I grew up the eldest of three siblings, but my siblings have never looked up to me as the big brother who would teach them lessons or protect them.
As children, I saw my younger siblings clock their milestones one by one – walking, running, speaking, reading – and all I felt was envy. Although I was the oldest, they surpassed me in every aspect.
I couldn’t walk or speak until the age of 6. Back then, my siblings often made fun of me for being different and slow. My younger brother found it odd that I couldn’t remember what the tutor had taught me and would say how “bobo” (stupid or dumb in Tagalog) I was. Mum had to explain to him that I was different, and learnt slower than others.
She tried to get me enrolled in various schools. Every time, she would explain to the parents of my classmates about my disability, so that I wouldn’t be bullied in school. Despite the best efforts of my teachers, I struggled to cope with the pace of the lessons and transferred from one school to another. I remembered switching schools at least four times.
Finally, at the age of 8, I was placed in a special school for children with disabilities. But things did not get any easier. I could barely understand the lessons and still couldn’t keep up.
My life turned around when I was 10. I remember taking a walk with my mum near the University of the Philippines when we chanced upon a group of athletes with disabilities training in sports at the university’s open field. Mum approached them and found out they were Special Olympics athletes.
At the time, I was physically weak. I had problems walking and had to hold on to someone’s hand for support all the time. I also had problems with my eyesight. So we were pleasantly surprised that the answer was an immediate “yes” when Mum asked if I could become a Special Olympics athlete.
I started simple training in athletics every Saturday. Although it was difficult, I never gave up. Neither did my family. Mum had to work weekends and Dad was based overseas, but Grandma made sure I never missed a single session of training.
After a few months, with the patient guidance of my coaches and my team, I got stronger. I can never forget the moment when I could finally walk on my own. I was at my regular Special Olympics 25-metre run practice, and my grandma encouraged me to let go of her hand. I was in disbelief when I crossed the finish line, completely unaided. The team went wild. I was so happy I gave my grandma a bear hug. I’ve not had to hold on to others from that moment on.
I also found the confidence to speak up and make friends. I now have team-mates and coaches who do not judge me based on my disability. For the first time, I felt the support of people who believed in my abilities, who pushed me to greater heights. Beyond friendship, I found kinship with the Special Olympics family.
My eyesight was also corrected through the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program. I went through various health checks including an eye test and was prescribed glasses. I have been able to take part in different types of sports since.
Over the past 36 years with Special Olympics, I have trained in athletics, basketball, football, bowling and table tennis. I even represented the Philippines at several Special Olympics World Games and Regional Games, and did my country proud. My first international event was in the United States where our football team won a gold medal. I was just 16 at the time. Since then, I have won medals in competitions held in Ireland, Shanghai, and Australia.
My transformation has been a surprise to many. My family never thought that I would one day be able to walk on my own, or even talk. But now, they can’t shut me up. They joke that I’m too talkative! Special Olympics has completely changed my life and opened up my world beyond sports.
In 2018, at the age of 43, I got my first job at a health and personal care retailer known as Southstar Drug, through a job-placement program for people with disabilities in the Philippines. I was recommended by one of the board directors of Special Olympics, who believed in my abilities. My job was to help with packing and stocking the shelves. In the first few months, I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep. I would wake up every day at 2am to prepare and make sure that I arrive early at work, before 7am.
Being employed makes me feel empowered. I am grateful to be able to contribute meaningfully to society, earn my own keep and help my family pay for groceries. I enjoy buying treats for my family, friends and colleagues. Recently, I was also able to afford my own mobile phone and electronic bike.
I am thankful that my supervisors have assigned me more responsibilities and duties. Apart from packing, I am now entrusted with opening the store at 6am, operating the generator, minor security duties, as well as replenishing stock from the store room. Although I am unable to read the labels on the products, I can recognize the designs and memorize the packaging. I have never made a mistake!
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, employees were given the option to take no-pay leave and stay home. But I chose to continue working because I want to help my family financially. The pandemic has affected the jobs of many employees in the Philippines, and my mother and siblings have not been spared. I am now the family’s breadwinner. My siblings are proud of me and thankful that I can help ease the family’s financial burden.
I am told that that there are former colleagues who envy me, as they are now unable to find a job. My colleagues treat me with respect and look up to me as a big brother. I’m humbled and amazed at how things have changed since my childhood.
These days, I protect myself by avoiding huge crowds and public transportation, and riding my e-bike to and from work every day. It takes me just 30 minutes per trip, and it’s great exercise.
Having a job is one of the best things that has happened in my life, and my greatest hope is that more employers all over the world can open their doors, hearts and minds to workers like me.
Stereotypes of older workers, or of people with disabilities are one-dimensional, incomplete narratives that don’t tell the full story. People with intellectual disabilities are capable of so much more than the box that society has put us in. All we need is a fighting chance to prove it. I don’t need to be a person of success, I just want to be a person of value.