'Value' is more than just a money matter

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 May, 2009, 12:00am

Remember stories of sight-impaired passengers falling off MTR platforms? Every now and then, we are reminded of our duty, as a society, to provide for the special needs of people with disabilities and our legislators demand screen doors for all MTR platforms. Seldom do we think about how much the railway operator has to pay for them.

But what if we are talking about wheelchair access ramps? How much should we pay for them? Nothing, or so the Director of Audit says in its damning report on the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). The commission was criticised for budgeting HK$50,000 for a wheelchair ramp and extended stage for a seminar on the Disability Discrimination Ordinance in 2008, when an alternative free but 'marginally acceptable' one was available. Unfortunately for the seminar's speakers and attendees, the commission's board members decided to use the free option.

For such a seminar, with international and local experts invited to share their experience and promote the well-being and rights of people with disabilities, the use of a 'marginally acceptable' ramp that was either too narrow or too steep - or both - is ludicrously insulting.

The commission's ultimate decision might have made the Director of Audit happy, but has it lost sight of its mission? If its work is to promote equality, make society mindful of different needs and 'raise the bar' to meet those needs, consider the message a 'marginally acceptable' ramp represents.

Does the Director of Audit have the capacity to audit social value? What its report essentially endorsed, if inadvertently, is the idea that being aware and sensitive to special needs is a nuisance.

In any organisation there will always be room for improvement. But we don't question how much it cost the public for the EOC auditors to track two missing receipts (total value: HK$222) precisely because we accept that the social value of monitoring the use of public money is important enough to warrant the price we pay.

But who is to judge the value of equality? Victims of prejudice and unfavourable treatment, and people who are socially marginalised and ostracised, see value in the work of the commission. Some see the legislation and codes of practice as a nuisance; just as those who do not stand to benefit from anti-trust legislation view fair competition measures as problematic.

Perhaps the most important finding of the audit report is the damage done by a completely disinterested government, which probably sees the commission as desirable but non-essential.

Values like equality must be supported by the community and a government that believes in them if they are to have an impact. Left to its own devices, with board members too busy for meetings but not too busy for a four-day politicking-networking conference in Beijing - and a government that cares neither for its work nor the people they serve - the commission was in trouble, and its work crippled, long before the auditors stormed the gates.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA