Bakery spearheads deaf empowerment in Malaysia
Youngsters say work opportunities are their chance to be included in society
At a small bakery in Kuala Lumpur’s Lorong Ampang area, a group of men and women take out from the oven and pack colorful cookies in complete silence. The cookies have one shape — that of a hand with the thumb, index finger and pinkie finger put up. In sign language it means “I love you.”
The bakery, Silent Teddies, was founded in 2004 by Cindy Leong, a sign language interpreter who has sought ways to empower Malaysia’s deaf community by encouraging entrepreneurship and training hearingimpaired youths to be independent. All staff members of Silent Teddies are people with hearing loss.
“We aim to build talents here and the mindset of the community needs to change because we cannot be solely surviving on corporate social responsibility donations or support to sustain ourselves,” Leong told Arab News as the International Week of the Deaf started on Wednesday.
About 40,000 Malaysians are registered as deaf and have limited access to education and career opportunities.
“Many deaf people are from the bottom 40 segment,” Leong said, referring to Malaysia’s lowest earning group.
It took her Silent Teddies years to gain traction but in 2012 the efforts flourished with a deal with Malaysian airline AirAsia, the biggest lowcost carrier of Southeast Asia.
“It was a stepping stone for me and the bakers here to have their cookies and products sold to the masses in Asia. We were never driven by profits, our main goal is to empower the community by providing them training and opportunities to grow and support themselves.”
Through the Society of Interpreters for the Deaf ( SID), the initiative expanded to the coffeehouse giant Starbucks.
Berjaya Starbucks Coffee Company, a licensee of the Starbucks franchise in Malaysia, in 2016 opened the doors to employment for deaf people and established the signing store model — the first of its kind for Starbucks globally. “Starbucks have always hired the deaf at our stores even before we were planning the signing store but because of certain security risks and cultural sensitivities, we could only give them very simple and menial tasks such as restocking and cleaning,” Berjaya Starbucks representatives said in a statement for Arab News.
Their signing stores changed the situation and offered hearing-impaired people better jobs and career progression. Established in consultation with the SID, the outlets in Kuala Lumpur’s popular hangout area Bangsar and in George Town, Penang, employ 14 deaf partners.
We aim to build talents here and the mindset of the community needs to change because we cannot be solely surviving on corporate social responsibility donations or support to sustain ourselves.
Sign language interpreter
Employees bake and pack cookies for sale at Silent Teddies Bakery in Kuala Lumpur. It was founded in 2004 by Cindy Leong, a sign language interpreter.