Mum-child work teams
Individuals with special needs work in tandem with their mothers at Dignity Mama stores
She watched from a distance as her son with special needs tended the pushcart and served a well-dressed customer.
But she tensed up when the man demanded a hefty discount for the 12 books he wanted to buy.
It saddened her when he told her child to charge him less than the $5 sticker price for all 12 books.
That was why she and two other mothers, who also have sons with special needs, have to be around as their children run a bookstore.
Even though they want their children to be independent, they also need to protect them from an exploitative world.
The Dignity Mama pushcart at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital employs individuals with special needs to collect, clean and sell second-hand non-fiction books for children and adults.
Each book can cost between 50 cents and $20, depending on the book and its condition.
The bookstore is financed by Project Dignity, a social enterprise. And the demand to work at the store was so great that Project Dignity opened a similar outlet at the National University Hospital (NUH) Medical Centre in January. (See report on facing page.)
One of the three young people at the NUH outlet now is Mr Wong Yong En. The 21-year-old was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was six months old and his IQ level is in the low 60 to 70 range, which limits his ability to learn, think and speak.
That is why his mother, Mrs Wendy Wong, 49, keeps a close watch at the bookstore where her son works. A total of six mother-child pairs work in shifts at the two bookstores, which are open from Mondays to Saturdays.
Recalling the incident with the man, Mrs Wong said: "Yong En was taught not to give a discount, but the man wouldn't back down. He sounded like he wanted to test my son's ability.
"But my son cannot cope with percentages and discounts. When I stepped in and told the man no, he looked angry and bought only two books out of the original 12.
"Yong En didn't understand it, but I was hurt that people like the man (who wanted to exploit my son) existed."
Mrs Wong added that whenever her son gives extra change by mistake, some customers walk away without returning the extra cash.
Despite the bad experiences, working at the bookstore alongside her child was the only way she could re-enter the workforce without worrying about him.
The other youth working at the NUH store have Down's Syndrome and, like Mr Wong, are accompanied by their mothers when they work.
Not wanting to be identified, they also have had difficulties bringing up their children.
One mother told The New Paper: "At least now, we can be closer to the children. We can work alongside other mothers who have gone through similar troubles as us."
When TNP visited the store last week, Mr Wong was seen going about his duties, greeting customers with a smile and waving goodbye to them when they left.
His mother stayed near her son, stepping in when customers made a difficult request.
But while there are bad experiences dealing with customers, working at the bookstore has taught Mr Wong much.
He has learnt how to open the shop for the day and has made friends with his colleagues. He has even memorised the prices of certain items in the shop.
Mr Wong is paid $800 a month to man the cash register, clean the store and interact with customers. And Mrs Wong is proud of her son.
She said: "I might have given up a lot for Yong En, but when I look at him now and think about how long it took for him to get here, I know it's worth it."
I might have given up a lot for Yong En, but when I look at him now and think about how long it took for him to get here, I know it's worth it.
- Mrs Wendy Wong on the sacrifices she has made for her son
About the Dignity Mama stores
While there are selfish customers who are not afraid of taking advantage of people with special needs, they are few and far between, said Mr Koh Seng Choon, executive director of Project Dignity.
"This happened several times, when the customer underpaid or took an additional book without paying. But generally, people know that mentally challenged children run the stall and they treat them with kindness," said Mr Koh.
The Dignity Mama bookstores sell used books, which are collected, cleaned and sold by mentally challenged youth while accompanied by their mothers.
Each store sells about 40 books daily, most of which are children's books. The stores also sell snacks and souvenirs.
Said Mr Koh, whose organisation trains people with special needs to become hawkers: "I set up the stores to support such people and adopted a business model that allows the best qualified people to look after them - their parents."
He said the two bookstores currently employ six people with special needs, each assisted by his mother.
Mr Koh added that another six parent-child pairs are on Dignity Mama's waiting list.
He said: "Most of them are above 21 and getting gainful employment is challenging. Working at Dignity Mama allows them to earn a living and have a parent to look after them at the same time."
The first store started in September 2012 as a pushcart at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and is manned by two people. Another opened in January at the National University Hospital Medical Centre.
SHE GAVE UP CAREER SO SHE WOULDN'T HAVE TO GIVE UP ON SON
Mrs Wendy Wong was set for a senior managerial role in her firm until the birth of her second son, Mr Wong Yong En, now 21, required her full attention.
She has an older son, 23, who does not have any health condition and works at an engineering firm.
At the Dignity Mama bookstore, Mrs Wong gets an allowance of $5 an hour - a far cry from what she could have made.
She said: "I was one of the few human resource executives in a startup firm and I knew if I had continued, I could have climbed up the corporate ladder and would have been a successful manager or someone in a senior position".
She said that the first 10 years of her second son's life were difficult.
"There was no room for my hopes and dreams. All my energy and time was spent on him."
Mrs Wong recounted how she found out her son had epilepsy.
"I knew about it six months after he was born. I was holding him when he suddenly started shaking violently in my hands.
"His hands became rigid, his body stiffened and his eyes rolled up until all I could see were the whites of his eyes. He also foamed at the mouth."
The doctor told her that each time her son suffered a seizure, there would be a few steps back in his mental development.
She explained: "It slows down his learning ability and motor skills."
To teach her son, Mrs Wong had to repeat her instructions several times. But on many occasions, her patience was tested when he made a mess or refused to learn.
Mrs Wong said she blamed herself.
"I kept asking, 'Why me?' Did I do something wrong during my pregnancy? Was I too greedy and ate something I was not supposed to?
"I thought that since my first son had no problems, I would not have to worry about Yong En. But I was wrong and I thought it was me."
'They are part of our society'
We should learn how to be better employers, better employees and better customers to the mentally challenged, said Member of Parliament for Moulmein-Kallang GRC Denise Phua.
Ms Phua, who has an autistic son and is the president of the Autism Research Centre, said: "There is higher awareness in general of disabilities now, but insufficient awareness on how to treat persons with special needs with dignity and respect.
"They are not just objects of pity. They are part of our society and should be included in a dignified way."
To her, the Dignity Mama bookstores are a good option if the person with special needs cannot find another alternative.
But she cautioned against such individuals becoming overly dependent on their parents.
"Don't forget the parents will not be around one day; so it is best if it is a job model that allows other willing and able adults to also partner the child," said Ms Phua, who is also a board member at the autism-focused Pathlight School.
Three years ago, her husband, Mr Tay Kiong Hong, gave up his job as a senior vice-president of a telecommunications company to start a cafe which hires more than 20 people with special needs, she said.
Ms Phua added that while special needs children have better services nowadays, mentally challenged adults are only just starting to receive attention.