Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 October 2020

How work placements help UAE teens with learning disabilities achieve their dreams

iCademy Middle East is giving teenagers with mild and moderate conditions vital experience of the workplace

Luca Trudgeon and fellow student Lamees Saad Omer get to work at Dubai Offshore Sailing Club. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Luca Trudgeon and fellow student Lamees Saad Omer get to work at Dubai Offshore Sailing Club. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The biggest of dreams can often begin with the smallest of steps.

Luca Trudgeon aspires to be a voice actor, while Sasha Campbell is busily perfecting her creative skills as a manga artist.

Dubai Offshore Sailing Club might seem an unexpected starting point for the pair of teenagers, as they meticulously jot down food orders, wipe down tables and help prepare coffee for guests.

But every second spent is a rewarding experience as they learn to manage their learning difficulties and ensure those lofty goals don't fall by the wayside.

Working here helps because once I do things repeatedly, I understand how it works. I have learnt to be polite, I remember to concentrate when I take down an order

Sasha Campbell

They are among a group of students from iCademy Middle East, an online learning school that supports students with mild to moderate learning disabilities by combining academic studies with employment skills.

Working a few hours a week at the sailing club has been a confidence booster and helped them integrate with the world around them.

“I was worried I would trip, that I would slip up, that I might forget something,” said Ms Campbell, who is autistic and has ambitions to create comic books and learn digital art.

“I’m often clumsy and I get worried and paranoid about it. Working here helps because once I do things repeatedly, I understand how it works. I have learnt to be polite, I remember to concentrate when I take down an order.”

The 19-year-old posts surreal illustrations and dark-toned watercolours of wide-eyed anime and manga characters (types of Japanese cartoons and animations) on her Instagram handle - shamarooy.

She sketched a vivid purple ethereal figure that was bought last month by a customer on an online store for independent artists that she linked her Instagram account to.

“I’m growing older and I need to support myself. I enjoy art and if I get a café job it will help me support my hobbies,” she said.

Her co-worker, 17-year-old Luca, adeptly balances a heavy tray on his forearm.

Teenager Sasha Campbell is getting to grips with the workplace as she pursues her dreams of a career as an artist. Chris Whiteoak/The National
Sasha and other young people with mild and moderate learning difficulties are getting to grips with the workplace. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“If people order more than four things too quickly, I have to get them to say it slower,” said Luca, who has ADHD and dyslexia.

“It’s challenging sometimes to understand people but this helps my communication skills. I like to understand how the system in a restaurant works. I’m hoping to be really good so I can get paid part-time work.”

The teenagers are part of a programme called iCad+ that teaches personal development skills for students aged 18 to 20. Other students work in a coffee company and a money transfer firm.

The vocational experience is in addition to a British accredited academic programme they learn online and in class. The institute takes in students between 12 to 21 years with learning difficulties ranging from Asperger syndrome, speech problems, mild cerebral palsy, visual impairment, behavioural and social difficulties.

On a recent morning, the two teenagers along with classmates Lamees Saad Omer and Nikolina Stogiannidou helped guests settle into chairs on a wooden deck overlooking the marina in Dubai’s Umm Suqeim area.

Luca is passionate about voice impressions and he lowers his voice as slips into an eerie likeness of Heath Ledger’s Joker character and repeats a favourite dialogue from the Hollywood hit.

“I can do loads of voices. It takes me months to practice and get the tone right,” said the teenager.

“Long term I do have a dream job. I want to be a voice actor in games or animation films.”

The work placement prepares them as they remember coping mechanisms when situations don’t go as planned.

“I wasn’t sure how to control the machine so I over-steamed the coffee,” said classmate Ms Omer, 18, who has learning difficulties, about her first day.

“I kept on trying for the next few days and now I know how to make lattes, Americano and espresso. I’m more relaxed. I take a few breaths and tell myself I will be okay. I speak more confidently now.”

Supportive staff watch over the new interns as they serve customers. The morning slot was specifically chosen for work placements when the restaurant at the popular sailing club is less busy.

Building self-reliance by taking the teaching outside the classroom is crucial, said Jo Nolan, iCademy Middle East's special educational needs co-ordinator.

Lamees Saad Omer, Luca Trudgeon, Sasha Campbell and Nikolina Stogiannidou (from left to right) are taught by Rudy Puertullano how to master holding a heavy tray with one hand. Teenagers with mild to moderate learning difficulties help make coffee, jot down orders from customers at the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club to prepare them for the work environment. Chris Whiteoak / The National
The trainees with Rudy Puertullano at Dubai Offshore Sailing Club. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Finding the right work placement was a challenge since companies rely on computers and no longer have traditional tasks of filing and photo copying earlier handed to new recruits.

“We don’t want our students to be in an environment where they are just standing around. We like to see a real sense of accomplishment when they interact with staff, follow instruction from unfamiliar adults, communicate and ask questions,” she said.

The centre is looking for placements with retail outlets and cafes willing to set aside time to understand the special needs of student interns.

“Until they can relate what they hear from teachers to a work environment, it’s difficult for them to see what it is really like outside. This becomes a real experience for them,” Ms Nolan said.

In the beginning the students were very shy and quiet... but they are growing in understanding of how the restaurant runs. Each week I see them taking on more

Sasha Haines, Dubai Offshore Sailing Club

Sasha Haines, service manager of the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club, has seen engagements levels of students and staff rise as they interact and learn from each other.

“In the beginning the students were very shy and quiet, they were not sure how they fitted in,” she said.

“The first week they were happy doing simple task of cleaning the tables but they are growing in understanding of how the restaurant runs. Each week I see them taking on more.”

Ms Haines sometimes chats with customers ahead to let them know an intern will be serving them and not a regular staffer.

“People are happy to be part of this. It’s good for my team too,” she said.

“The juniors think it’s great to have someone they can pass on their knowledge to and they understand the value of teaching.”

Updated: January 6, 2020 04:24 PM

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