‘We couldn’t wait for help’: Parents who created jobs for their special needs children , Latest Singapore News - The New Paper

‘We couldn’t wait for help’: Parents who created jobs for their special needs children

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When Mr Henry Teong set up 168 Neopolitan Style Pizza at Taman Jurong Food Centre with his wife Mylene in February, their goal was not to rake in huge profits.

Instead, they wanted to create a future job for their 16-year-old son Jonas, who has autism. Today, Jonas helps out with food tasting at the stall. 

Mr Teong, 55, holds a day job selling chemical raw materials under his own firm. He told The Straits Times: “This stall was opened in the hope that we lead by example to help children with special needs. We hope that Jonas will have a future as he grows up and becomes more capable.”

Over the years, a number of parents have set up businesses for their special needs children, even though they have no prior experience in the chosen sector. At the same time, they hope to extend employment opportunities to others in the special needs community. 

This is because people with disabilities (PWDs), who leave the safe confines of special education schools when they turn 18, have limited options such as sheltered workshops and day activity centres, or are even kept at home. This situation – which can be isolating for them and their caregivers – is described as the “post-18 cliff”.

One such caregiver is Madam Faraliza Zainal, who operated a class for special needs students out of a small storeroom in Sultan Mosque in 2011. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine it would become an education hub with more than 360 students today. 

The former regional training manager had only wanted to let her son Mohd Ashraf Mohd Ali have an easier time accessing religious lessons, after he was labelled “gila” (“crazy” in Malay) by some of his madrasah, or religious school, classmates.

Now 23, he has autism and tuberous sclerosis, which triggers epilepsy attacks.

My Inspiring Journey Hub, or “MIJ Hub”, offers an academic curriculum, and vocational and daily living skills training for students with learning differences who are aged two to 30 years. It has three outlets in Singapore, and a new one in Kuala Lumpur.

It even branched out into the food and beverage and retail sectors through Ashraf’s Cafe and INSPO – platforms that were created as a training ground for its graduates to enhance their vocational skills through paid employment. It also runs a food stall at Methodist Girls’ School.

Madam Faraliza, 52, said: ”My students have moderate-to-high special needs and cannot get any job from open employment after they leave their special education school. Rather than wait for someone to knock on our door, we have to keep coming up with projects and opportunities to engage them.”

One project is The Takeout Campaign, where Ashraf, his peers and a team of volunteers prepare and deliver meals every weekend to 36 low-income families with special needs children during Ramadan. 

(From left) Mohd Ashraf Mohd Ali with his mother Faraliza Zainal, brother Mohd Adam, father Ali Dawood and sister Nur Aliah. Ashraf’s parents set up education hub My Inspiring Journey Hub, which offers academic curriculum, vocational and daily living skills catered for students with learning differences who are aged two to 30 years. PHOTO: FARALIZA ZAINAL


As for Mr Khong Yoon Kay and Mrs Jeanne Seah-Khong, both 67, they set up Joan Bowen Cafe more than a decade ago so that their daughter Joan, now 33, could be socially engaged.

They do not think that Joan, who has intellectual disabilities, can eventually take over the business. Said Mr Khong: “Food and beverage (F&B) trends and customers’ preferences keep evolving. A special needs person won’t be able to follow and adapt to the changes quickly.”

It can also be hard to sustain the business or recruit more PWDs, as they need more supervision, he added. “There is already a shortage of manpower in the F&B sector, not to mention those who would have the heart to guide them.”

The cafe is now staffed by the couple, Joan, and a special needs chef. In the early years, they hired more than 20 staff with special needs.

Mr Khong Yoon Kay and Mrs Jeanne Seah-Khong set up Joan Bowen Cafe for their daughter Joan more than a decade ago so that she could be socially engaged. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG


Mrs Seah-Khong said: ”The challenge also comes from some parents who dictate what they want their special needs children to do when they work with us, or how much they should earn.”

Statistics show that among residents with disabilities aged between 15 and 64, an average of 31.4 per cent were employed in 2021 and 2022. Singapore aims to have 40 per cent of working-age PWDs employed by 2030.

Under the Enabling Masterplan 2030, there will be more community support services, as well as training and employment opportunities nearer to where PWDs live.

The Enabling Services Hub will be launched in Tampines West Community Club by mid-2023, offering social inclusion activities and continual education for PWDs, as well as drop-in respite care to support caregivers.

The first Enabling Business Hub will also be launched in Jurong West later in 2023 to provide job support for PWDs.

The Enabling Academy by SG Enable is developing the Enabling Skills Framework to help PWDs chart their lifelong learning journey, and will recommend skills and courses to enhance their opportunities for participation in social and community life, as well as in employment. It will also ensure more accessible training programmes to upskill PWDs.

The academy offers the Temasek Trust-CDC Lifelong Learning Enabling Fund, and administers scholarships by Google, Meta and VMware. It also seeks to broaden partnerships with continuing education and training centres and institutes of higher learning, among others.

Crunchy Teeth, a bakery founded in 2019 by four mothers of children with autism, also hopes to collaborate with tertiary education institutions to explore methods such as virtual reality solutions to ease autistic individuals into the real working environment.

Besides F&B, it hopes to train its interns, who are autistic adults aged 18 years and above, in areas such as horticulture and packing.  

Co-founder Tan Yen Peng, 46, said: “With extra patience and proper coaching, our autistic community does have the ability to fulfil its job responsibilities and produce quality work.

“By having more open channels to speak up for our silent autistic community, we can open up the minds of potential employers, and, in turn, increase the chances of gaining employment opportunities for our autistic workforce.”