Life Rolls On: The ups and downs of navigating Hong Kong in a wheelchair

Hong Kong. A labyrinthine maze of buses, minibuses, taxis, trams and ferries. A vertical landscape of skyscrapers set against a backdrop of undulating hills and valleys. Streets crowded with busy commuters who don’t think twice about bumping your shoulder, or pushing in front of you to squeeze into that last space on the MTR…

Now add a wheelchair into that mix. Sounds impossible, right?

In light of the recent Paralympic Games in Rio (where Hong Kong won six medals, two of them gold), we wanted to find out what everyday challenges those living with physical disabilities face in the city.

To answer our questions, we met with Paul Letters (an expat), Love Ko (a local) and Patrick McDermott (a tourist), who use different types of wheelchairs, as well as Professor Alfred Chan, the Chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Screenshot: Alex Xue Han via Youtube

Transport and Driving

How do you find using public transport in Hong Kong, and how is driving in a city infamous for a lack of parking facilities?

Paul: Public transport from an accessibility point of view is a mixed bag. Many MTR stations have lifts and the government assures me that they are working to include disabled access at every station, but there will usually only be one disabled exit. I use the MTR app to look ahead and figure out which exit I can take, though it often means going the long way round to my destination.

Taxis pose a problem for me. I find that many refuse to stop, which was far rarer before I was in a wheelchair. Perhaps there are some who simply don’t want the hassle of taking a wheelchair – let alone a (collapsible) mobility scooter, but there will be others who have genuine back problems of their own and need to avoid heavy lifting. Whatever the reason is, if I’m with someone else then I get them to stand ahead of me with their hand out, while I hang back.

As for driving, despite living with a disability in Hong Kong for 10 years, I only recently learned that getting hand-controls for your car isn’t so difficult, and the government help out in surprising ways. They cover road tax, tunnel passes and 200 litres of petrol per month, which is fantastic!

In stark contrast, disabled parking can be a real struggle. If you are the driver with a disabled driver’s licence, then you can use disabled parking no problem, which can be found in most car parks. However, if you are unable to drive – so you’re the passenger – then the wheelchair spaces you are entitled to use are restricted to just a small minority of car parks, which seems like a crazy double-standard to me.

In the one year my wife and I tried to use this system, where your family member is the driver and permit holder, we didn’t find even one of these elusive spaces. And surely, if your disability is so severe that you can’t use a hand-controlled car, then you have no choice but to be the passenger and therefore require more help.

Love: I use public transport to get around, mostly buses. Newer buses have disabled access, but there is only space for one disabled passenger. Recently, I’ve been in contact with the government about adding a second space, as I really think it’s needed. Minibuses and trams have no facilities whatsoever, but the MTR and some ferries do.

There are also alternatives such as the ‘rehabilitation bus’, which is equipped for wheelchair access but you must be a member of the NGO who runs the service in order to use it. I also know of two taxi companies that will take my electric wheelchair, but I have to call in advance and it is more expensive.

Diamond Cabs, a locally based startup, provides point-to-point transportation for wheelchair users. Photo: Diamond Cabs via Facebook

Patrick: I wasn’t sure what to expect of my first trip to the city – and to Asia – but when I did my research online I did a double take. Every single MTR station that I used [was fitted with accessibility facilities]. Please excuse the shock of a wheelchair-using, London-living tourist arriving in Hong Kong to such unusual news! During my trip, the MTR lived up to its billing as a convenient, cheap and accessible way to see the whole city on four wheels.

Other forms of local transit were not outshone easily. Whether I was taking a bus to Stanley, a ferry to Kowloon or one of many red taxi trips, I was greeted by surprisingly unfazed cabbies and bus drivers who were friendly and happy to help.

Alfred: It’s part of our daily agenda at the EOC to work on making travel barrier-free. In 2010, the EOC published our findings of the Formal Investigation on Accessibility in Publicly Accessible Premises, and this has pushed the government into making a lot of changes. The government stepped up, but they are still in the process of implementing these new plans.

Many older buildings in Hong Kong are walk-ups, which pose a great inconvenience to wheelchair users. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Building Access

We all have that friend who lives on the 14th floor of a walk-up, or have a lift in our office building that’s been mysteriously out of order for five years, so how accessible are the majority of buildings and facilities in Hong Kong, from your points of view?

Paul: My family and I live on the ground floor, which is much better for accessibility but it’s difficult to find a ground floor apartment or property in Hong Kong.

Frustratingly, almost every building and shop front in Hong Kong has a small step at the entrance. Now that I’ve pointed it out, you’ll notice it every time. I believe that these are meant to be a practical solution to prevent rain from coming in. Unfortunately, this can make even popping into 7-Eleven a challenge. Newer buildings must officially have a ramp if the entrance has steps. Often there is no fixed ramp – I have to find a security guard to fetch it from a store room.

