Lack of government contract leaves hearing-impaired Hong Kong children without hearing aids at crucial time for their development
- No company fulfilled the requirements of the government’s tender at the start of the school year, depriving about 20 children of hearing supports
- Lawmaker Fernando Cheung calls on the Education Bureau to allocate vouchers to parents so they can buy hearing aids from third parties
Yan Lam, 36, is feeling helpless about her nine-month-old daughter who cannot get a hearing aid for her hearing impairments, which are moderately severe in one ear and severe in another.
The mother said children with such disabilities should be given a device when they are six months old, according to the Education Bureau’s guidelines, so by the time they are a year old, they can remember a lot of sounds necessary for language development.
But the bureau has not been able to provide Lam’s baby and around 20 others with free hearing aids due to a contractual problem with the supplier since the school year began.
Lawmakers and parents’ groups have urged the government to provide vouchers or subsidies to help parents buying the device, which can cost as much as HK$30,000 (HK$3,840) on the open market.
To tackle the concerns, officials on Friday promised that they would invite some firms to give quotations on prices, so that they could provide the services to the children as soon as early January.
“I do not want her to miss her golden learning period,” the mother said, adding the issue had reduced her to tears on numerous occasions.
“She already has other disabilities. While there might be ways to rescue her hearing, I don’t want it to turn out I can’t help her.”
According to the Education Bureau, more than 1,100 people have received its hearing aid fitting and related services up to the start of 2018/19 school year.
As usual, the bureau opened a tender process for providers of hearing aids earlier this year. But as no bidder was able to meet the tender requirements, around 20 children with hearing impairments were left without hearing aids.
But the bureau added that existing recipients would not be affected.
A spokeswoman said officials had invited two organisations to give quotations for hearing aids as well as ear mould fitting services, and if they fit the requirements, arrangements would be made as early as next week for those currently waiting to get the services and secure a device from the bureau’s stock.
“This can address the short-term demand from parents,” she said.
Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said many parents had already been complaining for the last seven or eight years about the devices provided by the bureau’s contractor, saying they were not satisfactory.
It was because the government systematically granted the contract to the company which offered the lowest price, he said, citing the parents.
But some parents who decided to go for models from third parties still apply for the government scheme so as not to miss out on other health-related subsidies, he added.
Cheung suggested the government roll out vouchers for parents to get hearing aids, so they can choose one that is best for their children.
“It would be better than wasting the money,” he said, referring to the government expenditure spent on providing hearing aids to parents.
The government said it had noted the vouchers proposal and would look into different ways of providing assistance, adding that it was reviewing its requirements over the services so that it could launch a new tender process soon.
The devices it provided had the approval of experts at the faculty of medicine at Chinese University, the spokeswoman added.
For Lam, a housewife whose husband is a teacher, the wait has already been too long. She said she tried to obtain a hearing aid on the open market but the cost was HK$30,000, which deterred her from getting one.
She resorted to borrowing old devices from other parents, but those did not suit her baby.
Lam criticised the government for being irresponsible as it should have planned for other solutions to help the affected parents.
“How can the Education Bureau deprive children of the right to hear just because of administration problems?” she asked.
The Hong Kong Society of Audiology cited studies saying that hearing-impaired children would need to rely on hearing aids for learning languages and a delay in getting the equipment would affect their development in the area.
“Some may even miss the golden period for learning languages,” its statement read.
It said that, in order to continue treatment for children, the bureau could ask its audiologists to offer parents services such as hearing checks.