THE beehive bustle of Brickfields is unusually low-key with a noticeable lack of pedestrians and commercial buzz. The only hum of activity seems to come from the light traffic along the main artery. After all, it’s a public holiday and a long weekend mixed together. Up above, a thick grey blanket of clouds covers the night sky, hiding the moon and threatening to unleash more droplets.
Luck favours a group of around 80 people gathered outdoors in a field, in a dim corner of this neighbourhood, waiting to witness a blazing fire. It’s surprisingly silent as I walk towards them, a group of mainly young adults and some parents seated in rows facing an invisible stage. No loud chatter or raucous laughter. Just calm and anticipation.
Minutes later after some welcome remarks, six individuals surround a stack of wood doused with kerosene and torch it, bringing a handsome bonfire roaring to life and marking the start of campfire night, metres away from the front entrance of Methodist College Kuala Lumpur.
“Gimme a P!” hollers the young emcee.
“P… you gotcha P, you gotcha P!” chants the audience as they clap simultaneously in rhythm, before continuing with the complete name: “M-D-CAMP! M-D-CAMP! Ohhhhh…. Yeahhhh!!!”
Everyone immediately waves their little Malaysian flags, concluding the catchy cheer led by Camp Commander Sherrene Teh, while her colleague and Camp Director Prakash Ravindran supervises by the sidelines. The event has only just begun.
“Camp can be a scary thing for people who have never camped before,” begins Prakash, turning to me, before adding: “So we wanted a mix to get that camping feel and not to be too outdoor-ish.” About half of the participants, whose ages fall between 16 and 30, have never stayed away from home, let alone for two nights without their parents.
This isn’t a camp for just any young person. An annual event that is now in its third year, Malaysia D’Camp serves as an inclusive platform for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs), an umbrella term used to cover individuals with autism, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and learning difficulties like dyslexia.
“I work with a wide range of age groups,” shares Prakash who is a Clinical Psychologist at Oasis Place, the organiser of this unique camp. “For young adults, it’s more about life skills, social interaction, and exposure to these kinds of things. So the camp is a very organic way of getting that opportunity. “
In addition, there’s value in them being away from their parents at this stay-over camp. Besides getting them out of their comfort zone and doing things differently, one of the goals includes giving parents or caregivers some much-needed rest. “They’re always with them, taking care of them. We said send them here for this camp, we know what it takes, we have the manpower, we’ll make sure they enjoy themselves, you guys can rest,” continues the camp director.
The application process has to be strict and thorough. Parents must provide details about their child’s special needs, their level of independence and what daily living skills they possess, for instance. “The reason is because when we recruit volunteers, we don’t want them to be babysitters, having to feed and change clothes,” explains Prakash. “Their role is to be a peer buddy. The person that befriends them, interacts with them. Some of these young adults can be close to non-verbal. Language skills are poor but understanding is there so they can follow instructions and do tasks.”
The camp organisers have implemented a same gender, one-to-one pairing system. Everyone has a peer buddy and both sides are taught to be accountable to each other. When Prakash briefs the volunteers, he works on breaking down any barriers or concerns. “Treat them as if you’re their friend, so talk to them, ask them questions, help them out if they need it. They’re independent but you’re there as a peer buddy to make sure they enjoy their experience and also to be our extra eyes.”
To make the camping experience less harrowing for first-timers, participants are not compelled to sleep outdoors in tents although the option is provided. Instead, the ground floor classrooms of the Methodist College KL have been converted into dormitories, with separate ones for the girls and boys. They have to bring their own sleeping bags or other beddings and though they sleep on the floor, the air-conditioning provides some comfort.
This year’s team-building theme puts the focus on fostering teamwork or a platoon environment. Scouts from the Bukit BIntang district were invited to join and hence scouting activities have been incorporated into the programme. Since arriving, the campers have taken part in music, dance and movement sessions facilitated by multi-disciplinary therapists from Oasis Place, with the aim of using what they learnt for a group performance at the closing ceremony. And just like a school sports day or team-building course, they get to experience outdoor fun in the form of a telematch, tug-of-war and a scavenger hunt.
When I ask Prakash to share a common misconception about individuals with learning difficulties, he replies: “They can’t do what other people can do. They’re different and they need to be treated differently. But in this camp, we have inclusion. You find ways to bring out their abilities and not say you can’t do this.”