I am able to get out of my chair to go up small flights of stairs, but it’s an arduous process. I have to remove my bag from the scooter, move the bag, move my scooter and move myself, and it’s a hit-and-miss as to whether anyone offers help. I imagine these situations are even more frustrating if you are not able to get out of your chair to tackle these obstacles yourself.

Having said that, you would be surprised how many newer buildings and even places in Hong Kong such as Ocean Park and Pacific Place make accessibility harder than it needs to be. When I used a wheelchair, I would say that people showed more understanding. But now a lot of people think my scooter is a toy and that I don’t need it for mobility, so they tell me I can’t take it inside somewhere. Some even ask where they can buy one of these “toys”!

Love: The thing is that buildings, restaurants, shops and other businesses are technically required to be wheelchair accessible by law, which is great in theory, but it is rarely put into practice. One of the biggest issues with accessibility is that the government puts laws into place but doesn’t actually monitor whether people are adhering to them. More often than not, a building will have a temporary ramp that the management brings out for me and then puts away again later. This is not a great solution.

If I’m going somewhere that I haven’t been before, I usually research my route using an app – there are lots of different ones available that help map out routes for people who use wheelchairs – and I call ahead to the building. Why do I call? Because I think it’s a personal touch. My idea is to build relationships with people; to let them understand what help I need and to really emphasise how much I appreciate their help. I believe that makes a difference, because those people that I interact with will remember me and may help me or someone like me again in the future. A smile goes a long way.

Most 7-Eleven convenience stores feature a small step that’s invisible to the able-bodied eye. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Patrick: The reality of zipping around Hong Kong is steps. Small, barely visible to the able-bodied eye and everywhere. Apparently they prevent flooding but they also prevent me from getting in to every single 7-Eleven. I imagine if able-bodied Hongkongers couldn’t get into a single 7-Eleven there’d be hell to pay!

Alfred: Hong Kong is small, hilly and made up of islands. My friends from overseas also joke that Hong Kong is a permanent building site – we are always building new things. Taking into account all these obstacles, it’s easy to understand why accessibility is still such a huge challenge here.

Thanks to our 2010 report, there are now laws put in place so that new buildings are age-friendly and barrier-free, and we have even taken a few public facilities to court over their disregard of these rules. Older buildings are more difficult to update, but just as Hong Kong is always renewing itself, in time these will be updated too.

READ: Paraplegic athlete beats all odds to climb Lion Rock in a wheelchair

Employment and Welfare

How about working in Hong Kong with a disability, and does the government help you out at all?

Paul: I was employed before my mobility issues started, so I can’t speak too much from experience on the subject of how a disability affects chances of employment. However, I do know first-hand how disabled welfare works in Hong Kong. There are two kinds: the first is an allowance per month for everyone registered with a severe disability in Hong Kong, and there is a second that is income-assessed that I am not eligible for.

All people living with disabilities face unique challenges that are specific to their disability and their background. As with everywhere, poorer areas tend to have more problems with disabilities and health, and those in poverty struggle more with the issues that they have because they can’t afford the help they need. Life is much tougher for someone who has low income, or no income at all.

Love: After secondary education, I worked in a factory that manufactured electronics, then I worked for a bookstore, and later opened my own bookstore with friends. Interestingly, after I had to quit work due to health reasons, I went for an operation at the Duchess of Kent Hospital that was subsidised by The Society for the Relief of Disabled Children (SRDC). This actually led to an opportunity to work as a ward steward at the hospital, so I went from being a patient to being a staff member! I stayed there for 18 years, and now that I’m retired I work part-time for the SRDC as well. They helped me so much, and now I have the time to give something back.

So, would I say that I have ever felt discriminated against in the workplace? No, I have always been paid the same as my peers and feel that I’ve had the same opportunities. However, I would like to see more educated professionals with disabilities in positions with wealthy companies in Hong Kong. People with physical disabilities can offer a lot of creative ideas and should be better represented in big corporations.

Alfred: Of the four anti-discrimination ordinances that the EOC is charged with protecting and enforcing, we receive by far the most complaints in reference to the Disability Discrimination Ordinance. The EOC has received a total of 1,781 complaints in the past three years (from 2013 to 2015), of which 1,001 complaints (56 percent) were made under the DDO. Some of these complaints are about accessibility issues, but the vast majority are employment-related complaints. I believe this is due to ignorance on employer’s parts about their employees’ rights. Hong Kong is a city focused on the commercial, and sometimes employers prioritise their productivity over everything else. 

However, it’s not enough just to educate employers on the rights of their disabled workers, but we also want to see employers providing more opportunities for disabled persons. Even in the government, the number of staff members with disabilities is only two percent. That’s only half of the global average of four percent. Attitudes in Hong Kong need to change.

