Their own two feet

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - PEOPLE -

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.”

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.

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 cook- ies, 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.

“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. 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, log on to www.unit­ed­ or email unit­ed­voice­

Vol­un­teer Mar­garet yih wants to do more to help United Voice mem­bers.

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