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Disabilities Experience Day and Accessibility in Hong Kong

January 24, 2018 / by / 0 Comment
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December 3 is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, as established by the United Nations, which  aims to raise awareness of disabled people and the challenges they face in their everyday life, as well as promote development towards improving their rights and well-being. For me, people with disabilities had always been a population that I’d noticed but haven’t given much thought to – I’d seen bus drivers get out of their seats to lower the ramp for those in a wheelchair, watched (with admitted fascination) the moving platforms in MTR stations that carry wheelchairs up stairs or tried to lend a hand to those who needed help if necessary. However, I’d never considered the challenges that a disabled person may face; for me, Hong Kong was doing pretty well in the accessibility aspect.

That changed when I participated in a Disabilities Experience Day, organised by the Asian Medical Students Association at HKU. The idea of the event was to send participants in groups to different locations, where they would have to carry out certain tasks such as buying food, shopping, taking public transport, etc. in a wheelchair, in order to allow participants to experience what it is like to have a physical disability.

As it turned out, I already managed to conclude within the first 10 minutes of starting what it is like going around in a wheelchair: inconvenient. One of the most predictable struggles was having to locate an elevator every time we needed to move to a different floor, and sometimes that meant covering a lot of extra distance. However, locating convenient elevator accesses in itself was challenging – fun fact: exits A, B and C of the Causeway Bay MTR station do not have an elevator, which means that you would need to walk all the way to Hysan Place in order to enter the station. The comparatively little people who use elevators as opposed to escalators has also caused some buildings to disregard the importance of elevators; upon trying to take the lift in one mall, we realised a giant Christmas tree had been placed square in front of the elevator doors, blocking the exit.

Furthermore, there are also many small challenges that lie along the way that may not be noticeable to the those who have not lived with a disability. Many shops will have a small step in front of their entrance that don’t present an inconvenience to a non-disabled person (unless you accidentally trip over it), but for someone in a wheelchair, there is no way of mounting that step without help, limiting the places you can visit. When shopping for clothes, interestingly enough some clothing shops have a slightly larger changing room to accommodate those in wheelchairs; the real challenge, however, is exiting the shop, as a wheelchair may set off the metal detectors at the exit of the store, drawing unwanted attention from other customers. Finally, Hong Kong is a very compact city – that means it is not uncommon to have small spaces, narrow streets and most importantly, people. Many of the city’s markets have stalls that allow passage of only a few people at the same time. We visited Jardine’s Crescent Street Market, and where the width of the alleyway was literally enough to accommodate our wheelchair only.

Perhaps what is more interesting to note is people’s attitudes towards those in wheelchairs. The reactions we received ranged from curious, to sympathetic, to helpful, to disrespectful. For the most part, moving around in a wheelchair attracts more stares than usual, which is to be expected, but these stares are not judgemental. Rather, people were more considerate in their small gestures, such as opening a door for someone, or holding the elevator lift open. However, in a sharing session that followed the experience event by Dr. Jennifer Lui, the first and only disabled doctor in Hong Kong, she also raised the possibility of people being too helpful – a group of boys who wanted to help lift her onto the MTR ended up accidentally dismantling her wheelchair. On the other hand, there are people who also show unfortunately show little tolerance towards the disabled. There was one incident in which my wheelchair bumped into the heel of a someone standing on the sideway by accident; this led to a scolding session that involved “you could’ve injured me” and “couldn’t you wait,” in which we couldn’t do much but apologise. Fortunately, these people were in the small minority.

What we can do to help those with disabilities also really centres around how we approach them. It is important to help address the needs of a disabled person, but to do so in a way that is actually helpful – in other words, do lend a hand, but before taking action actually ask the disabled person how you can help. In addition, there is a fine line between empathy and sympathy, and learning to show warmth towards disabled people without coming off as condescending or pitying it the first step to walking it. Believe it or not, there are more disabled people than you would expect, because the term refers not only to those with physical disabilities, but also visual, speech, hearing, mental and learning disabilities as well. If you suffer from myopia like a large portion of the Hong Kong population does, you already have a disability yourself! Beyond the “disabled” label that people with disabilities have, they are fully capable in other aspects and may be talented in a particular field; as the community, we should offer help to them in dealing with their disabilities, but more importantly celebrate their abilities.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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Second-year medical student at HKU. Resident alien (hint: look at my initials) who, despite having lived in Hong Kong for over 10 years, still loves exploring and pursuing new experiences in this fascinating city.


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