Spirit of Hong Kong 2014

Unable to speak, cerebral palsy youth finds a voice through photography

Unable to speak and misdiagnosed as severely mentally disabled, cerebral palsy sufferer Joe Kwok has managed to express himself to world

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 September, 2014, 3:55am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 September, 2014, 6:54pm

Joe Kwok Chun-hoi, 22, likes to take photographs. Photographs of flowers, water droplets, roots of trees and empty hallways. He has had an album put together, annotating images with his thoughts on life, family, God and the soul. He calls the work Listen to Hoi.

Kwok cannot speak. He was born with spastic cerebral palsy and does not have control of the muscles that enable speech. He is wheelchair bound, his limbs having been impaired by spasms. He has control of one hand though, which he uses to take photographs with a special camera, to type messages, and to gesture.

"There are a lot of things in his mind but he has no output," his physical therapist, Marcus Ng Chun-kwok says, as Kwok nods vigorously. "He wants to share his feelings, but it takes a lot of effort and he gets frustrated."

Kwok is the youngest son of a construction worker and his wife who live in a public housing estate in Sai Kung. Until he was 12 years old, his family thought he would never be able to communicate, having been misdiagnosed as severely mentally handicapped.

"Teachers noticed he was different from his classmates," his mother Kwok Chung-ying says. "He could distinguish between people, he knew how to point, and he could say yes."

Kwok was then transferred to the Hong Kong Red Cross John F Kennedy Centre, a specialist school in Pok Fu Lam, where he learned to express himself using a computer, to develop his motor skills, as well as to study maths and languages. He now lives in a dormitory with other students.

"Because he was misdiagnosed, it took time for him to catch up with his peers," Kwok's teacher, Chung King-yuen, says. "But he's now at Junior Two - his progress is a big achievement."

Kwok has been nominated by the Professional Teachers' Union for the Spirit of Hong Kong Awards 2014 for overcoming personal adversity.

"We appreciate his determination, and that even with his difficulties, he makes an effort and doesn't give up. He is inspiring," Ng says.

Aside from photography, Kwok also enjoys playing boccia - a sport that involves throwing balls as close as possible to a target - and has taken part in local competitions for the disabled.

At school, he is known for his willingness to help others. "Whenever there's a new student, he'll be the one showing them the ropes," Chung says.

Relations elsewhere are not always as harmonious.

"People can be unpleasant," his mother says. "We went to a restaurant and someone asked me why I brought him there. We just wanted to have lunch as a family."

The experience upset Kwok, but he is determined not to let the limitations and misunderstandings that come with cerebral palsy get the better of him.

"He wants to continue studying … He wants to learn. Just like anyone else." Chung says.