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‘Why take this kind of person out?’ Amid social stigma of autism, more retailers go for inclusivity

SINGAPORE: With their school graduation a week away, twins Amirizdzakir and Amirizdzakwan were choosing outfits for the ceremony.

As the teenagers stepped out of the fitting rooms in dress shirts they had picked, their father, Izwar Mohamed, broke into a smile.

“It’s really a milestone,” he said, referring not to their graduation but the event unfolding before his eyes. At age 18, his sons were trying on clothes in a shop for the first time.

The boys, who go by the names Dzakir and Dzakwan, have global developmental delay as well as traits associated with autism spectrum disorder.

Going out can be a stressful event for them and their family; the boys find crowded areas, with the cacophony of voices and music from stores, along with the bright lights and all sorts of smells, overstimulating.

On bad days, they could have a meltdown and crumple to the floor the moment they reach their destination, said their mother, Norhayati Johari.

But this time, the family got to visit Uniqlo’s 51 @ Ang Mo Kio outlet an hour before opening time for a private shopping session — at no extra charge — as part of a new initiative the fashion retailer launched last year. The lights were dimmed and the music turned off at the family’s request.

In recent times, more initiatives like this have come about to help make shopping a pleasanter experience for families with special needs.

Izwar, 56, was also pleasantly surprised to discover the twins had their own fashion sense: Between plaid and plain, Dzakwan pointed to the latter.

Usually, Norhayati buys clothes for them. Here, “at least they get to make their own choice”, said the 52-year-old.

The boys themselves, who are non-verbal, appeared to enjoy their time out. “You don’t really see it in the facial features but from their movements, their body language. They’re very proud (of themselves),” said Izwar.

While it would be helpful if more Uniqlo outlets were to offer this private shopping service, said Izwar, his family are happy to drive from their home in Pasir Ris to Ang Mo Kio.

After all, they have even gone to a specific — and very patient — hairdresser in Johor Bahru for the boys to receive haircuts.

“When we actually go to some stores, it’s a touch-and-go kind of thing,” said Norhayati. “We don’t really have very high expectations because we come from literally zero (experience), so this is so good for us.

“At least I know that I have a place (where) I don’t have to worry (about whether the twins are) like this or like that. Don’t have to prepare so much; just come.”

PRACTICAL CONCERNS REMAIN

The usual time allocated for Uniqlo’s private sessions is on Thursdays before the store opens at 11 a.m. Similarly, Frasers Property’s calm hour is on Monday and Tuesday mornings.

But mother-of-three Christine, who asked to go by her first name, questioned whether these weekday timings were feasible for working parents like herself. Her second child, 4, has special needs.

Uniqlo, meanwhile, has engaged SPD, a charity that supports people with physical, sensory and learning disabilities, to train their staff in disability awareness. To date, close to 80 staff have gone through the training session.

The Autism Resource Centre (ARC) said it has seen an increase in requests for autism awareness training from various organisations over the years, said principal autism consultant Alina Chua. These organisations include major attractions, community organisations and transport providers.

LOOKING BEYOND THE BOTTOM LINE?

Commendable as these efforts are, said Dino Trakakis, the founder of early intervention therapy provider Autism Recovery Network, he is worried that they will not take off.

“It’ll take just a couple of instances where things go wrong for them to stop,” said Trakakis. If a child throwing a tantrum happens to chase other customers away, businesses would be losing potential sales, he cited.

“Whether you have ‘quiet hour’ or ‘noisy hour’, the rent is still the same. … How much can they afford to lose?” he wondered.

Yamada said cost is “of course important for us to survive as a business here” but is “not much of a consideration” for the Uniqlo initiative as it is part of the company’s ‘Made for All’ brand concept and mission.

By thinking about the company’s values “rather than from a profit point of view”, Uniqlo can develop more initiatives that have the community in mind, said Uniqlo Singapore senior sustainability director Hwee Lee. “The profit is for us to give back to the community, right?”

On disruptions, she said: “It’s about bringing our customers on board this journey.

“An ultimate goal we have is that in our stores, our customers will be able to also embrace people with disabilities shopping alongside them. If they see someone needing help and being served by our staff, they could have a little bit of patience.”

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Given its prior experience with customers with autism, EC House said they “aren’t as challenging to work with as one might assume”.

“The key is to communicate with their caregivers and inquire about how we can make the haircut process more comfortable for them,” said its spokesperson. “It often takes us more time to provide care, but our team is patient and compassionate.”

As for Frasers Property Singapore and why it has invested in its Inclusion Champions programme, CEO Soon Su Lin said shopping centres “are where people from all walks of lives meet and share experiences”.

“It’s therefore imperative for us to embrace and enhance inclusivity. … We believe that we can make a difference by facilitating a more supportive and caring environment at our malls.”

Besides people with autism, the company aims to also support people with dementia. Some shops as well as all customer service counters — totalling 29 points throughout 10 shopping centres — will serve as go-to points for the latter group.

REGULATION OR VOLUNTARY INITIATIVES?

Another concern Trakakis raised is that the provision of these services is patchy in Singapore.

“We need to understand (inclusiveness) as a society, not just … as one or two companies,” he said. “Then anywhere customers go, it’d be the same (treatment).”

CNA Insider checked with two other real estate groups, covering more than 20 shopping centres across the heartlands and the city, and neither have similar initiatives.

Trakakis suggested regulation, whereby there should be mandatory disability awareness training for companies, especially in the service industry. However, Ivan Tan from the SPD believes voluntary initiatives “work better” to create a more inclusive society.

“To influence retailers that can make that change and are willing to make that change — that’s even more impactful, even more powerful than forcing them by law,” said Tan, who is from the SPD’s assistive technology centre and leads a team providing training for corporates.

“(Companies should) do things because (they) want to make the space accessible. … When that happens, the change is real and is deep.”

For Christine, however, the prospect of going out fills her with “dread”.

Her 4-year-old has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic condition characterised by feeding problems, heart disease and developmental delay. She is sensitive to sudden loud noises — though the exact trigger can be random — and is non-verbal, said Christine.

The constant threat of a meltdown and the attention they get when it happens can be “very stressful”.

And the guilt keeps gnawing at Christine. The last time she and her husband took their three children — the oldest is 7 years old, the youngest is 1 year old — out for a leisure activity together was to the S.E.A. Aquarium last year.

These days, apart from having quick family meals, she sometimes takes her eldest child out separately.

Notwithstanding her reservation about the current timings, she hopes more stores could “openly announce” that they are more accepting of people with special needs.

“If … my child has a meltdown, I (wouldn’t) need to rush off. And I (wouldn’t) need to force her to just stop crying,” she said.

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