The private sector can make a substantial contribution to support people with disabilities in Singapore, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Speaking at Pathlight School's 10th anniversary celebrations, he cited companies such as Starbucks and Mr Bean, which have provided training and work attachments to special-needs students over the years.

Pathlight is the first school here for children with autism to offer a mainstream academic curriculum leading to the Primary School Leaving Examination and the N and O-Levels.

Soya bean food and beverage retail chain Mr Bean, which has more than 50 outlets here, opened a kiosk in Pathlight's Ang Mo Kio campus in 2009; a year later, the chain set up another kiosk in the Bukit Batok campus of Eden School, which is also for autistic children.

At the kiosk in Pathlight, students and staff are taught how to sell the soya milk drinks and to make the chain's signature stuffed pancakes.

Mr Bean's founder Kang Puay Seng, incidentally, is also the chairman of the board at Pathlight School, a position he took up two years ago.

He expressed hope that more local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can do their bit to help those with disabilities.

"One way or another, I would encourage SMEs to give their support - not just financially, but in other ways too, such as by giving jobs to those with special needs and teaching them useful skills," he told The Business Times yesterday.

"Ultimately, we want them to be independent, make a living for themselves and contribute meaningfully to society."

Mr Lee also lauded organisations such as Ngee Ann Kongsi, the Lee Foundation, the Milk (Mainly I Love Kids) Fund and the Wee Foundation, all of which have made donations to Pathlight.

The prime minister stressed that the role of supporting people with disabilities should not be seen as the government's responsibility alone.

"Families play a critical role, providing emotional and financial support, partnering the government and VWOs (voluntary welfare organisations) to maximise their children's potential," he said.

"The public must do its part too, and embrace persons with disabilities as one of our own, maintaining a culture of egalitarianism and inclusiveness."

Mr Lee said that the government, on its part, will do more for special-education students; each special-education school will be twinned with a mainstream school to promote interactions between the students.

The government is also looking into expanding vocational education and making it easier for special-education students to make the transition from school into the workforce.

About a quarter of the 5,000 students in special-education schools graduate with a recognised vocational certification and find regular jobs in the open market.

Overall, Singapore spends more per capita for special-education schools than for mainstream ones, said Mr Lee. Special-education students also receive financial support from the state, similar to their mainstream counterparts.