The poverty report released by the government last month was widely covered because of its dire finding that more than one in every five Hongkongers lived below the poverty line last year.
This translates to a record-breaking 1.65 million people, although around a million were lifted out of poverty after receiving government help. Of particular interest to us at the Equal Opportunities Commission is whether people with disabilities bear a disproportionate burden of poverty.
The report provides no answer. A separate 2013 report showed that the pre-intervention poverty rate for disabled people hit 45.3 per cent that year, far higher than the 19.9 per cent territory-wide. The unemployment rate for disabled working-age people (18-64 years) was almost double that of the general population.
At the root of the problem is the lukewarm interest in employing disabled people. This can be attributed to employers’ reluctance to carry out or even learn about workplace or policy adjustments that can enable disabled people to fulfil the job requirements, and an assumption that these changes would often be costly and burdensome.
The Equal Opportunities Commission, therefore, has been advocating for the introduction of a duty under the Disability Discrimination Ordinance to provide reasonable accommodation for disabled people since our 2016 review of the city’s anti-discrimination legislation.
This is not some radical idea from nowhere. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been in force in China, including Hong Kong, since August 31, 2008, explains reasonable accommodation as the “appropriate modification and adjustments” necessary to ensure that disabled people can exercise “all human rights and fundamental freedoms” on an equal basis with others, without “imposing a disproportionate or undue burden” on the party making the accommodation.
Examples may include installing screen-reading software for the visually challenged, captioning training videos for the deaf or hard-of-hearing, or allowing employees to work from home when they experience temporary mobility difficulties.
Of essence here is a mindset shift, from what is academically known as the medical model of disability – one focusing on the individual and pathology – to a social, right-based model that addresses institutional and attitudinal hurdles to inclusion.
Our law needs to evolve to reflect this modern approach to protecting disability rights already adopted in other common law jurisdictions such as Britain and Australia, where a failure to comply with the duty may constitute discrimination.
The good news is that Hongkongers are overwhelmingly in favour of law reform. Last month, the commission published a survey of 1,501 people aged 15 or above in Hong Kong, among whom 92.5 per cent agreed it is “very or quite important” to introduce a distinct duty in the Disability Discrimination Ordinance to make reasonable accommodation for disabled people.
We are aware that some employers, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, worry that such a duty would increase their financial burden. Such concerns stem from a misunderstanding of the proposed duty, which would only require accommodation where it is “reasonable” and not disproportionate.
Reasonableness is a flexible concept designed to accommodate different circumstances. One factor is the precise needs of the disabled person concerned. Another is the financial position of the duty bearer. A local SME on a shoestring budget can hardly be expected to take the same steps as a well-resourced multinational corporation.
And to truly empower disabled people to participate in all aspects of society, the duty should not be limited to the workplace but should also cover other important areas including in education, service provision and access to premises.
The Equal Opportunities Commission’s experience in dispute settlement and conciliation tells us that many companies, when given the chance, are willing to address the needs of disabled people, from installing ramps at building entrances to visual fire alarms inside public housing for those with hearing difficulties.
Most recently, we are pleased to see a policy change by the MTR to now assist two wheelchair users to board and deboard the same train using a portable ramp provided by station staff upon request. Previously, portable ramp assistance was only available to one wheelchair user per train.
As people around the world celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, on December 3, I remember vividly the outpouring of support in Hong Kong for the city’s delegation at the Tokyo Paralympics just a few months ago. Beyond the fanfare, Hong Kong must commit to advancing the rights and well-being of its disabled citizens. An earnest look at how to introduce a duty of reasonable accommodation would be the perfect way for the government to honour this commitment.