SUBANG JAYA: It goes without saying that people with special needs tend to have it rough in Malaysia.
While Moral Education lessons implore the young to treat those with special needs with decency and respect, there is still much to be done to improve societal treatment of this group of people.
The general public lacks understanding of what it means to be a person with special needs and some can be rather cruel to them, failing to understand that just because they are different, they aren’t lesser human beings.
Special needs folk who wish to lead independent lives by finding work and being productive members of society, often find that employers are apprehensive about hiring them.
And even if they do secure employment, the patience required to understand and accept them is sometimes lacking among their colleagues, and workplace bullying is never a far-removed possibility.
That is why it is encouraging to see social enterprises like Tender Hearts Café in Summit USJ, set up to provide opportunities for young people with special needs so they can learn important life skills.
Conceptualised in September 2016, the dining establishment was founded and opened in April last year by Sharon Lee, a breast cancer survivor and mother of a girl with special needs.
This café is a particularly unique one as it employs people with special needs, with the goal of providing them with job training and an income as well as giving them a safe place to work with others having similar conditions.
Located on the top floor of the shopping mall, the café exudes a warm and cosy feeling, with simple furnishings and handcrafted paper artwork decorating the walls.
As you enter the café, you will be given a warm, friendly and enthusiastic welcome by the staff who will happily seat you and your party.
The food served here is simple, with home-cooked dishes such as fried rice, fried noodles and nasi lemak. It is also reasonably priced.
As you eat, don’t be surprised if staff members sit start introducing themselves before sitting down to chat with you.
Like literally everybody else on the planet, those with special needs can either be shy with strangers or incredibly chirpy social butterflies.
Though a simple dining establishment, eating here is an eye-opening experience as you interact with these young people and find that they are healthy individuals who would like nothing more than to be respected for who they are.
Those with special needs have an incredibly wide range of disorders, and some are relatively mild compared to others.
Any preconceived notion that special needs people are all slow learners is immediately proven wrong as you watch the staff go about their work diligently, with some showing great enthusiasm for the task at hand.
Speaking to FMT, Lee explained she has been involved in charity work and social programmes since the 1980s, when she was a member of the Leo Club.
She can empathise with parents of special needs children, being one herself. “I have to do this for her,” she says, gesturing toward her daughter, working at the cashier.
Tender Hearts Café initially started with a crew of three, but eventually, word got around among parents of special needs children who wanted to give their kids a chance at a normal life too.
At the moment, Lee employs seventeen special needs folk, who she treats as a mother would her child, and they reciprocate in return.
She says that after those with special needs leave school, they tend to stay idle as many employers are reluctant to hire them.
When asked if local businesses ought to be more open to hiring individuals with special needs, she agreed, saying, “They can do it. Give them a chance and they can do it.”
She recounted how a former staff of the café went to work elsewhere but had to put up with cruel discrimination in the new workplace.
While she commends employers who do take in those with special needs, she notes that after a while, their patience tends to run out.
“These kids… you really have to be patient with them. They tend to forget things. They will make the same mistakes over and over again. And sometimes, when they are under stress, they go blank. You cannot expect them to work like a normal person.”
Running the café was not easy, Lee admitted. “The kids are all different and getting to know them is a challenge in itself.”
Through working at Tender Hearts Café, these youngsters are trained in a myriad of tasks, including manning cashiers, preparing food, serving customers and washing dishes.
In addition to being a walk-in dining establishment, the café also provides catering services on the side.
The staff are paid for their work, Lee says, and just seeing that they earned money from doing an honest job is enough to give their confidence a much-needed boost.
With plans for continued expansion of this social enterprise, Lee makes it a priority to let her kids know that they too can find a purpose in life, even if it means running a café.
“I always tell my kids that, ‘This is your café. Auntie set this up for you all.’”