You may think packing food packs at food banks, teaching children to make handicrafts and taking part in virtual visits with the elderly are simple tasks, but this is not necessarily the case for youths with special educational needs (SEN). In the “Integration Brings Bountiful Joy in Work” project funded by Link Together Initiatives and organised by Kwun Tong Methodist Social Service (KTMSS), SEN youths receive a series of training and internship opportunities under the guidance of social workers and mentors, covering areas ranging from providing care to the needy to removing obstacles during job hunting.
Rebecca, one of the project participants, was diagnosed with a reading disorder when she was younger. Now 21 years old and looking for the right career path, she joined the project last year, when it was also under the support of Link and KTMSS.
Using her skills in handicrafts, Rebecca participated in DIY markets and carnivals during last year’s project. She also served as a teaching assistant to demonstrate DIY handicrafts for seniors and children. With a year of experience under her belt, she was promoted to the position of instructor this year, allowing her to teach light clay craft to elementary and middle school students.
“We aim to tap the potential of SEN youths and encourage them to become mentors,” said the project’s service coordinator, Ms Shiu Wan-kit (Rainbow). “This may help them in job-hunting in the future.” Rainbow explained that last year’s project was a foundational year that aimed to explore the interests of SEN youths and foster their self-confidence, while this year’s project builds on that by providing learning opportunities to SEN youths to equip themselves in the workplace.
The Education Bureau defines students with SEN as those who have learning difficulties and need special education support in terms of concentration, speech and language, and emotion. Through this project, Rainbow aims to provide SEN youths who are ready to enter society with internships in real-life work situations. By providing a taste of work experience, the project enables SEN youths to understand how different job positions work and how to access appropriate skills, paving the way for their future employment.
After completing a comprehensive assessment at the beginning of the project, participants are assigned to three training groups – generic skills, executive functioning skills and adaptive skills for the workplace – to learn workplace interaction, emotion and time management, and to receive career-oriented training in various areas such as DIY handicrafts, elderly services and catering,followed by an internship arranged for each participant based on their abilities and circumstances. During the internships, which last 30, 60 or 100 hours, social workers provide guidance and explore additional job possibilities with participants.
Help yourself by helping others
In this year's project, Rebecca has taken part in several internships, including one that involves virtual visits with the elderly. Visits of two to three hours are arranged once or twice a month for interns to chat with seniors. She said that many seniors are unable to see and have not been able to get together with their families during the pandemic. As a result, some have become emotional during her virtual visits, which has taken her by surprise.
“We chat with the elderly and show them that we care and understand simply by being good listeners and helping them express their negative thoughts,” Rebecca said.
Early years when Rebecca was first diagnosed with a reading disorder, she ignored it and did not find a way to deal with it. The disorder hindered her studying when she entered mainstream high school, leaving her mired in confusion and powerlessness. Luckily those days are over, and now she has found a clear direction. Being passionate about cooking, she is now taking a course in dessert-making.
Looking back to before she joined the project, Rebecca found that her social skills have greatly improved. “I was very passive and not good at starting a conversation,” she said. “Now I can shorten the distance with others through chit-chatting and expressing myself fluently.”
The internship as a process of self-discovery
Maggie, who suffers from autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is also a project participant, sharing many of the same experiences as Rebecca. She not only works as an intern at KTMSS’s food bank but is also keen to apply and take up part-time jobs such as clerical and warehouse work. “I am constantly looking for a job,” Maggie said. “I don't want to be idle at home, but would instead like to try different jobs and obtain new knowledge.”
Rainbow notes that the project enables SEN youths to discover how their SEN attributes affect their performance in the workplace, and then it teaches them how to adapt their approach throughout the course of the project.
The internship at the food bank seems like a piece of cake, however it was a huge obstacle for Maggie. Interns are required to prepare a two-week meal pack for underprivileged families or individuals, and they cannot make any mistakes in the quantity or type of food. “Maggie’s ADHD means she make mistakes easily,” said Rainbow. “And when Maggie wants to avoid mistakes, she becomes anxious.”
The good news is that Maggie has managed to figure out several ways to combat these shortcomings during her internship. She said that when she becomes distracted from her job duties, it helps to take a short break to drink water or to get up and move. “When facing a group of people waiting in line for food packs, I used to be worried that we would be unable to deal with them in time, but now I am getting used to it,” she said.
Maggie feels that her social skills have also improved, and she has also learnt how to cope with boredom. “I hope I can stay focused on work for long hours and have a stable job in the future,” Maggie said with a confident smile.
Reaching out and integrating into society is never easy for SEN youths. Through the internships organised by the “Integration Brings Bountiful Joy in Work” project, participants are better able to understand the requirements of different types of work as well as their own inadequacies. Most importantly, the project also empowers them to overcome their shortcomings. “If SEN youths are not willing to face their weaknesses squarely and do not realise the need for change, we cannot help them no matter how hard we work,” Rainbow said.
“Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”
As the project service coordinator, Rainbow expressed her wish that SEN youths should not be passive anymore and use their learning disorders and disabilities as an excuse, but rather seek out self-discovery and self-reflection. “They can go much further, as long as they accept their weaknesses,” Rainbow said.
Although SEN youths did not win at the starting line, with the right tools and the proper support they can reach the finish line one day. Rainbow has been pleased so far with the outcomes of the project, especially after witnessing skills enhancement and changes in mindset. “Students have become more confident, willing to overcome their weaknesses. They take the initiative to step out of their comfort zone and look for a job to support themselves and their families, instead of being idle around home,” she said.
Applications for the Link Together Initiatives 2022/23 cycle are being accepted from 1 April until 11 May. For details about the application process, please visit Link Together Initiatives.