Mean streets

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2007, 12:00am

As she steers her wheelchair around Central, Susan So Kam-mui points out obstacles that can make an everyday trip to Hong Kong's centre of wealth and power an ordeal. Invisible to the untrained eye, the barriers for people with physical disabilities appear everywhere when you survey the streets from a wheelchair.

There are the kerbs on either side of pedestrian crossings that are too high for a wheelchair to mount, ramps that are too steep and steps that prevent Ms So from eating at many restaurants.

Crossing Des Voeux Road, Ms So, 55, gets stuck on the pedestrian crossing, her wheelchair unable to mount the footpath due to a raised kerb. A policeman is close by and quickly lifts her wheelchair over the kerb just before the lights change and the traffic surges forward. Some days she is forced to roll along the road beside passing cars until she can get back onto the footpath.

It's one of countless frustrations Ms So and thousands like her have to endure on a normal day out. After years of lobbying, the issue is attracting greater attention at both a local and international level. Hong Kong's Equal Opportunities Commission is investigating accessibility issues and the UN recently adopted a convention on the rights of disabled people. But while the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, people like Ms So continue their daily struggle around the city.

Hospital chief executive of the Rehabaid Centre at Polytechnic University, Cecilia Lam Shiu-ling, regularly hears about such obstacles. She said the lack of 'dropped' kerbs (with a slope instead of a step down) was a major problem.

'A person cannot say I can go to such and such a place tomorrow without checking to make sure it's accessible,' she said. 'The absence of a dropped kerb itself is enough to deter wheelchair users. Even for one step they will have difficulty manoeuvring themselves.'

Public transport can be another hurdle for people with disabilities. When Ms So leaves her apartment in Shek Kip Mei on a journey to Central, she turns right and heads to Kowloon Tong MTR station. It's a trip she makes regularly as she travels to Hong Kong Island for her weekly Putonghua lesson or to the various hospitals where she works as a volunteer.

Ms So, who was paralysed from the chest down after a fall at the age of 15, waits at the MTR station's customer service desk to ask for help. She said sometimes the staff couldn't see her from behind the counter and that she struggled to get their attention. After catching a lift down to the platform, Ms So weaves her way through crowds of waiting passengers to the front of the train. An MTR staff member puts down a ramp and she rolls in. The process is repeated as she changes trains on the way to Central.

Ms Lam said transport options for the disabled had improved in recent years, but wheelchair users usually needed assistance to board trains and there may be wide gaps between the platforms and the carriages.

Some, but not all, buses have ramps to help wheelchair users board, so 'the person has to take a chance and hope the bus that comes along has a ramp', Ms Lam said. 'Although improvements have been made in the past five years or so, it's still inadequate.'

In the past 10 years, the MTR has invested more than HK$400 million on improving access for people with disabilities. It had committed a further HK$100 million over the next five years, a spokesman said.

All stations are now accessible by wheelchair, either via a lift or a stair-lift. 'The corporation is making improvements to many of our existing stations and all our future lines will incorporate easy access facilities,' he said.

After negotiating public transport, disabled people are often confronted with buildings that fail to cater for their needs.

Ms Lam said many public buildings such as shopping centres and banks had high steps at their entrances and swinging doors that were impossible for wheelchair users to pass through. Even a trip to the supermarket could be problematic due to turnstiles and narrow aisles.

Ms So said she often took long detours to find entrance ramps at the backs of buildings. She said hiding ramps at the rear entrance to buildings amounted to discrimination and made her feel like a second-class citizen.

Ms Lam said these impediments could seriously diminish people's quality of life. 'They face barriers everywhere. That's why you seldom see people riding along in their wheelchair on the road. It's simply because the environment is so unfriendly to them.'

She said many North American cities had dropped kerbs on every block, and it was not uncommon to see people with severe disabilities such as quadriplegic spinal cord injuries getting around on their own.

'A lot of times we have clients who would be able to be very independent if the environment was friendly enough for them. The feeling of always having to depend on somebody to do basic chores can be quite damaging to them psychologically.' Ms Lam said a lack of accessible transport could also affect people's ability to work.

The Equal Opportunities Commission has received 451 complaints about access for disabled people since 1996, 82 per cent involving such obstacles as steps at the entrances of buildings, blocked pathways and a lack of footpaths, dropped kerbs and lifts.

Complaints regarding places that provided poor disabled access or facilities made up the remainder of complaints, with such shortcomings as steep ramps, a lack of proper signage, poor lighting and disabled toilets locked or used for storage.

The situation has prompted an Equal Opportunities Commission investigation into whether government-owned buildings meet guidelines on access for disabled people. The investigation, announced in December and expected to conclude next year, will examine about 60 sites, including housing estates, health clinics and former government properties that are now owned by Link Management.

The barrier-free access guidelines, introduced in 1997 and now under review, require new buildings to provide access and facilities for disabled people.

Under the Disability Discrimination Ordinance, all buildings, regardless of when they were built, must provide access unless making alterations would result in 'unjustifiable hardship'.

Although buildings may now be required to be more accessible, commission chairman Raymond Tang Yee-bong said simply providing the facilities was not enough.

'It's also the mindset and the attitude of the community and those in management. Very often you may find there's provision of disabled toilets but you find they're locked or used as store rooms,' he said.

Mr Tang said Hong Kong's public transport facilities compared favourably with those of other countries but that improvement was needed in how features such as ramps on buses were used. 'You can have all the best facilities in the world but if people are not operating them in a way in which they're intended to be operated, the existence of those facilities is of very little benefit,' he said.

The government, Mr Tang said, could provide immediate relief to disabled people by introducing concession fares for public transport, something lobby groups had been fighting for for years. He said that, given Hong Kong's strong economy, there was no case for the government to deny disabled people this concession.

China was one of the first signatories to the UN's Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on March 30, which Hong Kong's Equal Opportunities Commission was involved in drafting. The convention outlines a range of commitments, from outlawing discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace to enshrining their right to education.

The article dealing with accessibility states that signatories should take 'appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation ... and to other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and in rural areas'.

Mr Tang said Beijing would need to ratify the convention before it would apply to Hong Kong. While Hong Kong already meets most of its requirements, Mr Tang said more could be done to improve disabled people's involvement in decisions that affected them.

Philip Yuen Chi-hoi, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Joint Council for People with Disabilities, said the government should be triving to make Hong Kong a leader in Asia by providing a more accessible environment. He wants the city to follow the example set by the US and fix a deadline for public transport operators to make their vehicles accessible for the disabled.

'They should have the determination to tell the disabled community we are moving in a good direction and that we are trying to lead the society to change the environment so that it's fully accessible,' he said.

A spokeswoman from the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau said the government planned to amend building regulations by the end of the year to bring the revised design manual on barrier-free access into effect.

She said the government had been improving traffic and transport facilities with such features as audible pedestrian crossing signals, tactile guide paths along streets leading to major railway stations and dropped kerbs with warning strips at all new crossings.

'The government will continue to retrofit existing footbridges, public transport interchanges and bus terminals with accessible facilities,' the spokeswoman said.

Having completed her tour of Central's difficult streets, Ms So said she wrote to various government departments every time she encountered a problem. She said she became angry when she heard politicians claim that the government didn't have the resources to make the city more accessible when money was spent on events such as the 10th anniversary of the handover.

'The government can spend billions of dollars on a project to celebrate, so why can't they use it for projects like this?'