KOTA KINABALU: As families nibble on red velvet, almond flake cookies and other Chinese New Year snacks, many are probably unaware where these crunchy and flaky treats were crafted.
Most may assume that the cookies were baked at a commercial bakery where the clattering machines indicate that the mixing of the ingredients, rolling of the dough, and the baking and packaging is all mechanised.
But this is no normal commercial bakery. The cookies those families are enjoying are individually handmade.
The ingredients are measured out by hand, then blended in a mixer, after which the dough is manually weighed and each piece carefully rolled out and cut before being baked and then individually packed.
All this is done in almost complete silence, except for the hum of the mixers.
The team of eight bakers communicate to each other in sign language as all of them are hearing impaired.
The bakery at Bukit Padang is operated by the Sabah Society for the Deaf (SSD) and aims to provide baking skills to young people so that ultimately they’ll be able to find jobs at commercial bakeries.
Many trainees have indeed moved on to employment at bakeries around Kota Kinabalu, but some cannot do that as they are not only deaf but have multiple other disabilities.
Some are autistic or slow learners; several have cerebral palsy, and others suffer from attention deficit disorder.
Almost all the trainees start very young at the SSD centre kindergarten and preschool where one of the first things they learn is Malaysian sign language or bahasa isyarat Malaysia.
Children who have no other disability are eventually integrated into special primary and secondary schools where they study alongside other students.
Those with other disabilities usually stay on at the SSD school.
SSD school principal Regina Wong tells FMT, “This bakery is a place where deaf adults with other disabilities can come to work. They have a daily routine which is so crucial for them.”
She says that the bakery is less a commercially driven enterprise than a sheltered environment for the deaf with other disabilities to work in, where the challenges they face are recognised.
Overseeing the team of eight bakers aged between 16 and 35 is Nathaniel Bernard, 23. He is responsible for measuring out the ingredients and mixing them before turning the dough over to his colleagues to cut, roll and shape into cookies ready for baking.
“Due to their disabilities, they take longer to do certain tasks. Sometimes they’ll keep rolling a piece of dough until they’re told to stop,” says Regina. “If the first recipe needed 80g of dough and the next one needs 120g, they will often continue cutting it to the previous weight.”
Keeping a close eye on the bakery operation, Nathaniel who is deaf but without other disabilities, makes sure all the dough is properly rolled, cut and shaped before being put in the oven.
He completed his form five studies in Penang and then did his basic baking training at SSD. He could go on to work at a commercial bakery, but he prefers to stay put for now.
“I like it here,” he says in sign language, interpreted by Regina.
Though the product range is limited, the cookies made by Nathaniel and his team have a ready market as the parents and families of the bakers help promote them. Regina says they now have enough orders to keep them busy right up to the holidays.
This is good news, as the revenue earned from the SSD cookies keeps the bakery going, enough even to give the bakers a small allowance.
Regina says they hope to improve the bakery operation and are seeking help to acquire more equipment including commercial ovens, mixers and refrigerators.
“We hope to make this bakery self-sufficient. That means economic empowerment for this group of disabled people,” she says.
As families enjoy their red velvet cookies and other festive baked goods, they are lending a helping hand to those with multiple disabilities without even realising it.
By : Ruben Sario – FMT