After the late Reverend Peter Young visited a home for the mentally challenged in the outskirts of Bangkok, he returned a changed man. Enlightened by the ordeal of what he termed “prisoners in their own homes”, he was curious about the situation here in Malaysia and wanted to make a difference. Not long after, in July 1991, Young founded advocacy movement Dignity & Services with his friends Datuk Dr S C E Abraham and Dr Denison Jayasooria, who was also a social activist. Its aim was to act and speak on behalf of and alongside people with learning disabilities, especially in situations where their voices go unheard.
The organisation focuses on working with young adults as “Young noticed that those who had completed their formal or informal schooling faced difficulty in assimilating into the mainstream community”, Dignity & Services executive director Helen Teh explains. She goes on to tell us that many of these young adults who are supported by caretakers face the inevitable question of what happens to them when the latter are no longer around.
Recognising the issue very early on, the organisation came up with its own supported-living module with the help of its former executive director Matilda John, who had vast experience in the study of learning disabilities. Known as Options for Supported Living, the goal of the transitional programme is to teach participants basic skills in order to lead a more independent life. For a small fee, they will be exposed to various day-to-day activities, beginning with a day-care session and graduating to a full weekend programme. The objective is two-pronged as it is aimed at “encouraging parents/guardians/caretakers to ‘let go’ as well”.
I sat down with Teh for an interview at the organisation’s Options house in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, where the young adults were busy preparing their lunch for the afternoon under the watchful eyes of the volunteers who monitor tasks such as the handling of knives and the stove in the kitchen. I learnt that the programme also involves grocery shopping at a nearby supermarket and meal planning. While the length of the programme varies from individual to individual, the maximum duration is three years. I did, however, meet someone — 58-year-old Keat Lai — who continues to visit the centre even after eight years to enjoy the interaction it offers.
Upon successfully completing the supported-living programme, the young adults may choose to progress to employment with one of the organisation’s two businesses — Bake with Dignity or One-Two Juice. The former is a bakery that currently employs 12 full-time special-needs people while the latter, a juice bar supported by Selangor Dredging Bhd, employs seven.
Teh is happy to report that all employees are paid salaries in accordance with Malaysian employment legislation and at an hourly rate that is higher than the minimum wage requirement. “Unlike conventional employment options, Dignity & Services also provides guidance on everyday matters, such as taking public transport to the workplace,” Teh tells us, illustrating the nature of these workplaces.
At the present time, Options house has reached its maximum capacity and the organisation has had to turn applicants away, albeit with a heavy heart. “The next step for us is to replicate the supported-living and employment programmes,” Teh says earnestly. This is still in the planning stage because of manpower limitations but she is up to the challenge. “I am working on a training module that consists of a number of skill sets, namely basic life skills, personal safety, baking, job coaching and business structure. With this knowledge, the organisation will be better equipped to replicate the existing programmes and reach out to more young adults.”
Though the supported-living and employment programmes keep the staff, volunteers and young adults busy, advocacy and public awareness efforts remain at the core of the organisation’s work, including meeting the parents of those with learning disabilities and the community to promote better understanding and acceptance. Ultimately, this leads to realising its mission of helping create a society where people with learning disabilities enjoy dignity and respect, equal rights and opportunities to lead an independent and meaningful life within the community.
How you can play a part:
Pick up a smoothie at One-Two Juice
If you work near Wisma Selangor Dredging in Jalan Ampang, you may be pleased to know that the juice bar is open for business at the courtyard area of the building (near the east block entrance). Delivery to nearby areas is also possible.
Purchase baked goods at Bake with Dignity
Place an order for delicious cookies, brownies, bread and cakes at the bakery’s online shop on the Dignity & Services website.
Volunteer your time
Lend a hand in making a difference at the office or in one of its various activities.
Make a donation
Funding is crucial for the organisation to continue its good work. Donations from individuals and corporations can be made via the Dignity & Services website.
This article first appeared on Mar 26, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.