Students experience what Hong Kong life is like for the disabled

Students learn wheel deal of living with disability

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 9:12am

School friends Macy Higgins, Oscar Willmott, Alexandra Bower and Clare Payne wanted to better understand the challenges that the disabled in Hong Kong face each day, so they decided to experience the city from a new perspective: in a wheelchair.

The four Peak School students each spent an hour last Saturday experiencing those challenges first hand. They started at the IFC Mall, took the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui and then returned to Hong Kong Island by MTR.

When I was in the wheelchair, it was terribly hard to just pull myself up

Their objective was to increase public awareness and raise money for the Jockey Club Sarah Roe School for students with severe learning difficulties and who need special care.

"We learned how hard it is to be in a wheelchair for one hour and we can't imagine what it must be like to be wheelchair-bound forever," says Oscar, 11. "Most of the challenges I faced were just simple tasks for an able person such as going up an easy ramp. When I was in the wheelchair, it was terribly hard to just pull myself up."

Macy, also 11, adds: "The biggest challenge was when there was no other option but to take the stairway, for example when going to the cafe at the YMCA."

She was pleasantly surprised, however, to find a designated area for wheelchair users on the Star Ferry. "I thought this was great."

They chose the subject of disability for their final-year assignment and made the wheelchair challenge a part of it. They focused on four areas: limb loss, visual impairment, hearing impairment and autism.

Alexandra, who is autistic, wanted people to know more about her disability. "I found out that roughly one in a hundred people has autism. That's a lot, and I would like people to understand what having autism means."

Their research included a visit to the Sarah Roe School in Kowloon, where they were surprised to discover there was no outdoor playground. Instead, the school takes students - on three ageing buses - to nearby facilities for sports and physical activities.

"We think it would be great if we could give them money to buy a new bus so the children can experience a better school life," says 10-year-old Clare.

Sarah Roe vice-principal Robert Szorenyi explains that the school uses community swimming pools and sports facilities for its PE programme, as well as the Riding for the Disabled Centre near Lo Wu.

"To be able to include everyone on these experiences, we require buses that can accommodate wheelchair users safely and that have the seating and safety features that we require," Szorenyi says.

John Greene, chairman of the Parent Teacher Association at Sarah Roe, welcomed the students' wheelchair challenge as an excellent initiative.

The PTA maintains three buses and each costs about HK$800,000 when fully equipped with the safety features, and costs about HK$50,000 a year to run, he says.

"Every dollar helps," Greene says. "Currently, the PTA is HK$200,000 short of procuring their next new school bus to replace an aged bus that will go out of commission towards the end of the year."

At Peak School, the four students have organised a couple of events to raise funds towards helping replace the bus, including a "Rainbow Day" when children from each year go to class dressed up in different colours and with small donations.

"We went to assembly and had a presentation in front of the whole school, so now everyone is aware of what we are doing," Oscar says. They also plan to go round to classrooms to conduct activities linked to disability to help raise awareness

Ng Hang-sau, chief executive of the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation, notes that while wheelchair access on public transport in Hong Kong has improved in recent years, the disabled still have difficulty getting into public buildings because of insufficient lifts or ramps. And where they exist, they can be hard to find.

"Nurturing an atmosphere of an inclusive and considerate society is important," Ng says, adding that many people don't give priority to wheelchair users.