Alyson Thor and Eileen Soon are intrigued by their special needs students, and find teaching them interesting and rewarding.
But they also realise that most people do not even see people with disabilities, let alone accept them or recognise their potential.
Thor and Soon worked together at the Prospect Rainbow centre for children with special needs in Penang a few years ago, and they have now embarked on a shared mission of inclusion.
“We want to change Penang community’s perception of the disabled. In the United States, we see the disabled out and about. But in Malaysia, we don’t see them in the community. They are invisible,” says Thor, 31, a psychology graduate who had gradually moved her special needs class into a more inclusive setting.
Soon, 33, did her bachelor’s degree in Special Education, and taught in Penang for seven years. Her interest in Special Education led her to pursue her master’s degree in the US.
When she completed her Masters in 2016, she and Thor set up Lemme Learn, a social enterprise to help young adults with learning disability integrate into society.
Early intervention and special needs school programmes have become increasingly available, and many with autism and other learning disabilities have gained functional skills.
But they have nowhere to go after secondary school as they can’t continue with tertiary education or hold a job.
“The parents of our former students tell us that their children have nothing to do after they left school. Most stay at home and are restless,” relates Soon, who had studied under long-time inclusion researcher, Dr Pam Hunt, in the US.
But even before they started Lemme Learn, Thor and Soon had worked together to promote inclusion when they were teaching at Prospect Rainbow Centre a few years ago.
In 2013, Thor and Soon had initiated the Wonderful Wednesday sandwich sale at Gleneagles Hospital in George Town. They had trained their special needs children to do everything from preparing the sandwiches to handling sales.
With Lemme Learn, they are aiming higher. They are equipping their 10 students with the skills and abilities to be able to hold jobs and earn an income. Parents also want their special needs children to be independent as they worry about who would take care of them when they are no longer around.
More importantly, they also want their children to have a purposeful life.
But getting parents to let go of their children was one of the first challenges Lemme Learn had to overcome. Parents are protective over their children and worried for their safety.
Crossing the road and finding their way through a huge shopping mall on their own are tasks that Lemme Learn students need help with.
“One of our students was working on the third floor of a shopping mall. For his family, allowing him to walk on his own from the entrance of the mall to the shop was a challenge. For others, crossing the road is difficult. We stood with a student for half an hour before he dared to cross the road.
“These are tasks that we take for granted, but are difficult for special needs individuals. But because of the relationship we have built with parents, they trust us,” says Soon.
Job training for adults with learning disabilities is not new, but they are taught mostly the regimen of working life like being punctual and finishing tasks. Most often end up doing tedious menial tasks in sheltered workshops, but Lemme Learn believes many special needs individuals are capable of much more.
Thor and Soon are incorporating concepts such as social thinking, self-awareness and coping mechanism into their syllabus.
“The training is divided into two parts: pre-training in the classroom and on the job training.
“Before we send the students out, we teach them social skills such as being aware of their behaviour and other people’s perception. We analyse situations and do role playing,” says Thor.
Lemme Learn works with students on a wide range of autism spectrum, with different skills level and challenges. But they basically help students regulate and manage their behaviour and improve their communication skills. They also assess students’ performance, and help them understand their roles, strengths and weaknesses.
Thor and Soon believe it’s crucial to work continuously with their students on their self-awareness as they are convinced it will help the trainees over the long term.
“In the 1½ years that we have worked with the boys, we have seen them mature significantly. When they start to become aware of their behaviour and how people view them, they become more receptive and even seek out ways to handle situations and stress,” shares Soon, who takes so much pride in their students’ achievements.
Initially Lemme Learn’s challenge was in persuading businesses to take in special needs workers. One of their first partners was Secawan ‘n’ Such cafe in George Town, which also offered them free use of their second floor to conduct training.
Thor says they also need to prepare their students’ managers and colleagues for most have not been exposed to people with disabilities. They also need to look at the workspace and assess the working conditions and safety aspects.
“We now work with nine companies. Some of our students work in cafes, but some are more suited for other types of work. For instance, we have a student who is good at filing and he does well in a law firm.
“A trainer will supervise the students at their workplace, and the plan is to gradually fade out the support when they can work independently,” says Thor who was overseeing two students at Secawan ’n’ Such one weekday afternoon. The lunch rush was finally over and she could sit down for an interview. She pointed to her students and explained the tasks they had to handle at the cafe.
Lemme Learn also helps their students manage their tasks, such as using visual aids as step-by-step instructions or devising a filing system for arranging invoices using self-adhesive tabs.
Secawan ‘n’ Such co-owner S. Kishen says managing his special needs interns has also been a learning experience for him.
“It is our first time working with special needs interns. I’ve learnt to be observant and to use different approaches too. I have to also make sure my staff is onboard, so we talk to the staff and address their issues.
“But like all the other staff, we also give our special interns goals. We pay them the same rate that we pay the other staff. They have done well, and two of them are on our payroll now. They work four to six hours a day, two to three days a week,” says Kishen.
Sustainability is crucial
The students’ journeys are documented and shared on Lemme Learn’s Facebook and Instagram pages. They celebrated when Yi Xin and Brian earned their paid internship, and they often post updates on their training, activities and events.
It is part of Lemme Learn’s endeavour to raise awareness and encourage inclusion in the community.
“We have to work with the community. We don’t want people to hire our students out of pity. We want companies to recognise their value. When our students feel they are included and accepted, they usually do much better,” says Thor.
Apart from Thor and Soon, the other trainer at Lemme Learn is Indra Sellapan, who has a Masters in Rehabilitation Psychology from the University of Nottingham (Britain) who has worked in an American institute specialising in autism.
The three trainers and an intern are currently working with 10 students. They can only work with a limited number of students for now, but they are hoping to scale up the Lemme Learn model so that more young adults with learning disability can get job training.
“We have two shoplots on Carnavon Street that we can use rent-free for 10 years from Khailee Ng and Elisa Khong. We are currently raising funds to build an empowerment centre.
“We realise that some students are not ready to work in public settings, so we hope to build a community centre and a cafe,” says Thor.
Apart from training trainers, Soon says they also plan to put up their teaching material online so that people can use them for free.
The Brunei government has also approached Lemme Learn to replicate their model there and do training. Soon hopes such consultancy jobs would allow them to sponsor more students for the Lemme Learn programme as not all families can afford to pay their fees. They are currrently sponsoring one student.
They have also seen employers becoming more open to hiring those with special needs.
“Now companies approach us to send them our students. Some want to do something meaningful, to contribute back to society. Some are sympathetic because they have disabled family members. We believe people are becoming more open,” says Soon.
Lemme Learn is holding a dinner on June 23 to raise funds to build their empowerment centre. To support their work or find out more, visit lemmelearn.com or e-mail [email protected]