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Jobs, sports and community: Macao disability advocate unpacks how to support people with intellectual disabilities

Ada Lo, a member of the Macao government’s Rehabilitation Affairs Committee and longtime advocate for people with disabilities shares her thoughts on how vocational training programmes, athletics and inclusive education can open more doors.

A few years after moving from Hong Kong to Macao in 1999, Ada Lo found her calling. While leading a public relations team at Macao Water Supply Company between 2003 and 2008, she contributed to the company’s charity sponsorship programme.  

Lo and her team arranged sponsors to support the operations of many charities, such as the Macau Special Olympics (a local branch of the internationally recognised Special Olympics). The team also volunteered at charity events and took training courses on how to interact with people with intellectual disabilities. 

“At the time, my in-laws were so worried about me working with people with intellectual disabilities – they thought I would be physically attacked,” she says. “This attitude reflected a general misunderstanding about people with intellectual disabilities.”

Witnessing the prejudice directed at people with intellectual disabilities – generally defined as conditions in which a person experiences limitations in cognitive, social and/or practical skills  – Lo felt inspired to promote awareness about this important issue. 

Lo felt so passionate about this cause, she started volunteering with several empowering organisations, including the Macau Special Olympics, outside of work. As a volunteer, she helped the NGO hold events, expand their pool of sponsors, and also led the athletes representing Macao to international competitions such as the Special Olympics World Games.  

In addition to volunteering for the Macau Special Olympics, where she is currently the General Secretary, the mother-of-three runs an events and conference management company, and serves on the Macao government’s Rehabilitation Affairs Committee, advising policymakers on how to support people with disabilities.

We talk to Lo about her experience promoting disability rights in Macao, raising awareness about intellectual disabilities, and what still needs to be done to create a more supportive environment.

Ada Lo, an advocate for disability rights in Macao
Ada Lo, an advocate for disability rights in Macao. Credit: Antonio Sanmarful

Ariana: How has public perception about intellectual disabilities changed over time?

Ada Lo: Around 20 years ago, a lot of people in Macao didn’t understand much about this minority group. Because people with intellectual disabilities often demonstrate unexpected behaviours – for instance, suddenly shouting or running when stimulated – it may make other people feel uncomfortable or worried that the person could be violent, even if that’s not the case. 

Generally speaking, people also didn’t realise how much disabilities vary. For instance, Down’s syndrome [a chromosomal disorder that affects an individual’s development, behaviour, and some physical features] is one of the most common types of intellectual disabilities. 

Autism spectrum disorder –  characterised by social, learning, communication and behavioural challenges – might also be diagnosed concurrently with an intellectual disability depending on the situation, according to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  

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Graphic Credit: Fernando Chan

Ariana: What is important to understand about intellectual disabilities? 

AL: Different disabilities take on different forms. For instance, people with Down’s syndrome tend to be very friendly, sweet and affectionate – they love to give hugs. Meanwhile, those on the autistic spectrum may not have an obvious disability based on appearance, but they may be much less social and prefer not to be touched. 

Since there is such a broad spectrum of intellectual disabilities, people need to be able to identify different types and learn how to interact most effectively with people on a case by case basis. Thankfully, both the Macao government and NGOs have organised many events to raise awareness about intellectual disabilities [over the past two decades]. 

From fundraising to exhibitions, marathons and community activities; these events are great opportunities to promote inclusion because they often bring together people with intellectual disabilities, social workers and university students as volunteers. They also help the public understand that people with intellectual disabilities are part of the community and there is nothing to fear. 

Ariana: You have volunteered with the Macau Special Olympics for many years. Tell us a little more about the NGO’s work. 

AL: Established in 1987, Macau Special Olympics now operates 13 sports programmes including basketball, soccer, badminton, table tennis, track and field, football, golf, swimming and dragon boat racing. It also provides a range of support programmes such as occupational training, employment services and academic tutoring, as well as speech and physical therapy.

With these activities, we hope to encourage young people with intellectual disabilities to be themselves and develop new strengths and skills. For instance, if an intellectual disability causes cognitive, linguistic or social challenges, our professional therapists and volunteers help individuals improve these issues and build confidence in the process.

Ariana: How have you seen the situation change over time?

AL: In the past, a lot of parents would hide disabled children, worried they would bring shame to their siblings and families. Our social workers had to go around Macao and knock on doors to locate potential clients, then convince parents to let them join our activities. 

As society becomes more accepting, more families have become willing to participate openly. When I first started volunteering in 2003, the Macau Special Olympics had 300 athletes participating in weekly training. Today, more than 1,000 athletes participate in our sports and training programmes. 

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Credit: Macau Special Olympics

Ariana: Why is it important to provide opportunities for career development? 

AL: Around 10 years ago, people with intellectual disabilities had trouble finding careers in Macao because companies didn’t know how to work with them. Very often, employers had them sit on the sidelines and do nothing at the office. Not only can this type of situation be really discouraging for employees, but the company also misses the opportunity to harness each individual’s talent. 

People with intellectual disabilities have a lot of strengths. Depending on the situation, they can be extremely reliable with an impressive ability to perform tasks that require care and focus, such as baking, managing textiles and inventories, or working at energy, environmental, and industrial companies. Others can easily work as cleaners or office assistants – there are so many possibilities. 

Some people with developmental disorders or intellectual disabilities can be especially creative.  At my company, we employ a video producer who has autism. He is extremely focused and shares many innovative ideas through his work. But when it comes to communications, such as interviewing people or presenting ideas, he needs help from colleagues. 

Nowadays, we often need young people to influence and educate the older generations about social issues – be it the environment, gender equality or, in this case, disabilities. 

Ada Lo

Ariana: How are the job prospects in Macao? 

AL: In recent years, I can see that companies in Macao have made a lot of progress, thanks to the work done by NGOs – such as the Macau Special Olympics and Association of Parents of the People with Intellectual Disabilities of Macao – and the growing importance of corporate social responsibility. Our members come back and tell us about the changes in their offices, such as having friendly colleagues who are willing to help them and trust them in their work.   

To help more people with intellectual disabilities get hired, we need to enhance their competitiveness through adequate training, since human resources are really scarce in Macao. Various vocational training programmes could be provided by all the stakeholders – integrated resorts, small and medium enterprises, the government and NGOs should share this responsibility. 

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Ada Lo works with the leaders of Macau IC2, an NGO established by people with intellectual disabilities

Ariana: What can we do to foster a more inclusive environment?

AL: Education about intellectual disabilities is essential, yet it is still absent at local schools. Right now, we rely on community events to educate the public. We need to inform the younger generation about people with intellectual disabilities: What are the different conditions? What are the challenges? How can we engage them? How can we offer to help? 

This is fundamental civic education, and it should be implemented in primary schools. And when local students get to secondary school, we can offer them practical experiences where they volunteer at NGOs and interact directly with people with various disabilities.  

Another advantage is that students can go home to share what they have learned with their parents. Nowadays, we often need young people to influence and educate the older generations about social issues – be it the environment, gender equality or, in this case, disabilities.