Exclusive | Mary Davis

Special Olympics global chief: First-hand experience promotes hiring people with disabilities

Experiencing the qualities of Special Olympics athletes will help SME employers decide to hire them, Mary Davis, CEO of Special Olympics International, said in an exclusive interview with the Times.

The Special Olympics – including its Macau branch – is not only a sporting event organizer but is also a service provider supporting people with intellectual disabilities. It has long helped participants find employment.

Davis said that besides sports training, the organization also provides vocational training for athletes.

“Skills such as teamwork, timekeeping, collaboration and leadership are cultivated in our athletes,” Davis said. “These skills are all transferrable to everybody’s daily lives.”

Over 95% of Macau businesses are micro, small and medium-sized. To them, each employee is vital and they expect everyone to use their own abilities to the utmost. This may discourage these SMEs from hiring Special Olympics athletes as well as other candidates with disabilities.

To combat the situation, Davis cited communication as the key.

“I would first ask them to invite our athletes to meet and speak to other employees at the company, so everybody can see the values that [the athletes] will bring [to the company],” Davis said. “[The company] can see their joy, passion and enthusiasm that are comparable to other people’s.”

Athletes will also have the chance to share their first-hand knowledge and experience with the company, so that the company can better understand their qualities. In Davis’s experience, employers have spoken highly about the values that Special Olympics athletes have brought to their companies.

Volunteering for the Special Olympics is also a way to trigger incentives for hiring Special Olympics athletes, Davis added, because through these activities both employers and employees can interact with athletes and better understand their abilities.

Support for parents is also crucial. Recently, an education and information-based app has been built to provide support to new parents and their families with intellectually disabled children, so that they will have more knowledge and understanding of the particular types of disabilities their children experience.

“It could be Down Syndrome or autism, but we explain the different types of disabilities,” Davis explained. “We also introduce them to the Special Olympics and related programs.”

It is also important, Davis added, that the app familiarize them with the strengths and talents that these children possess.

“It’s a stigma to have children with intellectual disabilities, but we want to show that there should not be any shame,” Davis said. “These people have a great deal of talent and abilities, and with necessary opportunities, training and education, they can excel across a broad range of areas.”

She then recounted that in last Sunday’s marathon, an athlete from the local Special Olympics completed the half marathon in two hours, while the other two competitors finished the race. She also said that when Special Olympics athletes compete, their differences – if any – cannot be discerned from their appearance or performance.

Sports bring self-confidence and self-esteem to Special Olympics athletes, Davis added. The athletes’ families also experience great pride in their children.

In addition to this, peer groups are also provided to help parents and children with early diagnosis and interventions.

Davis said the organization provides training to healthcare workers so they become familiar with people with intellectual disabilities. There are many occasions, she said, in which healthcare workers and clinicians do not understand or appreciate that their patients are actually intellectually disabled. Many healthcare workers may consider their autistic patients as being merely uncontrollable, introverted or badly behaved.

In addition, the organization operates regular health check-ups for their athletes. Davis said many people with intellectual disabilities do not understand that the discomfort or inconvenience they experience from physical illnesses or conditions are preventable, curable and unnecessary.

For example, she said, a person suffering blurred eyesight may consider this normal until an ophthalmologist runs tests on them and confirms their eye problems – be that short-sightedness or long sightedness – to them. Only then will they get proper treatment and prescriptions.

The Macau Special Olympics runs a similar healthcare program in partnership with local clinicians.

Of the 32 sports that the Special Olympics International offers, 14 are available in Macau. The criterion for offering a sport is mainly the capability of providing that sport in a particular jurisdiction. There are 2,000 athletes in Macau, but the organization is striving to reach out to more people with intellectual disabilities.

Davis added that the organization has not established age limits on its athletes, adding that provided the athletes are physically fit, they will be able to “be the best in what they can do.”

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