Hetzer Siu Yu Hong: Disability isn’t what differentiates human beings

Monday, July 6, 2009
Issue 754, Page 12 – 13
Word count: 1672
Published in: Macau Daily Times

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

It may not be easy for a society to eliminate the stereotypes of disabled people and welcome them as like the others, but Hetzer Siu Yu Hong, who has dedicated the prime time of his life and knowledge to the Special Olympics Macau (SOM), is willing to take the lead.

Founded in Macau in 1987, Special Olympics is an international organisation aimed to strengthen people with intellectual disabilities to become “physically fit, productive and respected members of society” through mainly sports activities.

Speaking to the Macau Daily Times yesterday at the Northern District Luso-Chinese Primary School, National Director of SOM Hetzer Siu Yu Hong said local people tend to discriminate against the intellectually disabled with actions – despite unconsciously – but not with speech.

Mr Siu pointed out that the government did not set a good example of taking into consideration this group of people, especially in the policy-making process.

Hence, SOM’s role in society is even more prominent. Apart from organising sports classes every week, it runs social welfare programs including vocational rehabilitation and job referrals, as well as a social enterprise that offers about 20 cleaning positions to the intellectually disabled people.

Yesterday in the primary school SOM organised a health promotional event that provided free eye examinations and nutritional testing to the community.

Reporter: How did you start working for the Special Olympics Macau?

Hetzer Siu Yu Hong: I started as a volunteer for SOM in 1988 to coach sports and organise activities after I completed my high school. The longer I worked there the more I found my interest in this area, and at the same time I started to feel that what I learned in school couldn’t fully help the people and my skill wasn’t sufficient. Thus in 1995 I went to a local night school where I obtained a social work degree.

Afterwards I worked for about two years as a social worker in the government. But eventually I found that working in NGO (non-governmental organisations) was more pleasant and so I started to work full-time in SOM in 2003.

NGO offer more front-line services and gives more opportunities for an individual to play his or her role. Certainly the government is also helping the disadvantaged groups, but maybe not in a very direct way. In the government, not many social workers can make use of their professional skills and knowledge because there is an existing system or a set of procedures that civil servants have to comply with.

R: Why are you so dedicated to this job?

Mr Siu: I guess is because of my interest, or fate. My first job after completing high school was quite “laid-back” and so I started to spend my spare time on doing some “meaningful” things. At the beginning I wasn’t as dedicated as I’m now, but gradually I made some friends and found that disabled people’s needs were always being overlooked in society.

Although local people never had any intense actions or discriminations against the disabled, the problem of them being neglected is still serious.

People will not say anything that discriminates against the disabled, but their actions will usually reflect that they try to avoid this group of people.

For example some activities the government organises only invite intellectually disabled people to go but don’t reserve places for their families. They don’t understand that these people can’t go to places alone. This limits their opportunity to participate in society.

We noticed that in new large facilities women’s washrooms were built bigger in order to minimise their waiting time. This is a kind of eliminations of gender discrimination, because people started to provide different services for different people so that they can receive the same treatment.

However, in Macau this kind of cognition for disabled people is still weak. Despite all architectures in Macau are obliged to be built with barrier-free facilities, how many of them really stick to the rule?

This is a very challenging job. As a social worker, helping the vulnerable groups is driven by a sense of mission.

R: Does that mean that the government hasn’t been doing enough?

Mr Siu: I’m talking about here the level of acceptance in society. As what I just mentioned many companies will automatically enlarge women’s washrooms as they know that it’s something they have to do in an advanced society. But until now in Macau I still didn’t see a trend that people think they should give privileges to disabled people.

The government’s attitude is also not right. The bus fare concessions only put students and elderly people on the list. The government didn’t think that they have to pay special attention to disabled people.

Although in recent years the government started to put more efforts into this area, the pace is very slow and its attitude remains an issue.

As for the income subsidy scheme, the government pays all eligible residents aged 40 or above a subsidy until their monthly incomes reach 4,000 patacas. But they didn’t take into consideration intellectually disabled people usually earn a relatively lower income as well. Aging is a serious issue in this group of people and when they get to 40 years old, their health may already be unable to let them continue working and thus they can’t benefit much from the scheme.

The government’s policies do not look at disabled people and give them special offers. I hope that the government can be more flexible in mind and won’t forget that disabled people are also part of Macau residents.

R: What is the approximate population of disabled people in Macau?

Mr Siu: In the 2001 Census the disabled population was 5,000, while in 2006 the number jumped to 8,000. Of the 5,000, it said that about 500 were intellectually disabled. But in the same year SOM already had some 800 members. This reflects that the government can’t grasp the real figures very well.

Yet this phenomenon is common around the world including in Taiwan and Hong Kong. It’s hard to obtain the actual figures not only in Asian countries but also in the western world. No one is willing to tell a stranger when asked whether their children are intellectually disabled.

According to the World Health Organization’s guideline, disabled people should make up about five to six percent of the world population, while the intellectually disabled about two to three percent. In regards to Hong Kong, it said about 2.33 percent of the population were with intellectual disabilities. As Hong Kong and Macau have a similar demographic profile, we could assume that Macau has about 12,000 intellectually disabled people. But SOM only has about 1,100 members currently.

On the other hand, Hong Kong reported 80 percent of the disabled population were having a mild degree of disability, while 17 percent were moderate and only three percent were severe. In contrast, among our 1,100 SOM members, 30 percent are of a mild degree and the rest are between moderate to severe. As all over the world people with mild degree of disability normally make up the largest part of the disabled population, by comparing the above figures it showed that a lot of people with mild degree of intellectual impairment in Macau are not inside our service network. Some of them might have hid themselves at home and thus they couldn’t be identified. Our capability to single out mild-degree intellectually disabled people in society is weak. These people are at risk of being used in criminal activities which has been a potential problem in Macau.

R: Could you share with us your experience of getting along or working with the intellectually disabled?

Mr Siu: The most important thing is to see them as a human being, just like we have some friends who don’t eat fish and some don’t eat vegetable. If we can see them from this perspective and appreciate their strengths, it will be easier for us to accept their performance. We also have to respect people have different interests and characteristics. Society usually deems the intellectually disabled are different from the others, but if we look deeper every one out there is different. From the very beginning we tell ourselves that they are individuals with intellectual impairments and that’s why we think they’re not the same as us.

R: What did you learn from them after all these years?

Mr Siu: Just as the old saying, I learned about the importance of life, no matter how bad it may seem. Although the intellectually disabled usually have a lower living standard, they have the determination to enjoy their lives. We can see the meaning of life on them that having 100 million dollars doesn’t mean the best of everything. I also learned from them how to appreciate and explore people’s strengths and characteristics.

R: Did you have any impressive experience or regrets about your work?

Mr Siu: When I was still the sports coach in SOM there was a 10-year-old girl who always skipped classes because of illnesses. After the Chinese New Year I didn’t see her again and later found that she actually passed away due to heart disease. It was so unexpected and at that time I would ask myself whether it was because I didn’t do my best to help her strengthen her body.

Also, some members after leaving SOM would pretend not knowing me as they were already inside the mainstream society and didn’t want to talk about their past. But at the same some would come back to visit me and said they got a stable job or were getting married, which gave me a feeling of success as my efforts paid off.

R: What is your future plan?

Mr Siu: I hope that SOM can develop a more stable service plan with a long-term vision. Personally, in the future after SOM’s operation gets stronger, I would like to pursue further studies. As a professional, it’s necessary to keep upgrading my knowledge and enhancing my skills in order to serve the people better.

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