Throughout his long professional life, Sir Harry Fang Sin-yang, who died on Monday aged 86, was gripped by a passion to help the disabled. His success in doing so was recognised at the highest level. The professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Hong Kong was the first Asian to become president of Rehabilitation International. It was typical that when he was hit by a stroke at the age of 78, he kept a diary about his struggle to cope. He noted every step of his long road back to a fruitful life. The affable doctor laughed. 'I'm benefiting from some of the programmes I helped create.' With his good humour, ready smile and ability to listen to anyone, Harry Fang was hugely popular. They had a name for him, one in which he took great pride: 'the father of rehabilitation'. For most of his distinguished career, he concentrated on making life better for the disabled, including those incapacitated by crippling disease. 'For those I can't cure,' he said, 'at least I can improve the way they live, help them to enjoy a full and better life.' He did that for thousands of people in Hong Kong and millions more on the mainland, helping them look forward to a quality of life that never used to be possible. Rehabilitation is now taught in medical institutions throughout the mainland. Kit Sinclair, past president and ambassador of the World Federation of Occupational Therapists, who worked closely with Sir Harry for more than 20 years on rehabilitation projects, described Sir Harry as 'the grandfather of rehabilitation in Hong Kong and [the mainland]'. 'He dedicated his life totally to trying to improve the lot of people with disabilities,' she said. 'Sir Harry had the vision and foresight to prepare doctors in China to take up roles in rehabilitation through a truly innovative training programme. He was inspirational in his breadth of thinking; of ways to spread rehabilitation techniques to every corner of China. His goal was to train 2,000 rehabilitation workers by the year 2000. This he accomplished by 1997.' Dr Sinclair said Sir Harry's commitment to the principles of rehabilitation, his dynamic personality, his enthusiasm about people and the betterment of their lives had been a great inspiration to all who worked with him. Ruby Ho Shui-wan, who has been manager of the occupational therapist department at the MacLehose Rehabilitation Centre and chairwoman of the Hong Kong Occupational Therapy Association, agreed. 'He was a dedicated man, a visionary,' said Ms Ho, who worked with him for two decades. 'He was so terribly charming and nice that people would do anything he asked. Sir Harry saw the need for rehabilitation in China. He knew the mould [in the mainland] should not be the same as in Hong Kong because in rural areas of China methods and daily interaction are so very different. 'He initiated and created workshop community-based rehab in 1986. In Guangzhou, they set up a place for people to learn how to become occupational therapists, with students from many different provinces. Then fully trained occupational therapists would be able to help people all over China.' Barbara Duncan, communications director of Rehabilitation International, said Sir Harry had founded many organisations on his own. 'He collaborated with Beijing to build, from ground up, the Chinese Disabled People's Federation. Once he put his magic hands on it, people poured through the doors.' Sir Harry, who was an uncle of former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, traced his family roots to Anhui province. He was born on August 2, 1923, during his father General Fang Zhenwu's posting at the Kuomintang headquarters in Nanjing . In the 1930s, General Fang believed that the Nationalists should be fighting alongside the Communists against the Japanese - a view seen as undesirable at the time. He was killed by Kuomintang agents, Sir Harry suspected, in 1942. The rest of the family, led by Sir Harry's mother, fled Nanjing and lived for a time in Shanghai before reaching Hong Kong in 1936. Sir Harry studied at Queen's College and went on to study medicine at HKU. During the occupation, he fled Hong Kong and continued his studies on the mainland. He later gained a master's degree in orthopaedic surgery at the University of Liverpool, England. It was while working in the wards at Queen Mary Hospital in the 1950s that Sir Harry began his intense interest in making life better for those with untreatable conditions. It was an era of fast-rising prosperity for Hong Kong, and he felt keenly that those who fell by the wayside should be cared for adequately. A high-rise construction worker had fallen and was hopelessly crippled. He would never walk again. Sir Harry not only helped the man gain rightful compensation, but also helped renovate his resettlement estate flat so the wheelchair-bound man could move from bed to toilet to kitchen. Then he found him a job in a factory. But realising he had helped only one person, he was spurred into public service. 'There were so many others who needed help,' he recalled 45 years later. The best way to help the strickened lead full lives, he believed, was to teach them to look after their own needs. To do that, society had to offer special schools, therapy programmes and trained staff. Sir Harry made full use of his 1974 appointment to the Legislative Council. By 1977, the government had published its first paper on rehabilitation and later laid down a 10-year plan. When he landed a five-year term on the Executive Council in 1978, Sir Harry used his influence to expand treatment and to emphasise top quality education for therapists. His work gained further momentum after he became president of Rehabilitation International in 1980. The UN declared 1981 the year of the disabled and, two years later, announced the decade of the disabled. Sir Harry was delighted; the doctor had fought for both moves. Sheila Purves, project director of the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation, which Sir Harry founded, described him as the epitome of leadership. 'He would launch an ambitious project and give you his enthusiasm. He worked so hard we always had to run to keep up. 'Dr Fang truly realised that surgery and hospitals weren't enough. What would happen to these young people after their surgery? Rehabilitation centres were needed in Hong Kong. Just because they were injured didn't mean they could not have a productive life.' For many years, Sir Harry said, treatment for people with such ailments as cerebral palsy had been non-existent in Asian societies. Such patients led lives without hope or purpose, lying in a bed and waiting to die. Sir Harry believed that the survival spirit in people could conquer grave injuries or disabilities, and, with proper treatment, they could become useful, contributing members of society. A great way to do that, he believed, was through sport; he was the founding father of the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled and was awarded the Paralympic Order in 2001 from the International Paralympic Committee. His idealism rubbed off on others. He organised Hong Kong's first disabled sports day, in 1970, founded the Paralympic committee in 1972 and, by 1982, was able to watch athletes from more than 20 countries take part in the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled at Sha Tin. 'Sports are competitive,' he said. 'They stretch people to the limit, goad them to excellence. A disabled person winning a gold medal for Hong Kong becomes a hero and gains widespread recognition.' It was a matter of immense satisfaction for him to note that Hong Kong's disabled athletes had won 2,000 medals through the years. Sir Harry himself also won awards, including a knighthood in 1996 and the Grand Bauhinia Medal in 2001, both in recognition of his lifelong work for the disabled. Ms Duncan, calling Sir Harry a true humanist, said: 'You could be the queen or someone like me, and he would treat you the same. He received diplomas, honorary degrees, a knighthood and every sort of honour one can think of, but he never changed. 'The special thing about Harry was he truly understood the need for regional representation. New York and Geneva weren't going to cut it. Harry really got down to the everyday communication and regional representation which is so important. He saw openings and took them.' After suffering his first stroke, Sir Harry suddenly found himself in a similar condition to many of those whom he had helped over the years. Ever optimistic, he insisted on following the lessons he had preached, and returned to work as soon as he could. But Sir Harry had a second stroke in 2003, and remained in hospital until he died. St Paul's Hospital superintendent Dr David Fang Chun-sang, a nephew, said Sir Harry was truly the founding father of equal opportunity. 'Equal opportunities for sports, recreation and work for the disabled, among other things,' he said. 'He held the helm for society for 40 years and he has set the bar for the future. The effort must go on.' Sir Harry is survived by wife Laura Fang Ip Hung-cho, a son and four daughters.