Disability, the neglected piece of the DEI puzzle


Lee (second row, far right) says that with acceptance, only then negative attitudes and behaviours as well as racism towards PWD can be eliminated.

NIGHTMARES hit differently when one is a parent or guardian to a person with disabilities.

More often than not, the greatest nightmare they harbour is leaving behind their child with the uncertainty of what the future holds and inability to care for themselves.

However, one might find a little comfort knowing that nobody, no matter how healthy, has a totally clear picture of the future.

While it usually is important to look and plan ahead, it is more important to focus on what can be done at present—which is to create a community with a sense of humanity by being inclusive, says Tender Hearts Cafe founder Sharon Lee.

Lee, a breast cancer survivor and single mother to a special needs child, shares that practising diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is an important component in creating a wholesome community—one that knows to appreciate the existence of differently abled individuals.

“When DEI is practised, it generates acceptance of the persons with disabilities (PWD) community. With acceptance, only then negative attitudes and behaviours as well as racism can be eliminated,” says Lee who set up Tender Hearts Cafe to give PWD a platform to build their skills and work.

Nestled in a cosy corner at KL Gateway Mall, the cafe was Lee’s brainchild when she became increasingly worried about the foreseaable challenges her special needs daughter would face when she seeks meaningful employment upon graduating from school.

Sharing Lee’s sentiments, Stand Pie Me founder Sarjit Singh—a father of a child with disabilities— notes that DEI does not only focus on gender (which people often emphasise) but also seek to promote fair treatment and full participation of all types of people, especially those who are underrepresented or subject to discrimination on the basis of identity or disability.

Both Lee and Sarjit opine that just because one has special needs or is a PWD, it does not mean they can’t be positive contributors to society.

“They are absolutely ready, willing and absolutely capable to work. Due to the lack of knowledge and understanding about the community and their capabilities, they are often seen as being not able to contribute to the society,” says Lee.

“All they need is for someone to give them a chance,” says Sarjit, who set up Stand Pie Me, a bakery at Taman Kinrara in Puchong that specialises in an assortment of handcrafted pies made by a crew of special needs individuals.

Besides Tender Hearts Cafe and Stand Pie Me, there are also a host of other organisations such as Bake With Dignity, Kiwanis Down Syndrome Foundation, and many more that advocate for the special needs and the PWD community.

Stand Pie Me, a bakery at Taman Kinrara in Puchong is a social enterprise that specialises in an assortment of handcrafted pies made by a crew of special needs individuals.Stand Pie Me, a bakery at Taman Kinrara in Puchong is a social enterprise that specialises in an assortment of handcrafted pies made by a crew of special needs individuals.

Enhancing inclusivity

The United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines those it advocates for as people “who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

However, reports have emerged that only a small percentage of organisations consider disability in their DEI initiatives, despite the majority of companies claiming to prioritise diversity.

While sharing that she has come across cases where high-functioning special needs individuals were rejected from being included in the workforce due to their “condition”, Lee points out that a majority from the special needs and PWD community are discriminated against and denied the opportunity to earn an honest living.

“Limited numbers of organisations and businesses are committed towards the initiative of DEI (in terms of including the special needs community),” she adds.

Lee’s sentiment rings true as DEI’s focus is often on gender, which is easier for organisations to tackle. In a survey conducted by Vase.ai and Women’s Aid Organisation in 2020, women with a permanent disability were told by their interviewer or recruiter that they should consider freelancing instead as their disability was seen an issue.

To address these matters, Lee suggests for the government to offer higher tax incentives and rewards, based on criteria, to organisations that implement DEI for special needs and PWD employees. It should also keep proper track of efforts that are conducted, as well as resource allocations for the community.

“There are increasing initiatives by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and some corporates on this, but there is definitely not enough being done as one can hardly see individuals from the special needs and ‘differently-abled’ in the workforce or at community events.”

Sarjit (far left) says PWD should be given a chance to be independent as they take pride in their tasks and will be proud when they do something right.Sarjit (far left) says PWD should be given a chance to be independent as they take pride in their tasks and will be proud when they do something right.

More than appearances

Noting that these individuals are actively looking for work, Lee shares that Tender Hearts Cafe gets at least a couple of inquiries about job applications. But despite being overstaffed (15 people), she does not have the heart to turn them away and is looking to expand the social enterprise to accommodate more.

Meanwhile, Sarjit advises that companies that want to play a part in helping the community need to understand their behaviour to ensure “good placement” within the organisation.

“They work very differently from others. It can be overwhelming for some of them when working at the front-of-house, but it depends. But they are usually adept at preparation and work that involves a clockwork-like process and schedule.

“One can identify based on communication and behaviour. Till today, people tend to think that if a person looks normal, they are not ‘differently-abled’.

“Everything is about looks, but it’s actually neurological. It doesn’t mean that the individual (besides those with Down syndrome) has to look different to be from the community.”

He adds that special needs and PWD are more suited for companies that are non-profit oriented so that there is room for trial and error.

“The general public should have more empathy, but never pity them. “Respect them as human beings, treat them as you would any other person.

“Don’t treat them like they are immobile and don’t pamper them - let them have a chance to do things on their own as they take pride in their tasks and will be proud when they do something right.”

Pointing out that leaders play a large role in elevating awareness about the community, Sarjt says: “There was a surge of awareness and initiatives targeted at PWD and special needs community when Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and Hannah Yeoh headed the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, advocating for the community.

“They were often seen on the ground with the community and gave them a voice.”

Overall, discrimination against PWD remains prevalent in the workplace and the public in general. Issues pertaining to the matter can’t be resolved if the public doesn’t take conscious, collective actions to address these prejudices.

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