When Siu Leong Ko, a wheelchair user with paraplegia, went to a restaurant in 2015, he was greeted by reluctant staff who refused him entry. They insisted that they would set up a table outside for him.
The restaurant had enough room for his motorized wheelchair, but they did not allow him inside because they feared his wheelchair might take up space that would otherwise be available for other customers.
Ko who is now working as an advocate for the rights of people with disability wants society to show more respect to handicapped people.
“People on the street discriminate against us, hate to see us, or hate to find us around,” said Ko.
A few months later, Paul Letters, a novelist and historian in a mobility scooter, had a similar problem. He could not find a single accessible toilet on the ground floor of The Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
To use an accessible toilet, he was asked to go out to a supermarket next door or go up to different levels of the hotel that boasts itself as “a masterpiece of contemporary design” on its website.
“I just thought, for a five-star hotel, which has recently been made, that was amazing,” Paul said sarcastically.
As I listened to him, I found myself recalling my own experience in Hong Kong as a wheelchair user. Just two weeks ago, while I was going somewhere to hang out with my friends, I found that the only lift at the Central MTR Station was broken. I had no choice but to go to the Hong Kong MTR Station and kept my friends waiting for more than an hour as I searched for a way to join them.
The fact that some parts of Hong Kong are inaccessible baffled me when I first arrived here. My country, Myanmar, has worse conditions for people with disabilities but I thought as a developed place, Hong Kong would champion disability rights. The gleaming towers lining the shore of Hong Kong stand in stark contrast with the hardship faced by people with physical disabilities.
Part of the problem lies in the city’s uneven terrain and steep slopes. Some streets and roads are so steep that the pavement has to turn into stairs.
But another part of the problem is caused by lack of proper legislation. Not all public buildings and businesses are required by law to provide access to people with disabilities. Most of the restaurants and shops in Hong Kong are on a raised platform with no barrier-free access.
The Design Manual released by the Buildings Department in 2008 requires new buildings to be wheelchair accessible. However, restaurants and shops are exempted from providing reasonable access in the Manual. In addition, old buildings are also exempted from the requirement unless major renovation is done to them.
According to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Federation of Handicapped Youth, over 74 percent of the restaurants in the commercial districts of Hong Kong were found to have inadequate access. Over 11 percent of the restaurants surveyed claimed they are accessible, but the survey team found this was not the case.
When it is not mandatory to provide access, even healthcare centres tend to ignore the needs of their own patients.
“Lots of medical clinics in Causeway Bay and Central, and the ones I go to regularly, most of them don’t have ramps. So there are steps into medical clinics. It’s crazy,” Letters said.
When he asked the staff at the clinic, they put a portable ramp on the stairs so he could go inside the clinic. But he would be a few minutes late for the appointment with his doctor as he waited for the staff to bring the ramp.
“The accessibility into buildings in particular, I think, could be easily fixed through legislation. But the government won’t do it,” Letters said.
According to Dr. Simon Yung Yau, an Associate Professor of the Department of Public Policy at the City University of Hong Kong, the regulations that oversee buildings in Hong Kong need to be more specific.
“Generally speaking, we have laws and guidelines regulating building design to ensure accessibility for the disabled. However, there are many cases that the accessibility facilities are designed and provided but they are not properly managed. There is no specific guideline for the management of accessibility facilities in Hong Kong ,” said Dr. Yau.
He cited a 2015 court case where a wheelchair user took a legal action against a restaurant that turned its disabled toilet into a temporary storeroom as an example resulting from lax regulations.
He also said it is not clear which government department is responsible for checking accessibility standards.
“If a wheelchair lift is out of order but the property owner or manager does not repair it, which public authority is responsible for enforcement is unclear. Currently, the Buildings Department is not concerned about this kind of issue.”
Although the Hong Kong government has capacity to draft and enact legislation to tackle discrimination against people with disabilities, they seemed reluctant to make laws that force businesses to provide access.
Lillian Lei Li is a Chief Executive of the Social Enterprise branch of the Direction Association for Handicapped People. When I asked her why businesses are given a free pass, she suggests that this is more to do with the values upheld by the government.
“[The] Hong Kong government does not want to set up laws. They protect the commercial sector more than the minorities. So they just don’t want to push laws.” said Li. She said that the government encourages instead of forcing businesses.
Both Ko and Letters agreed that the Hong Kong government is gradually but slowly improving the accessibility for people with disabilities. It is reflected in public housing and government buildings. Over 90 per cent of the buses are wheelchair-accessible low-floor buses. The government is also negotiating with the minibus companies to import wheelchair accessible buses.
Despite the lack of legal requirements, some of the restaurants and shops have responded well to the needs of their disabled customers when the customers raised their voices. During a period of more than ten years as a scooter user in Hong Kong, Letters has seen some development in the places he has been visiting.
“Since I wrote about it in an article and I wrote to them, my experience more recently is much better,” said Letters.
But Letters admitted that he still could not go to most of the shops and restaurants in his neighbourhood because they are not accessible. For these private sector firms, there is no incentive to change.
It is not clear how the government would encourage establishments to be disabled friendly and urge employers to hire disabled workers.
In Singapore, firms that hire disabled employees are offered subsidies. In mainland China, companies with disabled workers enjoy tax exemptions. But Hong Kong companies do not see such benefits from the government.
The effect is visible in people like Ko. Having no university degree, he finds it hard to compete in the job market and relies on his disability pension to survive.
“It is not that I am too lazy to work. The employers in Hong Kong want their employees to multi-task. They don’t want someone who will sit behind a computer all day,” Ko said.
The Hong Kong Government introduced a subsidy scheme in 2013 to encourage employers to hire people with disabilities. The scheme offers one-off subsidy of up to HK$20,000 for improving facilities in the workplace.
As the Hong Kong government keeps raising benefits and incentives for the employers and business owners, the private sector might adopt a more inclusive approach. But when I asked Ko how long it would take before Hong Kong becomes a fully accessible and inclusive society, he said: “A long time.”