One voice says it all for the learning disabled

The full participation of the learning disabled was cause for celebration at Dignity and Services’ 20th anniversary bash.

TODAY singing!” Julie announced excitedly to her sister, Mettilda John, first thing in the morning. Julie, 46, has Down syndrome and sings loudly around the house, the whole day. It lifts up her spirit when she is down.

On Nov 26 last month, Julie was up on stage for the first time in her life, singing her heart out with other members of Options for Supported Living, at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. It was the 20th anniversary celebration of Dignity and Services (D&S), an advocacy organisation for the learning disabled.

Most of her group members have never performed in front of an audience, and yet, when they belted out You Raise Me Up, many in the audience were moved to tears. “It gave the song a whole new meaning,” commented one guest, and her sentiments were shared by others, too.

Mettilda, Executive Director of D&S, beamed with pride, particularly when Clement Ooi sang solo, What A Wonderful World. It was one of his best performances.

“They put up a brave show. We took a huge risk. We did not know for sure whether they would be able to come together and pull this off. But look at them! I’m so proud of them,” said Mettilda.

For the group from Options for Supported Living, a project under D&S, it was the highlight of the year. Half of the group have never sung in their life, but their enthusiasm was irrepressible. The idea for the group to sing on stage was mooted by Annie Kam, Clement’s mother, and a singing coach, Brian Yim, was engaged to teach them to throw their voice together to sing in unison as a group.

For three months, they practised for half an hour every week. There were parents who feared that the group might not be good enough to perform, and might embarrass themselves on the big day. But Mettilda allayed their fears.

“They will never be ready for anything in life if those around them don’t help them push boundaries,” she quipped.

“We can’t wait for perfection, and say that they are not ready yet. For when will they be ready? What you saw on stage that day was not perfection. It was people trying out new things, and rising to the challenge. It is a learning process which helps to move them to a new level of confidence.”

Indeed, John Henry Newman, a philosopher, once remarked: “A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.”

Mettilda recounted one weekend with the group, when she was in the bathroom and suddenly heard a chorus of voices.

“Cheong Choong Jian and Chin Keat Lai were leading the group. I could not make out the words but there was definitely a melody to it. I stood still to listen to them. Wow, they can sing and they were singing. They were all joining in from different parts of the house, encouraging each other along the way. They were singing with such joy, without the presence of the voice coach.”

That further affirmed Mettilda’s conviction that they were more than able to do it. With their newfound voices, they have found a new therapeutic outlet, too.

The Options singing group is also about inclusion. “Why must we leave out the weak ones? Our aim is inclusion. The strong ones support the weak ones. Everyone deserves a chance if they put in work,” said Mettilda.

It is the philosophy of D&S that when it organises an event, there must be full participation by people with learning disabilities, their families and the wider community.

From co-emceeing and performing to auctioning and selling off paintings, all were represented by people with learning disabilities.

In the audience were volunteers and staff from corporate partners such as Standard Chartered Bank, Selangor Dredging Bhd and Monash University Sunway Campus, who had over the months worked alongside the learning disabled.

“Our key goal is participation. We encourage not just those with learning disabilities, but their families and the wider community, to step in and take ownership of projects,” explained Mettilda.

Take, for example, the publication of the book, One Voice:Learning Disabilities, The Malaysian Experience, 2001-2011 which was launched at the event by Minister in the Prime Minister’sDepartment, Datuk Seri Idris Jala. Two families with learning disabled children came alongside to work with Mettilda on the book, which is based on selected articles published in this column over the past 10 years.

“The main players in the many projects that we carry out are the families with learning disabled children as they are most passionate about the cause,” shared Mettilda.

The father of Mark Gunaratnam, one of the singers, succinctly summed it up: “This year’s event was so meaningful. The guests represented the community in its true spirit”.

OneVoice is a monthly column which serves as a platform for professionals, parents and care providers of persons with learning difficulties. Feedback on the column can be sent to For enquiries of services and support groups, please call Dignity and Services (03-7725 5569).

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