Bake with dignity - Empowering adults with disabilities through baking

Geraldine Tong
·7-min read
Bake with dignity - Empowering adults with disabilities through baking
Bake with dignity - Empowering adults with disabilities through baking

MALAYSIANSKINI | At the Leisure Commerce Square in Bandar Sunway, there is a shop with a yellow signboard bearing the words “Bake with Dignity – A project by Dignity and Services for and with persons with learning disabilities”.

As the signboard states, the shop is a bakery which employs adults with learning disabilities, but to its co-founders Pang Hin Yue and Marina Lim, it is so much more than that.

The bakery and its kitchen are a safe haven for adults with learning disabilities to work and socialise, they told Malaysiakini.

It is also a place which aims to give adults with learning disabilities a sense of purpose, especially in a system which tends to focus more on children with learning disabilities.

The bakery was founded about ten years ago, and it started its operations out of a house in Taman Tun Dr Ismail. In January 2017, they managed to fundraise enough to open their own store in Bandar Sunway.

Currently, the shop has nine bakers with learning disabilities, along with a number of volunteers who supervise the bakers.

Though they are called bakers, they do more than just baking. They also cook and serve savoury foods at the bakery, with a focus on catering for company events.

For Pang and Lim, they got into this venture because of their own children with disabilities. Both of their children with disabilities are now working at the bakery as well.

This is the story of Bake with Dignity, in the words of its co-founders Pang and Lim:

This is what we wanted to do ... globally, 80 percent of adults with learning disabilities, even if they have gone to college or earned a degree, even for those who are high functioning, many of them do not have a job, so they end up staying at home.

In our case, we did not want to just hire people who are high functioning. We are also trying not to exclude those who are considered low functioning; if not, we ourselves are at the risk of discriminating against people who would otherwise truly have nowhere to go.

We are under (the NGO) Dignity and Services (DNS) ... we are an offshoot of that and DNS started in 1991 as one of the very first few NGOs which was actually set up to represent adults with learning disabilities because 20 odd years ago, there was hardly any support or literature about how to go about giving support to adults with disabilities.

In those days, the focus was on children and in ensuring they have access to education but then we realised, oh these kids also grow up, so that is where DNS came in and said let’s give support to the adults.

Our kitchen is not like what you imagine a professional kitchen to be ... you will see the bakers jumping around, they will be dashing around, there will be sounds here and there, but they still can work.

Some of our bakers have visual problems, while others have behavioural problems.

But in the end, all the bakers know one thing is that they have a place to hang out.

It is more than baking for them ... it is actually a place for them to socialise because how else do they have that connection?

Marina and I will laugh and joke with the other parents and volunteers. It is a place for the bakers to connect with one another and also an outlet for the parents and volunteers to talk and have a good laugh sometimes.

Maybe some of the bakers are not good verbally, but they have a connection with each other, they know how to watch out for each other.

In that sense, there is joy and laughter.

We did this for our children

We have also gone around to other NGOs and looked at what they do, and we have our own ideas on how we want to go about this.

We are not the only ones doing something like this. While we may operate differently, our philosophy and work culture may be different, but the ultimate goal is still the same, to create a safe space for adults with learning disabilities to do something meaningful and purpose-driven.

Different recipes in our kitchen

Our bakers all have mixed disabilities, and most of them are not high functioning, and they also have mixed independence as well.

For example, one guy can be very good and skilful at baking, with the piping and icing and you name it, but when it comes to reading the recipe for say, 10 orders, he is lost because he only knows how to follow the recipe for, let's say, the quantity of one.

So, what we do is we made a table with the different quantities in columns. What the baker would do is look at the column for five batches, for example, so he doesn’t have to be bogged down by how to calculate so that stress is eliminated.

Trust me, we take a lot of things for granted, but mathematics is not really a strong point for some of them.

Some of them will be in tears, and they will just shut down. They will close their eyes and say “oh I don’t know what to do now”, even though they are fantastic bakers.

What we try to do is more to augment what they are good at and in whatever areas they are not so good at, we try to help them.

Division of labour ... we do a division of labour according to their strengths. In the early days, some of them dare not even crack an egg.

They imitate the action of cracking an egg, but they do not understand why they are doing it. So, we drew a line with a pencil at the centre of the egg and told them to hit that spot. Ah, immediately they understood what they were supposed to do.

These are the challenges. We are not the usual bakers. We always have to think of ways to help our bakers, and we improvise on the spot.

We break up all the steps usually, so it is easier for them to understand. If you just give them a whole chunk (of instructions), I don’t think they can do it.

Our problem right now is the movement control order (MCO) ... we closed in March for two and a half months, during the first MCO. We reopened in June, but it was so quiet. We did sell some (pre-order) vouchers, that helps us with some sales.

In September, it picked up again, but now we are back to square one with no income again. We have started selling (pre-order) vouchers again. When we reopen, we will fulfil our obligations.

(The vouchers are sold) on a trust basis. They trust us, and we must honour our word. I just hope we can reopen soon.

Our revenue ... most of our money comes from catering, and our savoury food accounts for most of the revenue.

Usually, there are companies providing training and so on, so if we have a chance to do catering for that, we will have a good run with that.

So, if people now cannot go to the office and they can’t do training, it also affects us because we can’t do catering.

We have asked our landlady for a discount on our rental, which she has graciously agreed to give us till this December, but we still have to pay rent, we have salaries and utilities to pay.

It is a fine balance because we need to safeguard the bakers. Some of them can be quite vulnerable in terms of health, but on the other hand, we also need to open.

So how do we do it? How do we strike a balance, and how do we move forwards?

We don’t want anyone to buy pity party food from us ... that is why we always take the trouble to taste our food and make sure we always have quality ingredients so you will not find margarine in our cakes, we only use pure butter.

We are looking for some kind-hearted people on a pro bono basis to maybe help us develop a mobile app because we want to make our customers’ experience seamless.

Right now, they send us a WhatsApp message and then they would bank in the money and sometimes it is so chaotic.

MALAYSIANSKINI is a series on Malaysians you should know.

Previously featured:

The artist and the avocado tree

Lemon Sky - the Malaysians behind Avengers and Starcraft

The PJ girl who just penned Disney's next movie

Fighting the factories' fearsome fumes

Keeping the Papia Kristang flag flying

From humble beginnings to USM's first Orang Asli faculty dean

Mariani Ramli's life mission to help gibbons sing again

Music of the streets