Other Everyday Challenges

Is there anything else that Hong Kong could improve on in terms of accessibility, or treatment of those who have disabilities?

Paul: The treatment of my scooter has certainly been a challenge. You might be surprised to learn that until very recently mobility scooters like the one I use were illegal in Hong Kong! I contacted my local Legislative Council representative Emily Lau a few years ago, and after meetings with LegCo, the regulation has now been amended to legalise scooters like mine for people with disabilities.

Love: One thing that I really struggle with in Hong Kong is the pavement. It’s far too narrow for a start, so sometimes squeezing around a fire hydrant or lamppost is near impossible in the space provided. Also, I can only cross the road at the point where the curb dips because of my chair, but there aren’t enough places where this is possible. It can take a long time just to find where the drop curb is both on my side of the road and the other side of the road, only to find that the traffic at that spot is so bad that it’s too dangerous for me to cross!

Patrick: Every city has homeless residents who find their homes on pavements or in doorways. It’s a sad but familiar sight for city dwellers. However, in Hong Kong I was struck by the number of homeless people with physical disabilities surviving on the street. As a visitor, it can be difficult to understand why such large numbers of disabled people live this way in a thoroughly modern city, and I was certainly affected by the contrast between our lives as I passed by.

Alfred: Firstly, I think the government needs to work on the relationship between disability and poverty in Hong Kong. The government’s Social Welfare Department is working hard on providing more support who don’t have the financial means, and I think it’s urgently needed. They tend to suffer more. The second is accessibility: Hong Kong’s dense city space and hilly environment make improving accessibility a big challenge in itself, and it takes a long time to make so many changes. Finally, I want to see businesspeople and the government working together more to improve both accessibility to buildings and employment opportunities for disabled persons. I believe that growth in modern technology and new designs will play a big role in improving this too.

In summary, is Hong Kong truly wheelchair accessible, in your opinion?

Paul: I think Hong Kong is still learning. To me, it’s way behind on disabled access for a modern, developed city. But gleaning information about what help is available is partly a linguistic problem: Perhaps if I could communicate better in Chinese then there would be much more information at my disposal? So, I would say “no” – unless your impairment and your income allow you to devise ways to circumnavigate Hong Kong’s many obstacles.

Love: Over the years I’ve seen Hong Kong slowly develop and improve in terms of accessibility, but the pace is slow. My biggest qualm with access in Hong Kong is that if the government make laws regarding wheelchair accessibility, then they should fulfil their promises. Especially in the more ‘old-fashioned’ districts of Hong Kong, where the government hasn’t bothered to improve the area with ramps or access. I feel that so much is a job half-done, like the government is just doing or saying things so it sounds like they have everything covered, when in fact nothing has really changed.

Patrick: As a tourist, I was faced with language barriers, cultural differences as well as physical obstacles, so it was always going to be a challenge. The truth is that nowhere is truly wheelchair accessible. Cities and towns around the world are built for able-bodied residents and visitors. Change is coming to these places at differing paces. Hong Kong has some of the infrastructure and a welcoming disposition but like anywhere, until all buildings are accessible as a matter of course and communities make a real commitment to equality of opportunity for all – it won’t be perfect.

Alfred: Hong Kong has an ageing population: 15 percent of the population is over 65 years old, and this number is on the rise. The older you are, the more likely you are to develop a disability or have mobility problems, so the two are related, and thus accessibility becomes an even more important issue that affects more and more people every year.

Despite our advanced economy, the attitudes of Hong Kong people can sometimes be a bit behind on the times; for example, the taxi drivers that refuse to stop to pick up disabled passengers. The government is enthusiastic to improve, but it’s a time-consuming process to implement the changes that need to be made. What would make more of a difference is educating Hongkongers to practice more empathy towards those with disabilities.

Paul Letters is a secondary school teacher, journalist and novelist originally from the UK, who has been living in Hong Kong for 15 years. Paul started having health problems 10 years ago which limited his mobility to the point where he needed a mechanical wheelchair, followed later by a mobility scooter, to get around. Visit his website and buy his latest novel A Chance Kill, available on Amazon and in Hong Kong bookstores.

Love Ho is a retired bookstore owner who now works part-time with The Society for the Relief of Disabled Children. Love suffered with polio as a child, which affected his ability to walk. After some complications with a broken leg a few years ago, Love now uses an electric wheelchair for long distances.

Patrick McDermott is a young professional and manual wheelchair user from London who spent 10 days visiting friends in Hong Kong on his first trip to the city and to Asia.

Professor Alfred Chan is the Chairperson of Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission, an independent statutory body responsible for implementing discrimination ordinances related to sex, disability, family status and race, in Hong Kong.

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