United We Have A Voice
United Voice was registered in 2005 as Malaysia’s first society to be managed by individuals with learning disabilities. The members of this organisation include people with down syndrome, autism, attention deficit disorder, global developmental delay and cerebral palsy.
They are a proponent of the method of self-advocacy, encouraging persons with learning disabilities to speak up for themselves, to express their own opinions and needs – to have their own voice.
Since 2002, at its centre in Petaling Jaya, United Voice has been running an Employment Project to provide work for its unemployed members, most of whom have moderate to severe learning disabilities.
Employment Project staff making greeting cards
The goals of the project are to provide staff with income and importantly, to ensure the growth of their functional skills. “Our measure of success is the growth of each individual – to see development in both their behaviour and communication skills,” shares United Voice lead coordinator Yeong Moh Foong.
To make this happen, Yeong and her team, along with United Voice volunteers, design products according to the functional capacity of Employment Project employees.
Together, they produce items such as greeting cards, key chains and cookies that can be sold for a profit.
Currently, the Employment Project provides employment for about 25 members of United Voice. Typically, there is one supervisor for every five members. These can be full-time staff of United Voice, or parents of members such as Sally Khoo, who has been helping at the centre since 2011. Khoo comes in four days a week with her daughter Khoo Lay Ling, a member of the Employment Project.
Others comprise volunteers from the public, like Koh Wan Gee, who has been with United Voice for four years, teaching members and project supervisers how to make key chains out of different materials using the Japanese weaving technique of “saori”.
Staff adding finishing touches to cookie containers.
A supportive environment for productivity
On a working day, members are at their working spaces that are neatly set up with the equipment they require. For those designated to make cards, glue, and glitter are on hand for members to paste on punch-outs. Glitter is added for pizzazz. Designs are pre-printed on the cards so members can focus on adding the additional details. They work under the attentive guidance of project coordinator Fadzillah Bt Buang.
In the kitchen, members are in charge of combining ingredients into cookie dough and rolling the dough into balls, while supervisors operate the oven. They make cookies of varying flavours, including chocolate chip, almond and short bread-depending on the customers’ request. Once the cookies are out of the oven and have cooled, members pack them into containers and tie elegant ribbons around them.
The team can produce between 300 and 400 greeting cards a day, and fulfil an order for 50 small containers of cookies within two to three days. They receive orders from both corporates and individuals, and occasionally sell their products at bazaars. Whilst orders are not as consistent, they do tend to pick up in the months preceding festivals.
A reward system is in place that allocates bonus points according to the output levels of each team member and their attendance. At the end of the year, these points are tallied and a financial bonus is paid to employees based on profits made.
Members get rotated around the different product teams for the development of their skills. When larger orders are received, more individuals are allocated to that specific team to meet the output requirements.
Productivity levels vary from individual to individual, as functional abilities differ. However, the dedication of United Voice to providing an environment of productivity and development for their members is unshakeable.
There is also an art gallery on the second level of the centre displaying artwork by members of United Voice. Some, members such as Nurul Akhmal and Tan Seng Kit, are also involved in the production of cards, key chains, and cookies.
Employment Project cookies ready for delivery.
The gallery displays the work of nine artists at a time, who are each given space to showcase three to six pieces. These artists have to present their portfolio for evaluation before they are accepted for display at the gallery. The art pieces are vivid and full of personality, displaying tremendous talent. Member artist Chee Siew Chong draws his art with marker pens and is able to recreate local scenes from memory with remarkable speed and detail. All pieces of art in the gallery are for sale.
The team at United Voice has created an environment in which members can employ their creativity and efforts, and earn an income at the same time. Volunteers are always welcome, particularly those that can contribute product designs that can be implemented by members.
The United Voice Employment project stands as a testament to the core belief of the organisation: that persons with learning disabilities have a right to be a part of the community, to work, to contribute and to be respected as individuals.
Lily Cheah had the great privilege of visiting United Voice and hopes that their belief in every individual will be a sentiment shared by all Malaysians. To place orders or to find out how you can contribute to their great efforts, email unitedvoiceinfo[at]gmail[dot]com or call 03-79540701.