He cites the tug-of-war match as an example. “You don’t know how to play, you just sit and watch. No. You come and do your part, even if you’re not the strongest or physically able, you can cheer. We want them to do things that people might think they can’t do.”
ENABLING THE DISABLED
Shortly after arriving at campfire night, I’m told that both the impaired individuals and the volunteers are wearing the same red T-shirt design with the words ‘Malaysia D’Camp, Celebrating Inclusion of Youths 2018’ emblazoned on the front, along with a yellow scarf. This makes it harder to differentiate those with IDDs from their peers, especially since some are higher functioning.
That is the point. Not to differentiate. A couple of them carried out duties as Master of Ceremony (emcee), a public speaking role that strikes fear in most of us. Another with Asperger syndrome was invited to snap event photos for the organiser owing to his interest in photography. When a pair of sisters performs a rousing rendition of ‘Let It Go’, I discover that the girl strumming the guitar while singing, has autism.
Prakash keenly emphasises that “…they have abilities and talents. People don’t know it because they see a person with a disability. They don’t get to know that person.” As a clinical psychologist, he encourages not only patience when interacting with IDDs, but also to give them a chance and attention. “Have an open mind, see what they can do and they’ll surprise you,” he advises.
The flames from the bonfire dance vigorously in the background as if wanting to be part of the action taking place on this last night of the camp. I watch as each group comes forward to present their team identity, their flag and holler things like “Together we are P7!” in a heartening display of camaraderie.
In between, musical performances liven up the evening, from choreographed dance routines by the scouts, to individuals belting out songs like You Raise Me Up. Simple handmade lanterns to observe Mid-Autumn Festival bring soft little glows among the campers and guests, and upon invitation from the emcee, everyone stands to sing Negaraku, a fitting end to the event. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in tune or not. It matters that they’re singing together and that these special youths are enjoying themselves with their buddies.
As one of the campfire night emcees, soft-spoken Nurul Asyiqin Ismahani showed fortitude for a task that she only took on that same day. The shy 18-year old acknowledges the help from her peer buddy: “Macam speaking, saya kurang. Tapi saya dengar apa yang dia cakap, saya faham sikit sikit. Saya tak faham Bahasa Inggeris tapi akak tolong…” (Like speaking, I’m not very good. But I hear what she says and I understand some things. I don’t understand English but she helps…) I ask if it’s her first time as an emcee and she immediately chirps proudly: “Yes, my first time!”
Her buddy, 22-year old Tharahni Kalaiselvan, is like a pillar of support, helping Asyiqin to find the right words as we chat. Tharahni is no stranger to volunteering for different causes. This time, the challenge is different. “Some of them, although 16-years old, they still don’t know how to use the washroom. We also have to use sign language a lot.” She has learnt how to communicate and teach those with learning differences, sharing with me that patience is important.
INCLUSION OF YOUTHS
Camps such as these are rare, opines Prakash, adding that more services and support are needed for young adults with intellectual disabilities or developmental delay. He believes that in this field, emphasis is placed more on early intervention, such as around 5-6 years. Paediatrician and researcher Datuk Dr Amar-Singh HSS wrote a paper in 2013 which indicated that “between 15-20 per cent of all children have some disability or special needs.” This figure would be even higher if older kids and young adults are not included.
Prakash laments that they often get left out. “Actually that’s when they need a lot of help because parents don’t know what to do. They have a 17-18-year-old who doesn’t have a proper education due to various reasons. What happens next for them? There’s a big gap in that area.”
That jab of reality highlights the significance of Malaysia D’Camp as a platform for motivation and empowerment. These youths may have a chance to attend a faith-based camp with their family but they might be the only one there with special needs. Here, in this camp, they are the centrepieces.
During one of the earlier music and movement sessions, the campers were encouraged to be more involved. Prakash recounts a memorable moment of inclusion which began with someone coming forward to try beatboxing. “He started beatboxing and we were clapping our hands. Then another camper, Nicholas, who’s not very verbal… we managed to get him to sing Rasa Sayang. Then the whole group was in a circle, clapping and singing along! That was a hair-raising kind of moment! To me, that’s the beauty of it. You don’t get the opportunity to see that often.”
“I am strong when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be.”
-(You Raise Me Up by Josh Groban)