“What would an organisation with inclusive work practices look like?”
For centuries, workplaces – like clothing – have been designed for able-bodied people. Because of long-standing physical and social barriers, organisations often fail to make adequate accommodations for people with special needs, limiting their employment.
This got me thinking about the opening question, which formed the basis of my dissertation research for the Master of Studies (MSt) in Social Innovation programme I completed last year (read more about my experience here). I decided to conduct a case study on Mustard Tree, a local enterprise which empowers artisans with special needs to hone their craft and earn a sustainable living. Through my time with them, I learnt what it means to build a workplace with love.
Hearts of Parents
One reason why I chose to work with Mustard Tree is because its founders are parents of a person with special needs. They wanted to give their child who has autism a suitable space to grow and do something purposeful, as well as to extend that impact to other persons with special needs. This means that from the very start, the founders had approached their systems and processes with the hearts of parents.
Mother, Seok Ying (left) and son, Ryan (right). Photo taken from HoneyKids.
Coming from a mother and father’s love for their child, it’s safe to assume that they are doing their best for the people Mustard Tree serves. I wanted to see what such an organisation would look like, and found one created by people so filled with a deep genuine love for people with special needs!
What Makes an Inclusive Workplace
Entering Mustard Tree, it quickly became apparent that the team had taken great care in creating a setting that allowed anyone to thrive in. For instance, to accommodate the mobility needs of Madam Tay, her workspace was set up with wheelchair access and an extension tool which enabled her easy access to craft tools. Beyond the physical environment, Mustard Tree also has a culture of peer support. The craftsmen help one another and celebrate others’ successes, cultivating a safe space to grow and bond.
Going deeper, Mustard Tree’s work processes proved important as well. Though the team often mentioned that their processes were developed through “trial and error”, their approach was still grounded in their mission to empower their craftsmen. One example is where the team uses a mini iron and mini hair dryer – though it may take a longer time to complete a task, it is a safer tool for the craftsmen to use. Soek Ying, the co-founder, shared that teaching the craftsmen to use such tools properly also helps them gain important life skills for independence.
Yee Ling (left) and Madalene (right) working on some crafts around a table.
Berry (left) showing Aaron (right) the ropes of leather crafting.
Of course, the fuel that makes the setting and processes work is the dedication that the founders and trainers have toward their craftsmen with special needs. They strongly value the overall well-being of the craftsmen they affectionately refer to as “kids”, even starting a reading programme to continuously develop their basic literacy and peer relationships. Hardware truly goes hand in hand with heartware!
The short time I spent with Mustard Tree is still close to my heart for the friendships and insights I gained. One thing that struck me was how small interactions could reveal so much.
Once, I was having a lunch break with four other craftsmen when I asked if they had any plans with friends for the weekend. Two of them simply replied that no, they had no friends. Another time, I met a craftsman to do an interview over lunch. To my surprise, she remarked that it was her first time meeting a peer outside [in a social setting].
(from left) Elisa, Madalene, and Janessa having brunch together at a cafe.
(from left) A group selfie of Elisa, Madalene, and Yee Ling having a meal together.
(from left) Madalene, Elisa, and Yee Ling having fun with an AI filter of a knitted blue frog on their heads.
Moments like these allow glimpses into the complex web of societal needs. Sometimes, it’s the small things like relationships and friendships which impact social isolation, behavioural issues, and independence. Can we show more care in our daily interactions?
Putting into Practice
This research experience has really broadened my mind about the possibilities of creating systems that work by understanding the behaviours, motivations, and strengths of individuals (with or without special needs). Like clothing, workplaces can and should be designed with the forethought of the marginalised, ultimately benefiting everyone.
Although we currently do not employ any people with special needs at Will & Well, we are always looking out for opportunities to meaningfully engage with them to meet their varied needs beyond fashion and employment. For now, we will continue to design our work environment with love to ensure our doors remain open and welcome to all!