Dignity Kitchen is a first-of-its-kind school of hawker training for those with physical and mental challenges.
Contributed By Wayne Chan
His blind cashiers have been cheated by the public and his mentally-challenged workers sometimes get scolded by customers.
He has also seen three fights in six months, and was once even told off by two ladies who said, “Either you are stupid or [you will] strike Toto.”
These are the kind of challenges that Koh Seng Choon, the founder of Dignity Kitchen, a first-of-its-kind hawker school for the disabled at Balestier Food Centre, has had to face.
Started in October last year, the school aims to help the physically and mentally challenged as well as disadvantaged members of society find employment in the food industry.
Koh said he was inspired to open the school by “the autistic boy with little chance of taking care of himself as he grows older, the long queue of unemployed with their families at Community Development Councils seeking public assistance and the elderly lady who cleans tables at hawker centers who can cook.”
Since its opening, Dignity Kitchen has trained 15 such individuals in basic food stall operations, and it hopes to grow this number to 72 by the end of this year. It also wants to help 60 of its students find jobs at food outlets in Singapore. Twelve out of its first 15 trainees are already gainfully employed.
For Koh, a former executive director of the Restaurant Association of Singapore, while these small successes have been encouraging, the going has certainly not been easy.
“The most challenging thing is whether the general public is willing to buy from people with disabilities,” he said.
However, this has not stopped him from finding placements for all the school’s graduates so far.
Out of the three remaining graduates that are not placed in a job for now, two dropped out because of illness while the third was extricated from his job placement by Koh after he discovered that his former trainee was being bullied at the new workplace.
For such noble efforts to integrate the disabled into the workforce, Dignity Kitchen received the Enabling Employers Award from the Singapore National Employers Federation on March 24 this year.
“Kindness has no religion,” Koh said. “There are nice people and there are bad ones, but humility and tolerance is what I’ve learned on this journey.”
Beyond finding them jobs, Koh also hopes to create opportunities for the public to learn more about the disabled through personal interactions.
His blog recounts some incidents that made him realize that people, especially children, generally have a lack of exposure to the disabled.
“One incident which happened when I first started Dignity Kitchen was that I found a group of young girls standing in front of my blind cashier giggling away,” he wrote in a blog entry. “Another incident was when a boy stared at my man suffering from polio as he was walking. And when he slipped and fell, the boy just ran away.”
Incidents like these made Koh decide to start a related program called “Children Working With The Disabled.”
The program gets children of various ages to interact with the disabled through four stations—singing using sign language with the hearing-impaired, making spring rolls with the physically-handicapped, decorating desserts with the intellectually-challenged and taking a “Braille math” challenge with the visually-impaired.
The program ends with lunch for the children with the disabled.
“If the children of today learn to interact with the disabled, the adults of tomorrow will be comfortable working with the disabled,” said Koh.
Another noteworthy initiative by the school is its “Lunch Treat For The Elderly” program, which has worked with 59 organizations to give “lunch treats” to over 2,647 elderly and poor persons as of end March.
Koh said that while things have progressed from 20 or 30 years ago, where the options for the disabled and disadvantaged were very limited and things like basic medical care were largely out of reach; there is still much room for improvement in terms of infrastructure and job opportunities for the less fortunate.
“Even the gap between the rich charities and poor charities is too wide,” Koh said. “Too many government agencies also do not know how to help.”
Indeed, “how to help” is something that he thinks about quite often. Recently, one of his blind trainees was offered a job to work as a cashier at a restaurant.
That was when it dawned on Koh that the blind trainee would need to know how to differentiate between the different types of credit cards at the restaurant, something he was not trained to do.
Another problem that came up was communication between different types of disabled employees.
Koh recounted one such example of this between his deaf and blind trainees. “In one case, the blind individual was the cashier of one stall and was looking for change after a customer had just given him a big note. He approached his deaf colleague to ask for some change but it was a struggle as the blind was not able to get the attention of his deaf colleague. When they did make contact, the deaf person (who is unable to speak) then struggled to ask the blind person what denomination of change was needed.”
Having already installed Braille markings at his food stalls for the blind and height-adjustable counter tops for the wheelchair-bound, Koh continues to think of creative ways to help his trainees.
One example of this was how he helped a mentally-challenged boy whose memory had deteriorated after going through many operations for cancer.
As the boy had a very poor memory, Koh decided to give him simple repetitive tasks to do for the first week of his training, starting with the daily opening and closing of a food stall.
When it finally came to training the boy to serve customers, Koh pasted six words behind him: “Smile,” “Glove,” “Scoop,” “Clean,” “Serve,” “Smile.”
“He repeated the same task over and over again, and guess what?” said Koh. “He passed his basic food hygiene course based on these six words.”
Koh said he hopes to open three more such schools over the next five years and has already been approached by people interested to replicate his “Dignity Kitchen” concept in other countries.
For enquires, e-mail to email@example.com
411 Balestier Road
+65 8189 7678