When it comes to autism, Hong Kong's laws are decades behind
Developments abroad dwarf Hong Kong's efforts in helping people with this 'invisible disability'
Simon T. M. Ng
The United Nations has designated April 2 as World Autism Awareness Day since 2008. This year, the UN secretary general called for more efforts in education, job opportunities and other measures so people with autism could realise their full potential.
Autism is an inherent, lifelong condition of difficulty in interacting with others, marked by repetitive behaviour and interests. It is a "spectrum condition", meaning the challenges faced by each individual varies in magnitude.
Its incidence appears to be on the increase. The latest data shows one in 86, 64, 55 and 38 in the United States, Britain, Japan and Korea respectively are autistic. Some estimate there are more than 70,000 people in Hong Kong with autism. The official estimate is 3,800.
However, it is unclear whether the condition is genuinely becoming more prevalent, or whether the increase reflects a greater awareness of the condition and changes in assessment methods.
Autism is an invisible disability. But Temple Grandin, a noted US animal science professor with autism, once said: "You have got to keep autistic children engaged with the world. You cannot let them tune out."
Unfortunately, many people still see those with disabilities as faulty, abnormal and a welfare burden. Such ignorance begets discrimination and exclusion.
The world is shifting towards a social model that underlies the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It requires that we treat every person with a disability as a full member of society, capable of holding rights and taking part in the community.
The model sees disability as a disadvantage caused by both personal traits and social setting. If appropriate support is in place and environmental, social and attitudinal obstacles are removed, a more equal and inclusive society is possible. This has a profound influence on law.
Many societies have taken steps to reconstruct the legal personhood of people with disabilities, and to make education, employment and other areas more accessible.
The groundbreaking 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act stipulates that reasonable accommodation be made for disabled people. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act further prescribes a rights-based framework of individualised education. Australia's Disability Discrimination Act 1992 has a comparable concept of reasonable adjustments. Britain's Equality Act 2010 carries elaborate provisions on reasonable adjustments and accessibility strategies. These societies have also developed case law and dispute resolution.
Britain enacted an autism act in 2009, requiring the government to produce a strategy for autistic adults and to issue statutory guidelines for local authorities and health services. The law has unanimous support.
Hong Kong's Disability Discrimination Ordinance, enacted in 1995, is still unclear on the rights of individuals with disabilities and the obligations of educators and service providers.
Developments of the last two decades in other societies simply dwarf those in Hong Kong despite its claim to be open, equal and free.
Simon Ng is an assistant professor and senior programme director of law at the University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuing Education