“GOOD morning, welcome to HiLO Café.” Ben is at the door, welcoming guests with his infectious cheery smile.
Jamie is quick to waltz to the table when the guests have been seated.
“Good morning, Sir. Good morning, Madam. We have very nice coffee, kopi susu (coffee with milk) for you? Or Kopi Kosong (black coffee)?”
Behind her was Alice. “Our signature breakfast cuisine is HiLO Egg Burger. And today we have ‘siu mai’ (steamed chicken dumplings). Try both, okay?”
The smell of butter, cheese, and steaming ‘siu mai’ had already worked up my appetite when I walked into the café. The sight of these smiling walking sunflowers, including those preparing food in the kitchen, all watching us with their glowing expectant eyes across the clear stainless glass panels, the invitation was simply irresistible.
From the cook and kitchen hands to the waiters and waitresses, all are boys and girls aged 16 or 17. This is not the only hallmark of HiLO Café.
It was beyond my imagination that this cafe is located in a classroom! It is, in fact, a classroom. From the outside, it is just one of the 20 or so classrooms in the block. It is unnoticeable from the outside because there is not even a sign for identification. It is another world when one opens the wooden door and steps into the classroom.
With the help of Gary, a home designer friend of Cikgu Chin, the classroom was converted into a cozy café integrated with a kitchen. The contemporary open kitchen concept is necessary to enable the teachers to have their eyes on the children, whether they are doing their writing and reading, serving diners, or preparing and cooking the food.
With the generosity of friends and well-wishers supplying the utensils, fixtures, and fittings at cost, below cost, and simply at no cost, HiLO Café is a chic minimalist kitchen cum restaurant that is clean, tidy, and simplified.
Welcome to HiLO, a café of, for and by the special needs students!
These are secondary students who face various challenges: autism, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, Down syndrome, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities. But they do not bear any character or disposition as one with special needs or disabilities. In fact, Bernard, who has since become acquainted with me at my third visit and drew his own version of a MySejahtera Check-In QR Code for me to scan, is one of the most handsome and well-mannered young boys in Kuching.
The dedicated teachers were instrumental in HiLO Café, which is designed with adequate facilities and yet safe and friendly for these special needs students who are under the Integrated Special Education Programme (PPKI).
As trained and experienced teachers to tutor the special needs students, Cikgu Chin and Chang were all praise for the PPKI programmes, which incorporate and put emphasis on vocational skills training of these students.
“However, despite acquiring the career-related knowledge and skills through learning in schools, they are still to overcome the social stigma to gain employment. This impediment is, however, universal. Studies have shown that employers have the tendency not to employ those who have special needs, thus inhibiting their opportunity to gain work experience to display and demonstrate their potential. Further, employment opportunities are limited when work experience is stated as one of the criteria in job application.
“With the support of everyone in our school, we have therefore decided to embark upon this challenging project to double up the classroom as a café to ensure that, firstly, these special needs students will undergo proper training in school with adequate facilities and tools. Secondly, school teachers and guests coming to dine in the café will allow them to gain working experience so that they are on equal footing or having an edge over the other applicants vying for the same employment opportunities. Thirdly, their working experience in school will bolster their self-confidence to meet the challenges of the actual working environment,” said Cikgu Chin.
Whether they are referred to as persons with special needs or as persons with disabilities under the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ (Desa) Programme on Disability/SCRPD focusing on Inclusive Social Development, we must recognise that they are among the vulnerable groups in society, but who are able to contribute to our nation building and advancement as we do.
Malaysia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on July 19, 2010, with reservations to certain Articles and we have not signed the Optional Protocols to this Convention. However, ratification of the CRPD signifies Malaysia’s willingness and readiness to translate these rights into action.
After 10 years, there have been many complaints and issues being raised by the persons with disabilities particularly with regard to their registration and welfare, the education system, employment opportunities, healthcare services, access to public facilities, amenities and services in buildings, and public transportation facilities.
It appears that the government is still far from fulfilling its obligations under the CPRD to ensure that our persons with disabilities enjoy their inherent right to life, non-discrimination, equal rights, access to justice, and to exercise their civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights on an equal basis with others.
Sarawak is also behind in public awareness and educational facilities for the education of children with disabilities, particularly those with learning disabilities.
The world is about to celebrate this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which will be commemorated throughout the week of Nov 30 to Dec 4, to promote the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities and to take action for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of society and development. The theme is well thought of – ‘Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post Covid-19 World’.
The UN has set out its Vision 2030 for sustainable development that includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals to transform the world for persons with disabilities. With the principle of ‘leaving no one behind’, the new Agenda emphasises a holistic approach to achieving sustainable development for all. Malaysia needs to pull up its socks and put in a herculean effort to keep up with the global vision and agenda, but it has to put more attention and emphasis into the East Malaysian states.
The good teachers shared the global vision with me enthusiastically, and are eager to play their roles, walking the extra mile to prepare their school children to embrace the agenda and goals. This HiLO Café may be small but it is to me phenomenal considering how it can contribute to prepare these school children who are the vulnerable groups in our society, to play their roles for sustainable development in our country and the world. They have certainly set a good example for the Education Department to improve the PPKI programme.
I am also hopeful that the state government will help to fund these initiatives. These school children are all Sarawakians.
I learned much from these exemplary teachers that morning. Coming to the end of the short briefing they had promised, it was just time for the smiling Jamie, Bernard, and Alice to proudly lay out on our table a serving each of their signature HiLO Egg Burger. On the plate were light English muffins as the bun, an over-easy egg in between, some leafy greens, and the thick cheesy sauce oozing from the burger. In the middle, two trays of steaming ‘siu mai’, which were most alluring.
HiLO Café is special! These lovely children are outstanding!
* The names used for the children and their teachers have been changed.
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