Society must stop banishing the disabled to its margins

Eddie Suen says their voices must be heard at all levels of policymaking

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2013, 4:06am

A friend was born with a severe physical disability, is wheelchair-bound and cannot hold a pen without help. For the first 10 years of his life, he was confined to his home, due to the lack of disabled access, except for a rare visit to hospital for treatment. He told me he was heartbroken and angry with himself when his mother had to carry him down the eight floors of stairs each time.

Unfortunately, similar situations occur today. Do people with disabilities have the right to live like everyone else in our society? What rights do people with disabilities, estimated to number more than 435,00Society must stop banishing the disabled to its margins0 in Hong Kong, have?

The report on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities submitted by the government was heard by a United Nations committee last September, after the convention had been in place in Hong Kong for four years.

In the committee's 34 paragraphs of concluding observations, 32 of them used words and phrases such as "is concerned", "is troubled by", "regrets" and "is worried" to describe their views on issues like the acute shortage of residential services, the high unemployment rate and inaccessible environment for those with disabilities. The committee urged the government to strengthen its efforts to implement the convention.

To be fair, the government has put resources and effort into improving the lives of people with disabilities. My friend's life was changed when, at the age of 12, he was admitted to a special school with boarding facilities. Yet that is years later than an able-bodied child would start school.

Why did the committee give us such an unflattering report card? Policymakers should review what they have put in place "for" people with disabilities. One fundamental flaw is that policies are built "for" those in need, when they should be formulated "with" them.

The convention aims to ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms by all people with disabilities, while promoting respect for their inherent dignity. Do people with disabilities in Hong Kong possess the right and freedom to express their needs and concerns? Have they been consulted on all public policies, particularly those that affect them?

The committee urges China, including Hong Kong and Macau, to introduce a comprehensive and inclusive plan of action.

Some people with disabilities say that inclusion, to them, means simply having friends, going to school, having a job, participating and living independently in the community, and being accepted and respected by others - like anyone else in society.

In Hong Kong, we have been talking about "inclusion" for decades. From raising awareness among the public about disabilities in the 1960s and 1970s, to addressing the need for rehabilitation services in the 1980s and 1990s, the emphasis now needs to shift to realising the rights of people with disabilities.

To recognise the convention, bringing people with disabilities into the mainstream is the key to success. The simplest way is to recognise the rights of people with disabilities by including them in the policymaking process, so their thoughts and ideas can be considered and become part of the mainstream.

To achieve this, an independent monitoring mechanism involving the participation of people with disabilities and their representative organisations should be set up. It would need designated power to co-ordinate with the different policy bureaus and departments to implement the convention.

These changes will not be easy, and some may take time.

The convention offers people with disabilities and their families hope for a better future. It is down to the government to take the lead to create a road map, together with people with disabilities, to build not just a better future for those in need, but a better community for all.

Eddie Suen Kwok-tung is chief officer (rehabilitation service) of The Hong Kong Council of Social Service