves a response to as well as a result of global forces. The alignment of other events such as the disability conference and Professor Browder's presentation with the Singapore 21 vision to propel the implementation of a new practice highlights the context-specific nature of how the person-centered approach was initiated. Although our conversion process and experience produced a hybrid version of the person-centered approach that may be similar to that of other places where constraints exist, the broader contexts that support such a practice are unique. Understanding these contexts can help frame the development of new directions and initiatives to improve the quality of life for individuals with disabilities.

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