Teaching adults with learning disabilities to be self-reliant

Longtime volunteer and full-time staff member Yeong Moh Foong (standing, in red) says she feels like a parent to United Voice members.

Longtime volunteer and full-time staff member Yeong Moh Foong (standing, in red) says she feels like a parent to United Voice members.

Volunteers at United Voice are not only teaching adults with learning disabilities self-reliance, but recognising them as unique individuals.

THE aroma of baking cookies wafted out the moment the door to the United Voice activity room opens. “Our members have just finished baking cookies for the day,” said United Voice lead coordinator Yeong Moh Foong as she greeted me at their office in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. I sampled their bestselling cookies and they were delicious. A volunteer smiled gleefully at my enjoyment of the cookies, and offered me more. The cookies are just some of many items made and sold by members of United Voice, apart from handmade items like paintings and greeting cards.

Do good. Volunteer.

United Voice is a self-advocacy society for people with learning disabilities (PWLD). Established in 1997, Yeong said the society aims to help PWLDs develop independent living skills and acquire knowledge about their rights. Currently, the society has 190 members under its wing, from young adults in their 20s to early 30s.

“We also have members who are about 50 years old,” said Yeong.

According to Yeong, United Voice care for members with learning disabilities like Down Syndrome, Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and cerebral palsy.

Bubbly Yeong started out as a volunteer eight years ago and now she’s a full-time staff member. The challenge for her these days is seeking employment for United Voice members.

“We started this Employment Project to help some of our members get jobs so they can start earning money. We carefully search for jobs they could do and inform their parents about them.”

Yeong said members are employed in various industries like hospitality, technology and retail. She also believes that being employed gives them an important sense of belonging.

“I always tell them, you have the right to be someone who can contribute to society. Sometimes when I take someone out for meals, I get questions like ‘Can I eat a burger for dinner?’ and I would say ‘You don’t have to ask me for permission. Go ahead and get that burger with the money you’ve earned from work’. It’s really important that I remind them they are not useless.”

Japanese volunteer Toshihiko Imagawa speaks Bahasa Malaysia to the members at United Voice and he's quite popular with the rest there.
Japanese volunteer Toshihiko Imagawa has endeared himself to United Voice members by learning Bahasa Malaysia to communicate better with them.

Social awareness

Early this year, Yeong realised that some of their members were having trouble coping at work.

“After about three months, some of them just stopped working. As their coordinators, we needed to know what was wrong and figure out ways to help them.”

In August, Yeong’s colleague, training coordinator Pang Jee Ching, started the Social Skills programme with the help of two other volunteers. The Social Skills programme is to equip United Voice members with the skills to conduct themselves in social situations. “Most of the time, PWLD are in awkward situations where they can’t express themselves properly. This results in miscommunication between them and other people.”

One of the volunteers for the programme is 32-year-old Japanese self advocacy coordinator Toshihiko Imagawa. Toshihiko speaks Bahasa Malaysia to United Voice members. He said he still needs to work on his English. Toshihiko has been with United Voice since January and was brought in as a volunteer under the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA). When he found out that he’d be spending two years in Malaysia doing social work, Toshihiko attended an intensive language course.

Toshihiko said he took some time to get used to the culture and environment here, but he has managed to settle in well. In fact, Toshihiko is a favourite among the members these days.

“I’m actually quite jealous that he took my spot as the most popular volunteer here,” Yeong said jokingly. United Voice members are enthusiastic about making new friends, and some of them even tried to speak to Toshihiko in Japanese.

Volunteer Margaret Yih making a connection with one of the members at United Voice in Petaling Jaya.
Volunteer Margaret Yih wants to do more to help United Voice members.

Another volunteer under the Social Skills programme with Pang and Toshihiko is Margaret Yih from Hong Kong.

Yih started out at the activity room doing crafts like bookmarks and cards with the members.

“I got to know the people here and it has come to a point where I really want to be able to do more for them,” said Yih, 44.

Learning from each other

“At United Voice, we don’t really call our volunteers for help because it’s a society run by people with learning disabilities for themselves. What we usually do is get volunteers to spend time with the members.

“But when we get orders from companies for 500 boxes of cookies, we get our volunteers to help and most of them are more than happy to lend a hand,” said Yeong.

When Yeong and Pang decide to initiate the Social Skills programme, they needed more help from their volunteers. From the early stage, Pang knew Yih would be the right person to call.

“Yih has a Masters in Special Needs. We knew that we could use some academic expertise in the programme,” said Pang.

She explained the Social Skills programme is run twice a week, and for two hours each session.

United Voice training coordinator Pang Jee Ching looks on as one member focus intently on his artwork.
Volunteer Pang Jee Ching started the social skills programme to help the disabled adapt to new environments.

“We basically present our members with some scenarios that could happen in an open environment. Then we hold discussions about what they expect to happen in these scenarios.”

Yeong explained that because the programme is still new, most of what they learn in the sessions are theory-based. There is a coffee shop next to the United Voice office and Yeong said it would be a good idea for them to “practise” there. A quick brainstorming session took place during our interview.

“Don’t you think it’s a good idea for them to try out what they learn in these session at the coffee shop?” Yeong said to Pang. Eventually, they hope to provide more practical learning experiences for their members.

Conversation starters

The United Voice society believes newcomers should always come in and make it a point to connect with its members. Regardless of their experience or academic expertise, anyone is welcome to volunteer. Yih said her approach was simply “to be friendly and initiate conversation”.

“There are times when you have to be aware the members might not be in the mood to talk. So, you got to get the signal and politely move on to another person,” said Yih.

She and the rest acknowledged that there is one good topic to get the ball rolling.

“It is food, especially on food they like to eat,” Yih said.

Then Yeong added: “It’s obviously a Malaysian thing.”

Family is also good conversation starter.

“You can also start with questions like ‘How many are there in your family?’ or ‘What are some things you like to do with your family?’ Start with that and then we can move along to exchange other interests.”

Yeong hopes more people learn about and get to know PWLD.

“There is a horrible misconception that PWLD are not approachable because they are prone to violent outbursts.”

Yih said she’s glad there is a place like the United Voice for those with learning disabilities.

“I can see that they are happy just to have somebody to talk to them.”

Toshihiko said he wins them over with just one simple gesture.

Senyum,” he said, flashing his winning smile.

* United Voice is looking for volunteers to help them run a Christmas stall at Subang Parade Shopping Centre in Subang Jaya, Selangor. Volunteers are only required to spend four hours a day from Dec 6 to 29. For more information on how you can volunteer with United Voice, go to www.unitedvoice.com.my or e-mail unitedvoiceinfo@gmail.com.