A different perspective of Hong Kong

Peter Kammerer says being visually impaired doesn't mean you're unaware of the world around you - far from it, in fact

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 6:59pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 2:06am

Do you see what I see? A reader who commented on my recent column about the influx of mainland tourists being unproblematic clearly doesn't. To paraphrase and embellish the reader's position: someone who is visually impaired isn't likely to notice anything untoward, even if it happens to be a few tens of millions of people with suitcases. In response: are you serious?

I'll ignore the apparent belief that someone without sight doesn't know what they are talking about. Similarly, I'll assume that this reader has had limited exposure to people with physical differences to him or her. With that in mind, let me reveal what I can see that others can't. Welcome to my world.

Lose the use of one sense and all the others sharpen. A crowd of people can not only be heard, but sensed because they block noise and environmental conditions such as the wind or the heat of sunlight. As six in 10 mainlanders smoke and only one in 10 Hongkongers do, it's possible to guess the source of cigarette smoke with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Now for the clincher: if someone speaks Cantonese differently from the way locals do, or even another Chinese dialect, there's a chance they're not from Hong Kong.

My dentist's assistant is in awe of me. "How on earth did you find your way here without someone helping you?" she wonders. Well, truth be told, I didn't: beyond my knowing the way there like the back of my hand, there's always someone in Hong Kong at any time of day or night watching out for you. Most of the time, if my path is blocked, someone will gently grab an arm and nudge me aside.

From years of experience, I just happen to know that my dentist's building is the only one on that stretch of road that has a ramp rather than a step at the entrance - I can easily find that with my cane. The lift is negotiated by the helpful doorman pressing the right button.

I have to duck before sliding into the dentist's chair to avoid hitting my head on the low-hanging light. Paying the bill is easy because the various denominations of banknotes and coins are different sizes. Getting home isn't a problem because I have braille-encoded bus numbers in plastic sleeves produced by the Hong Kong Blind Union ; the bus stop is past the McDonald's - the smell of French fries from the street is overpowering - and there's a metal-posted timetable where the bus picks up passengers that can be found by tapping it.

My computer, mobile phone and clock all have speech capability to tell me what I need to know.

I can read, communicate and write as quickly as anyone else. The convenience of buses and the MTR and their provision of braille, tactile surfaces and spoken destination announcements make getting around a straightforward matter for the visually impaired.

Adapting and technology mean that people who can't see as well as everyone else no longer have to sit at home unemployed or do menial jobs as they once did. Throw in an inquiring mind, common sense and local knowledge and they can even shed fresh light or a different perspective on a situation.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post