Wednesday November 3, 2010
Stepping out Focus on young adults with special needs
THE first time I met Matthew Loh was at an LRT station in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, at 7.45am, while he was on his way to work.
As a young man with Asperger syndrome, a learning disability under the group of conditions known as autism spectrum disorder, it wasn’t easy for him to have me around.
Though he speaks almost perfect English, Matthew’s condition means that he finds it unsettling to make adjustments to his routines, and has difficulties with social interaction. His mother had to ask him a few days before if it was okay for me to meet him.
“My main struggle is to adapt to changes. Like if there’s a change in the bus routes, or in my working hours, I find it hard to adapt. I have to be informed ahead of time,” said Matthew, 25, in an awkward yet clinical tone while we were waiting for the train.
He had agreed to talk to me for the length of the journey to his workplace, and he spoke very matter-of-factly about “overcoming the challenges” he has, in areas people often take for granted.
While most people his age are planning for their careers and the rest of their lives, Matthew worries about keeping a regular job, learning to be independent from his family, making friends, and finding a partner he can spend the rest of his life with.
“I had a bit of trouble learning to make friends, but I managed to overcome all that by learning to say ‘hi’, to introduce myself, say what my name is, how old I am – basic introductory skills,” he said.
With the help of Malaysian Care, a Christian non-profit organisation that runs a programme preparing special needs young adults for employment, Matthew and many others like him have been able to find “sheltered employment”, where employers are pre-selected and trained to handle special needs individuals.
Matthew, for example, does data entry. He gets paid RM65 a day, five days a week, and is on a six-month rolling contract that’s renewable based on his work performance.
Malaysian Care teaches its members things like punctuality, manners, responsibility and initiative over the course of a few years, depending on their learning capacity. They have been largely successful in preparing special needs individuals for the working world.
Just like Matthew, Wong Khai Lun, 24, has a job now thanks to the Malaysian Care programme. He is one of over a hundred special needs individuals working in Giant hypermarkets around the country. His supervisor, Stephen Gurusamy, is happy to have him working at their branch in The Mines Shopping Mall in Seri Kembangan, Selangor.
“He’s better than our other employees in so many ways. He has a good attitude, he works hard and he is honest. The others might find ways to skive off sometimes, but not Khai Lun. He always does his job,” said Gurusamy.
Khai Lun is very shy. When asked whether he enjoys his job, and if he has friends at work, he just smiles and nods shyly.
Malaysian Care’s special needs programme coordinator Pang Jee Ching works with individuals like Matthew and Khai Lun every day, and says that even though they can be prepared for the workplace, they still have difficulties making friends.
“Their main struggle is to be accepted, and that stems mainly from their experiences in school. Their self-esteem would be low when they first join us, and we have to build it back up.
“They struggle with friendships. They tell me that a lot. But once they find friends, they are very faithful. They appreciate it more,” she said.
Muhammad Razzaq Razali, 20, for example, couldn’t find any friends his age when he was a teenager, and his mother says he ended up having to “pay for friendship”.
“He’s not on the same wavelength with people his age, so he ends up making friends with younger kids, and sometimes it feels like he has to pay for their drinks, or their movie tickets for them to be friends with him,” said Razzaq’s mother, Kiswah Mohammad.
That aside, Razzaq is still an excitable 20-year-old man who has left quite an impression on his employers and colleagues at an ice-skating rink in Petaling Jaya.
Pyramid Ice assistant manager Bryan Law says that he has only received two complaints about Razzaq so far, and they were both over simple misunderstandings.
“He’s very shy, and sometimes, people misinterpret that as him being rude, because he doesn’t dare to look at people in the eye when he talks sometimes. But people like him are gifted – they have no attitude.
“He helps everyone, like putting on their skates for them, even though it’s not his job. In my experience, a lot of the guys here only help girls,” said Bryan with a grin.
Razzaq’s immediate supervisor, Murugam Aranasalam, 23, has been deeply moved by his experience of working with the football and Selangor FC fan.
“Even though he has a small problem, he’s like my younger brother, my best friend. Nowadays, when he’s not around, we feel like something is missing. We feel happier when he’s around, because we can call him and talk to him. He really is special, and I feel very encouraged looking at his life,” said Murugam, with his arm around a beaming Razzaq, who calls him “abang”.
