On disability services, a government push could go far

Louisa Mitchell says civic groups' good work behind the scenes to advance the rights of people with disabilities needs government support

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 2:49am

Did you notice all the events taking place in Hong Kong last week to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities? No? Me neither.

Led by their governments, groups around the world held events and launched initiatives to recognise the UN-sanctioned day and mark their country's progress in supporting the rights of people with disabilities. In Australia, disability awards were presented by the prime minister, draft legislation for a disability insurance scheme was introduced and hundreds of community events were held.

In Britain, the government has pledged to uphold the legacy of the 2012 Paralympic Games. Local councils organised events, as did companies like Microsoft, which provided training on assistive technology. In the US, President Barack Obama called on Americans "to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies, activities and programmes".

Some may think it's inappropriate to compare these countries with Hong Kong. I disagree; they are the appropriate comparisons for a global city. Global cities embrace diversity as part of 21st-century living.

I recognise, however, that this is not the most rigorous way to assess a country's approach to disability. This day is often criticised as a public relations exercise for governments.

The irony of the Hong Kong situation is that while there were no Obama-style proclamations by our chief executive or high-profile events - other than a Hong Kong Council of Social Service ceremony the previous week for its caring employers award - considerable work is being done under the public radar to improve the lot of people with disabilities.

In September, Hong Kong had its hearing with the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities regarding its implementation of the related UN convention. A working group of representatives from non-governmental organisations attended and has been pushing the government to respond to the subsequent recommendations. They have raised issues in the Legislative Council and requested additional items to be included in the general household survey to improve information for policy planning.

Last month, the Equal Opportunities Commission released the results of an assessment of special education. It makes for depressing reading, highlighting multiple problems. But this and other studies can form the basis of a campaign to improve services for children with disabilities. The Education Bureau has said it would review services.

Last week, the non-governmental organisation Community Business, which promotes corporate social responsibility, held a web-based presentation with a different disability expert every day.

When our chief executive took office, he committed to "serve all the seven million people in Hong Kong" and to "protect the rights of the people". With all this activity below the public radar, if he shows some leadership and honours these commitments, we should, next December 3, be able to hold public events that mark significant progress for improving the lives of people with disabilities. And, thanks to those working on the ground, they won't be merely a public relations stunt.

Louisa Mitchell is a research fellow (social policy) at Civic Exchange