Hong Kong's infrastructure is said to be world-class, but to handicapped people such as Twinkie Chau Oi-fan, the city is a daily obstacle course of swing doors, turnstiles and steps. Now, however, she and other members of the disabled community are helping themselves to get around facilities where their needs have been ignored.
Chau is one of four researchers acting as so-called pathfinders for the handicapped at People of Fortitude, a mutual help group for the disabled. They're putting together a city guide for Hong Kong's estimated 103,500 handicapped people, mapping wheelchair- and walking stick-friendly routes to office towers, malls and venues, access to which the able-bodied might take for granted, and posting information about how disabled-friendly they are on the organisation's website (pof.org.hk).
The team's only disabled researcher, Chau has visited 19 of the 2,000 spots assessed by the guide, usually checking out two places a month. Armed with a camera, she whirrs about in her electric wheelchair, examining building entrances, lobbies, hallways, parking spaces and toilets. It's hard work but worth the effort, says the extroverted twentysomething.
'Many people with disabilities are keen to explore the city but they cannot go out without checking accessibility in advance,' says Chau, who has been in a wheelchair for three years because of stiffened joints. 'I hope the reviews can give them a better idea of whether locations are accessible, what obstacles they might find, and tips on what they should be aware of.'
The Web-based guide is a long-term project funded by People of Fortitude founder Chan Wah-cheung, a businessman who partially lost use of his legs to polio.
'An online guide is flexible and can reach more people,' says the group's chief executive, Sky Liu
Sze-keung. The blind can also access it using a reading machine.
Since its launch in 2006, the website has had 15,000 hits and users such as Sham Shui Po resident Youko Wong Siu-man find it's a great help for planning trips.
'I'm intimidated going places without knowing about access for the disabled,' says the former tour guide, whose left leg was paralysed by a stroke seven years ago and who walks with crutches. 'It's frustrating to find out a place has a steep staircase and a heavy door only when you get there.'
Wong, 46, has been consulting the guide to prepare for a visit to Nan Lian Garden in Diamond Hill. 'Now I know where the ramps are and can avoid the staircases,' she says.
Chau says some leisure spots have become more accessible to the disabled. Hong Kong Disneyland, for instance, is a relaxing visit with wheelchair-accessible rides, and a new wheelchair lift at the Hong Kong Coliseum has made her a frequent concert-goer.
'Before the lift was installed, it took several security guards to lift me up the steep staircases,' she recalls. 'That was very dangerous.'
Such experiences spur Chau to write to building managers about the obstacles she finds. Some responses are encouraging. When she pointed out a step near car parking spaces for wheelchair users at Tuen Mun Town Plaza II, the management company agreed to remove it.
Small upgrades to ordinary premises can make a big difference, but even impressive facilities can be sloppily run. 'Very often toilets for the disabled are locked and you have to ask management staff to open them for you,' Chau says, pointing to the facilities at Times Square in Causeway Bay.
Inadequate signage is another common problem, she says, recalling how it took her more than 15 minutes to find the disabled toilet in a Tuen Mun mall.
Transport is often a major impediment. 'There are more wheelchair-accessible buses, but they're not available on all routes,' Chau says.
There are none on the direct service from her home in Yuen Long to Maritime Square in Tsing Yi, she says, so she has to switch buses at the Tai Lam Tunnel interchange, which is more expensive and time-consuming.
And since timetables for wheelchair-accessible buses vary daily, users have to check with bus companies before setting out each day, Chau says.
Such everyday headaches are common, says Allen Chan Kam-yuen, vice-president of the Hong Kong Federation of Handicapped Youth. Chan and other volunteers also examine access at restaurants, shopping centres and transport stops in Wong Tai Sin, Kwun Tong and Wan Chai, where there are many elderly people in wheelchairs.
The inspections highlight a lack of awareness of the needs of disabled people, says Chan, 55, who has been in a wheelchair for three years. 'Some toilets for the handicapped are used as storerooms or even smoking rooms. Audio systems at escalators and lifts are often turned off, too,' he says.
Calling for more community education, Chan says improved access for the disabled would also benefit the able-bodied elderly, people with illnesses and those with children and luggage. Like Chau, he hopes access for the disabled will improve when the government's revised guidelines for barrier-free access take effect later this year.
More thought should be given to the handicapped when designing buildings and other infrastructure, Chau says, 'otherwise it might take a long time to remove an obstacle or add new feature.'
Chau lobbied the government for a year, for example, to remove a step at the San Po Kong bus stop she commutes to every day.
She says the city's 75,000 blind people should also be offered more Braille maps, audio signals and tactile guide paths around town.
Wong Kam-sing, of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, says building access could be improved with closer communication between planners and the disabled. And awards such as those offered
by the Caring Environment Recognition Scheme, run by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, may be an incentive for building managers to make voluntary improvements.
But tighter regulations are needed for government and private buildings, says Kitty Au Man-yi, a consultant architect at the Polytechnic University's environmental advisory services centre. The government should set an example in providing access for the disabled, she says.
'Right now, government-owned buildings are exempt from the building regulations,' says Au, who was involved in an Equal Opportunities Commission survey of 60 government sites last year. 'Many government facilities, such as clinics, post offices and swimming pools, don't provide sufficient access for the disabled.'
Although private buildings are regulated, many only comply with the minimum standards, she says. 'Some shops in new buildings have even converted ramps into steps,' she says. 'This reflects loopholes in the regulations.'
Chau says: 'I'm tired of steering a long way to find entrance ramps. At least I have an electric wheelchair. But it can be really exhausting for people in manual wheelchairs to take long detours.'
But concern for the disabled is more than a matter of complying with a checklist, Chau says. 'It's also about heart.'