'They are part of our society'

We should learn how to be better employers, better employees and better customers to the mentally challenged, said Member of Parliament for Moulmein-Kallang GRC Denise Phua.

Ms Phua, who has an autistic son and is the president of the Autism Research Centre, said: "There is higher awareness in general of disabilities now, but insufficient awareness on how to treat persons with special needs with dignity and respect.

"They are not just objects of pity. They are part of our society and should be included in a dignified way."

To her, the Dignity Mama bookstores are a good option if the person with special needs cannot find another alternative.

But she cautioned against such individuals becoming overly dependent on their parents.

"Don't forget the parents will not be around one day; so it is best if it is a job model that allows other willing and able adults to also partner the child," said Ms Phua, who is also a board member at the autism-focused Pathlight School.

Three years ago, her husband, Mr Tay Kiong Hong, gave up his job as a senior vice-president of a telecommunications company to start a cafe which hires more than 20 people with special needs, she said.

Ms Phua added that while special needs children have better services nowadays, mentally challenged adults are only just starting to receive attention.