Sonja Shih Chan Seung-yan was in Canada when she gave birth to her daughter, Evelyn, 26 years ago.
She and her husband’s excitement was tempered by the fact their baby had Down’s syndrome. It was a tough start for the family, with major health issues for Evelyn, and Sonja and husband Louis having to adjust to having a daughter with a mental disability.
Today, Evelyn Shih is an enthusiastic worker with excellent English and social skills. She travels independently and works as an assistant at a luxury brand’s staff canteen in Causeway Bay.
The Hong Chi Association helped with her training, as did Shih, who has spent thousands of hours volunteering in social enterprises to ensure young adults with mental disabilities have the chance to mix with the public and experience real working life.
“We now have three cafes,” says Shih, a mother of three, referring to the Hong Chi social enterprises – The Puddle Café in Aberdeen, the HC Café in Wan Chai and H Corner in the Science Park at Sha Tin. Each has a team of volunteers and young workers with mental disabilities who prepare food, greet and serve the customers, serve drinks and wipe down tables.
Shih says it is vital that these young workers have the chance to interact with the public, and vice versa.
“About 90 per cent of them will have been educated in segregated schools,” she says. “There are opportunities to go and work at sheltered workshops, but each day they see the same people”, whereas this is a taste of real working life.
Shih previously helped run the Hong Chi Garden View Lounge at the YWCA’s Garden View hotel.
“I even wrote the business plan for it,” laughs Shih, “even though I had no previous restaurant or business experience. We were expecting it to be like a sandwich place, serving coffee and tea.”
But it took off, providing affordable lunches to office workers, served by smiling young employees.
Shih had seen a cafe in San Jose, California, in which all the staff had mental disabilities.
“This was years before I had Evelyn, and I remember thinking: what a great idea!” she says. “I thought at the time, maybe one day I will get the chance to do that. The staff working there, you could see their pride, all smiling. Everyone working industriously. It is what every parent of a child with a mental disability wants – a normal working life for their child with social acceptance and recognition. At the time there was nothing vaguely close to it in Hong Kong. You would sometimes see one or two being hired in menial jobs that no one else wanted.”
The young people thrive on the attention, encouragement and support. “My motivation is that they can be just like everyone else. They’re taking public transport, they have a job and also there are consequences for being late. It’s new and exciting for them and their parents.”
Shih’s latest project is working with a group of young adults, including Evelyn, teaching them Cantonese. “It’s a social group as well,” says Shih. “I’m also getting them to knit scarves for the elderly.”
While Shih feels it is vital for young people with disabilities to have the chance of a proper job, she says the introduction of a minimum wage has possibly been to the detriment of those with disabilities.
“Someone with a disability is less likely to be able to be competitive,” she says. “I have noticed that the major fast-food chains have fewer and fewer people with disabilities. The minimum wage has put pressure on employers to hire the most able workers. That is my concern.”
Shih would like to see a quota systems for workers with disabilities within public and private corporations, as in some other countries.