The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a 10-member state international body that is home to an estimated 625 million people. 17,102,139 people or 2.7% of the ASEAN population are reported to suffer from a disability. And this is a conservative figure. As well as the East Asian culture of keeping disability care-giving within the family, there is also no established standard for measuring the prevalence of disability in the population. Data gathered from both developed and developing countries indicate that an estimate of 10% to 12% is not unrealistic. This matches the figure of 10% that is often cited by the United Nations. In truth, the figure in ASEAN is likely to be much larger than the reported 17 million people.

The 12.65% employment rate in Singapore’s disabled population is not unique in the region. A recent study showed that People With Disabilities (PWD) in sheltered employment can earn as little as $130 per month and are likely working well below their capabilities. Those who are fortunate enough to be in mainstream employment also often accept remuneration that is lower than market value, as there are no other options. This is compared to a median salary in Singapore of $2,800 per month in the same period.

The estimated 17 million PWD in ASEAN tend to be unseen, unheard, uncounted and unrepresented. They face discrimination and barriers in many spheres and stages of life. In day-to-day life, PWD are often excluded from access to the physical environment, information and social networks. They also face barriers to equal and appropriate education and opportunities to fair employment. Most if not all are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. Being disabled is an expensive way of life that one does not choose. Besides the added medical cost of living with a disability, PWDs also have to foot the cost of adapting mainstream products and transport to mitigate their disability. This is exacerbated by either disproportionately low income or no employment at all.

Traditionally East-Asians consider disability as shameful and something to hide. Disability represents misfortune for an individual and their family. It is considered one’s or one’s family’s failure. Whilst this archaic view is no longer prominent, the stigma remains. The culture within the region still considers family as the central and primary unit and emphasizes loyalty within the family. As such, family is often the first and only line of support for PWD. In addition, many of the religions in the region promote the value of charity and kindness, which results in sympathy towards the less fortunate. This societal environment raises PWD to be dependent on family and leaves them feeling like they do not have the skills and capabilities to thrive. A lack of relevant opportunities further reduces the impetus to step out of that self-limiting cycle and strive towards self-sufficiency.

In recent years, all 10 ASEAN countries have adopted and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Governments have been turning their attention to including PWD in policies. However, legislative help in leveling the playing field is limited in scope and depth. More importantly, it lacks the buy-in of PWD, their families and the general public as the attitude towards disability is very much focused on the “dis” in their abilities.

ASEAN is still developing socio-economically and now is the best time to lay the right foundation for sustainable change. While supportive legislations and policies are vital, it is just as important – if no more – to shift the mindset of society from sympathy to empathy and empowerment.

For this to happen, PWD need to take responsibility to acquire the skills needed to be accountable for their success in life. When society gives PWD the opportunity to participate fully and equally in all spheres and stages of life, PWD can be contributing members of family, community and society. This will foster a new societal culture where PWD are no longer treated as lesser members of society who require charity, but can instead be respected as equals.

If $10 per month was allocated as handout or as social support for each PWD, it would amount to a burden of $2.04 billion to ASEAN collectively. Wouldn’t it be better to put this money towards appropriate education, skill upgrading and creating opportunities for PWD, allowing them to achieve independence and thrive in life? PWD can only succeed when society wills it so and are ready to provide the opportunities.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific estimates that if PWD were paid the same as their able bodied peers, the GDP of these countries could increase by 1% to 7%. If we take even the most conservative estimate, that would be an increase in GDP-PPP of approximately $80 billion for ASEAN.

Disability is neither alien nor distant in ASEAN. It affects 17 million South-East Asians and their families. Why should we allow disability to continue to be seen as a liability to society?

ASEAN’s economic growth has outpaced that of many other regional and global economies. When ASEAN can truly include even a fraction of the 17 million PWD in the labour force, we can look forward to the reaping the rewards of this inclusiveness. It could be the ingredient that brings ASEAN to its next economic peak.

Let the ASEAN motto of “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” lead the way forward in reversing the economy of disability.