PEGGY Voon, barely 20, speaks haltingly, her words slightly slurred. Despite that, she has improved by leaps and bounds. She learned to communicate – a challenge for someone who is autistic.
Voon has been a member of United Voice, a self-advocacy society for persons with learning disabilities (PWLD).
Everyone must have heard of autism — a learning impairment — at some point in their life. Learning disability is a large group which includes Down syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and Dyslexia (slow learners)
However, most people need to realise that unless they personally know someone with autism, or have a family member who is autistic, there is a chance that little is known of what they’re actually capable of.
This is what Yeong Moh Foong, the lead coordinator for United Voice, aims to put forth.
Yeong, who was formerly a volunteer at United Voice for a year while she freelanced as a web designer joined the organisation on a full time basis and has been there for 8 years now.
The organisation has about 20 members doing craft projects such as weaving fabrics to make place mats and bags and drawing or painting greeting cards; 24 members in employment projects; and 10 others coming in to be taught social skills.
United Voice also organises the biennial National Self Advocacy Conference where committee members — mostly comprising PWLD — who make decisions and discuss things related to the conference.
Other activities include speaking sessions (to learn how to communicate), and social gatherings.
“Awareness (among Malaysians) is slow but it has improved over the years but in terms of advocacy there is still major room for improvement. The concept of advocacy is for people to learn and know about their rights, speak up, and make own decisions about life. Usually, they are not given opportunities for these kind of things. Most people make the decisions for these individuals (PWLD),” says Yeong.
United Voice aims to let people know that PWLD can contribute meaningfully to the society and if given a chance, such individuals can even lead.
For instance, one of United Voice’s pioneer member Felicia Fang, 35, who joined the organisation in 1995, is now the president of United Voice.
“I have learned how to speak out and rule. We meet once a month for the committee and social meetings. It is at social meetings, we teach members how to speak out”
Wendy Yong Sau Kee, 34, a supervisor with the organisation for 9 years, is also enjoying success at United Voice where she learned how to be brave enough to voice out her opinions. Another supervisor Hayati Khalid, better known as Umi, says her service for the past two years at United Voice made her more aware of PWLD
“I was just a volunteer here when I started but my experiences taught me a lot on learning disabilities. I learned how to approach these individuals. It was challenging at first but I observe everything especially their behaviour,” says Umi, who became motivated to serve United Voice after realising the amount of support needed by her autistic relative.
“It took me a year before I became a true part of the family. Although they are all autistics, they all have different needs, It took time for us to know them,” adds Umi
United Voice is serious about ensuring that the differently-abled can go further in life. The implementation of Job Coach Programme administered by United Voice is a step in getting PWLD to employment.
In Job Coach, they are overseen by a supervisor who knows the real abilities of the PWLD and can bring out the best in them. Jobs taken by PWLD under this scheme include office-based and retail jobs.
United Voice works with the Social Welfare Department and has trained close to 300 PWLD under the scheme so far.
“They (employers) are more open to hiring people with disabilities. There are so many activities to do now but we don’t have enough skilled PWLDs to keep up to the demands. In a way, we see as a positive opportunity to provide more vocational training with the government’s help,” says Yeong.
“We need to address a few things in terms of skills, coping with workload, communicating with peers and colleagues to make things better for PWLDs,” says Yeong who adds that their real challenge is to educate the public on handling this group of people.
“Most Malaysians (employers) are accepting but still lack knowledge on this. If you don’t know much about something (like learning disabilities) you develop fear.
“But given the opportunity, they can learn a lot of things. Family members of PWLD also need to be told about self-advocacy. A lot more can be done to raise awareness.
For enquiries and to contribute or volunteer, call United Voice at 03-79540701
In conjunction with the Autism Awareness Month (April), The Rakyat Post dedicates this video to everyday heroes who work with PWLDs worldwide: http://youtu.be/muL5SDXvNK0