PAUL PUN CHI MENG, SECRETARY-GENERAL OF CARITAS MACAU – Disabled people are not merely service receivers. They can be contributors

– Marco Carvalho

This week, the University of Saint Joseph has been a hotspot for art and inclusiveness. Macau’s Catholic university co-hosted with Caritas the Asia Pacific Accessible Art Festival 2019, an event that brought together more than 250 disabled artists from fourteen countries and territories in the Asia-Pacific region.

First held in 2016, the Festival helped to establish an art and cultural sharing platform for people with disabilities in East Asia and the Pacific, to strengthen cultural interaction and to enhance cooperation among non-governmental organizations that work closely with disabled people and children with special needs. The event has been held in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, where it helped to foster access and accessibility.

Art, Mr Paul Pun Chi Meng says, represents an intrinsic development for disabled people, by allowing them to express themselves. The Secretary-General of Caritas Macau believes that art allows people with physical or mental disabilities to give back to society. Full inclusiveness is still, nevertheless, a mirage. There’s still a lot to be done, Paul Pun recognizes, so that Macau society can become more inclusive. Starting, the Caritas strongman says, by public transportation.

This is a very important event, a very significant one. You mentioned in your speech that the Asia Pacific Accessible Art Festival has been organized in Hong Kong and in Taiwan and that this is the first time it comes to Macau. How important it is for Macau to receive such an event?

It is important for Macau to be recognized as something more than a leisure center and an international city. We should have some elements so that, in fact, we do become an international city. As an international city, we should be able to receive people from different nations, different territories, but this is not enough. We should receive people from different countries and different territories, but we should also be able to receive people with disabilities. We tend to ignore people with disabilities in our societies. We try to do something, we have to do something but, nevertheless, disabled people tend to be ignored by public policies. From time to time we hear someone saying that disabled people are important, but what can we do so that they do feel important? Art? Could this be an important method for them, so they can play a more active role? When we talk about disabled people we try to address needs like transportation, food, education or medical care, but art, itself, represents an intrinsic development for them. It helps them to express themselves. It’s something good for them.

This kind of need, the need for artistic education … Is it being addressed here in Macau? Do these children and young people receive any kind of artistic formation? And how important it is for them to make us of art to express themselves?

Currently in Macau, the Education Bureau is offering quite a strong support to disabled people and to children with special needs. The Government supports those individuals who have disabilities, namely providing them with an inclusive education. The Education Bureau has been investing a lot: it has been training specialized staff to support them, helping the parents so that they can understand and educate their children. The Government is giving them a lot of opportunities so that they can do something. This doesn’t mean that everything’s done already. There are still things that have to be addressed. We need to make society realize that disabled people are not merely service receivers. They can be contributors, just like Cheong Ka Keong, the young man that played the piano in the opening ceremony of the Festival. He studied in Caritas School a few years ago. Back then, he didn’t play well, but he just needed encouragement. We gave him a piano, we let him play in the school and later on he started to learn and to improve all by himself. Eventually he became an accomplished piano player and now he can even tune the piano for others. He isn’t only a piano player. He’s also a piano tuner. It is important to give them the opportunity to collaborate. It is not enough to be helpful, to give help when help is needed. This is one of the ways we can work together so that our society can be more harmonious.

How many people took part in this year’s edition of Asia Pacific Accessible Art Festival?

This year we had 150 friends from 14 countries and territories. These are the people that came from abroad. From Macau, we have another one hundred participants, so altogether this event brought together 250 people. The number, nevertheless, is not important. The most important is how we gradually improve our involvement, by bringing more people from more countries, so that they can share among themselves. Most of these people never had this kind of opportunity. In the past we had partners only in four places. Now we have in 14 nations and territories, including Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring people together. People from places like Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam, they treasure this opportunity. It’s very rare for them to meet people from other nations and cultures.

You were saying that disabled people tend to be ignored by society. Is this still the case here in Macau?

More than thirty years ago, I volunteered to take care of people with disabilities. People would laugh at me: “Why are you doing that?” Nowadays, no one laughs at those who volunteer to take care of the others. In this sense, things have improved a great deal. There was a big improvement in the way the Macau society sees people with disabilities. The only thing that didn’t change is the fact that most of the people still don’t know how to communicate with them, how to connect with them or how to understand their feelings. These are the skills we need to teach children when they are small.

How well are disabled people integrated in Macau society? A couple of years ago, the Government made an effort in order to try to open the job market to our local disabled residents. How successful was this effort? Is there a job market for people with disabilities? Or it is still difficult?

Ten years ago it was very difficult.  Now, I wouldn’t say it is difficult to find them a job. If we make an effort, to help them find a job is still possible. The biggest problem is how we can help them to maintain that job, do well, succeed and cooperate with the other colleagues. We need to strengthen our effort. Finding them a job is not enough anymore. We have to be able to help them to maintain that job and to do the job well.

How hard is that?

It’s very difficult …

You were saying that 30 years ago people would laugh at you. Is it easy for someone that doesn’t have any kind of disability to accept as a colleague or a working partner someone that suffers from some sort of disability?

Nowadays people already have some sort of idea about the concept of disability. They feel morally compelled to help people, to give them a chance. In my opinion, to help people, to give them a chance is not enough. We have to be friends with them and believe that, as colleagues, we can work together. It’s not enough to let them have a job and be kind to them. We must make them feel that they are part of something and that we are together, so that they do their work well and they can maintain their job with stability.

Caritas has a school for children with special needs. How many children, how many young people with disabilities does Caritas help on a daily basis?

In that school we have one hundred and something students, but we also have another school – Saint John de Britto School – where we accepts students with special needs. There we have over forty students. Those students are integrated in a normal school. We are dealing with two different groups of people in two separate ways. We cater to students with moderate and severe disability; the other group, we don’t consider them people with disabilities. They need special attention, they need to be integrated in the community.

In Macau, one of the complaints which is often made regards the fact that Macau is not always a very friendly city to those with special needs. There’s not a lot of space to move around, sidewalks are tight and cramped. Is Macau an easy city for someone with special needs, for someone with disabilities? We don’t tend to see much people with wheelchairs going around in the streets or event in public parks. Why doesn’t this happen more often?

One of the problems has to do with our transportation system. Our transportation system is not very well equipped. If we could change the way people make use of public buses, for instance, we would be improving a lot. If instead of letting the passengers enter only in the front, we would encourage them to enter in the middle, this would encourage more people to enter with less conflict with the major group that uses the front door to enter the bus. For a disabled, if you were to enter the bus using the front door you wouldn’t stand a chance. It’s difficult. On the other hand, most of the people in wheelchairs, unfortunately, they don’t have much room to enter a public bus. Caritas already has an alternative solution and encourages people to use our services, so that we can be an active part of society. We want them to be integrated into Macau’s society, to join our activities. I think that, gradually, we will see more disabled people in the streets. We have a shuttle bus now, with fifteen stops in Macau, Taipa and Coloane. We offer this service from eight o’clock to eight p.m. This is an effort we are doing. Hopefully, you will be able to meet more friends who are disabled. We expect them to be visible not only in the sidewalks or public parks, but also in restaurants and other places. We want you to see them not only when you go to the hospitals. We want them to be the ones who visit people in the hospital, instead of being the ones that are visited. We want to see them joining friends in a restaurant, praying in a temple or reading in libraries.