S A R A A S H E N C A E N C R A B T R E E
I am Professor of Social & Cultural Diversity and former Head of Sociology at Bournemouth University, UK. I am a qualified social work academic, but my academic interests straddle the social sciences. I have enjoyed an exciting international academic career in Malaysia, the UAE and Hong Kong, which inspired my work into comparative social work, Social Work & Islam, psychiatry in post-colonial countries, disabilities in the Middle East, racism in Hong Kong and dengue prevention. But the two best souvenirs from these international adventures have been my young daughters, one born in Malaysia and one in the Middle East.
Kembang is a rather special painting that I bought recently on a conference visit to the lovely island of Penang in Malaysia. This large, vibrant picture painted in bright Gauguin shades of pink, red, yellow, orange and summer blue, is entitled, appropriately, ‘Kembang’ (blossom) and was painted by a sixteen-year-old Malaysian artist by the name of Siti Atiqah. Siti is wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy and studies at the Penang Cerebral Palsy Children’s Association in Malaysia. I cherish the photograph I have of her which shows a smiling, pretty girl working on another of her vivacious canvases. In return she has a photograph of me and the family, who are the proud owners of this lovely picture, with our message to keep on painting!
Siti sells her lovingly but laboriously created work through ‘Stepping Stones’, a very impressive and welcoming Penang NGO offering supported employment for people with disabilities, run by Ai-Na Khor, the brisk and friendly CEO of Asia Community Service. Penang is famous for its social activism and range of progressive NGOs, but I was particularly taken by ‘Stepping Stones’, which runs a co-operative of skilled workers, regardless of the diverse range of disabilities apparent. Here they have created a flourishing cottage industry of ingeniously recycled goods. Among the handcrafts one can buy wonderful, colourful recycled paper made from banana fibres and where hand looms produce accomplished weavings, including contemporary chain mail: metallic fabric made of recycled cassette tapes!
Here we browsed among an array of crafts, all made on site: mint-scented soap from recycled (halal) oil, lovely ceramic leaf-shaped bowls, clever little fabric bags, cunningly made newspaper origami, and bright batik fabric using the traditional hot wax method.
I have chosen Kembang because …
… whenever I am feeling thoroughly disenchanted with social work at home in Britain, I look beyond to social work initiatives, like this NGO which, for me, epitomises all that is best about the developments taking place in social work internationally. Once people with disabilities in Britain had the opportunity to earn a modest wage by developing their skills at Adult Training Centres (ATS), now long closed in an ideological attempt to ‘mainstream’ them into the regular employment market with the inevitable result of many becoming unwaged and entirely dependent on welfare benefits. Such individuals are in turn threatened by neo-liberal government policies to cut their benefits, reducing them to further penury and exclusion from society. Visiting Stepping Stones I recalled my time as a social worker with people with learning disabilities in the post-ATS days where my adult ‘clients’ spent long days unoccupied, eking out their benefit money, supervised periodically by families if they were lucky or exploited by the unscrupulous if not. So much for ‘valuing people’.
Where are those disadvantaged people today? It is unlikely that many have independent and creative jobs to go to, unlike these active Penang citizens, who are, regardless of disabilities, able to make and spend a hard-earned and proudly won wage.