Sunway Group public affairs assistant general manager Bernard Paul Netto explained that their job placement programme was created in 2005 to complement their special needs education programme at SMK Bandar Sunway, Selangor.
“We realised that after most of them finished school, they just go back home and have nothing to do. Since we have a hotel, mall and Sunway Lagoon, we thought ‘why not give them job placements there?’
“So far, we’ve given out 58 certificates to (special needs individuals) who have completed their job training,” said Bernard.
He added that the first five years of the programme was dedicated to preparing participants for life in a real working environment. They are now moving into the next phase which is to absorb some of them into the company’s operations – starting with Razzaq.
“He’s been an inspiration,” said Bernard of Razzaq. “If you asked me now, I would employ him and the special needs students over ‘normal’ people. They don’t have any attitude, and they don’t complain. That’s something I’ve learned from them. I don’t complain anymore. I feel lucky to have what I have.”
Special needs individuals have different forms and levels of disability, but according to executive director of advocacy group Dignity & Services (D&S), Mettilda John, their needs and struggles become quite similar as they approach young adulthood.
D&S runs a home for “supported living”, where young adults aged 17 and above with learning disabilities are taught how to live independently from their families.
Participants of the programme live together in a double-storey house in KL over the weekend, learning how to do things like making their beds, taking public transport and cooking.
“We have a session where we let them talk about their feelings, and they often tell me about their dreams, about getting married, having children, where they’d like to work.
“People always assume that they don’t look for excitement, but that’s not true. They want to go out. Just like you and I, they want to live their lives and be independent from their parents,” said Mettilda.
Students from Monash University and Standard Chartered employees often visit the home during the weekends to spend time with the young adults. The week I visited, a group of students were taking some of them out for a movie.
“We learn a lot from living – going out with friends, talking to other people, and so on; but they need help with that. Too often we put them through therapy, but they need to learn how to live, how to clean, how to interact; things that we take for granted. “They don’t always realise when they are behaving inappropriately. So, it’s important for them to learn to socialise, and be around people apart from their family,” explained Mettilda.
Khai Lun’s mother Patricia, however, says that trying to balance her son’s need for friendship and the struggle to learn how to be independent isn’t easy.
"My dilemma is that I want him to work, but I also want him to go out and have a social life, to make friends.
"We can give him everything at home, but he’s only human. He still wants to go out, to have friends. Other kids his age are having girlfriends, but he’s still getting used to working. And how long can we be there for him?” said Patricia.
Matthew’s mother, Loh Chee Ling, added: “In this country, we know we won’t get hand-outs. The Government support systems here for people like Matthew are 20 to 30 years behind. We’ve had to find our own solutions.”
After realising “something was wrong” when Khai Lun was five, Patricia took it upon herself to give her son the care and education he needed.
“I attended a three-year course on teaching special needs children just to take care of him. I remember bringing him to a doctor in Singapore, and they told me he had the intelligence of a seven-year-old child, but he was already 19. Can you imagine how sad I was?” she said.
Clarissa Chang, director of Malaysian Care’s special needs services, said: “In Malaysia, a big concern among parents for their special needs children is relationships, marriage and whether their children can handle a family. But we don’t have any support systems for that.
“In other countries like Australia, each (special needs) couple has a social worker to help them understand what marriage is all about from before and after their wedding.”
Realising the need among special needs individuals to socialise and eventually enter long-term relationships, Malaysian Care has set-up a “Friendship Club”, of which Khai Lun is a committee member.
“The kids started it themselves, we just oversee it,” said Clarissa. “They have activities once a month, but we need young people to join and help them, so they feel comfortable around people their own age.”
Said Patricia: “If not, they will always be around aunties like us! They don’t feel comfortable when we’re around.”
When speaking about the Friendship Club, Khai Lun asked me, after some encouraging from his mother, if I knew any DJs who would be willing to help out for their upcoming “Dinner And Dance” event on Nov 19.
“We want someone who can create a fun atmosphere, so we can dance,” he revealed.
He admitted to being excited about the event, and said in Cantonese: “Yeah. I’ll get to see my old friends (from Malaysian Care). We don’t get to see each other very often.”
For more information on services available for people with learning disabilities, visit malaysiancare.org and dignityandservices.blogspot.com.
To know more about the Sunway job placement programme, contact Bernard Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.