Walk the walk on enhancing Hong Kong’s accessibility

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(Photo credit: Chris Lusher)

The goal of creating a more accessible city sometimes bypasses the question of who it is accessible to, which can lead to advancing a city in a way that serves some but excludes others. With the small sidewalks and dense populations that often find both vehicles and pedestrians dangerously competing for space, Hong Kong’s walkability definitely leaves much to be desired. Walking around in Hong Kong may prove difficult at times for the average pedestrian, but those who live with disabilities are forced to deal with much worse due to the city’s poor accessibility design.

In 2013 political commentator and writer Paul Letters published an article on SCMP titled, Hong Kong has a long way to go on disabled rights and attitudes”. This article detailed Letters’ personal experiences with living in a wheelchair in Hong Kong. From inaccessible building designs to unhelpful and unpleasant public staff, what Letters went through on a daily basis was exhausting and humiliating, and certainly discouraging for anyone with a disability who hopes to live a comfortable life in the city.

Now it is 2017, four years since Letters’ article, and it seems like not much has changed. In an article from January this year, Paul Letters and two others contributed their views on navigating throughout Hong Kong in a wheelchair. Problems such as poor infrastructure, lack of adequate policy, and unfriendly attitudes towards the disabled continue to persist. While there were some positive remarks, such as a tourist who found cabbies and bus drivers “friendly and more than happy to help”, there was still the overarching sentiment that Hong Kong has a lot to improve on before it can be considered barrier-free.

Those who travel in wheelchairs face exceptional hurdles throughout day-to-day life, and Letters would agree that even the most simple tasks can be a hassle to those who do not commute on foot. SCMP’s culture reporter Rachel Cheung completed a half-day workshop with dozens of other participants, who were assigned six simple tasks to complete in a wheelchair. The discussion around this activity was led by photographer Kevin Cheng, who shared his insight on being a wheelchair user in the city. At the Wan Chai Computer Centre, there was no signage indicating the location of a handicap-friendly lift, making the group go on a man hunt around the building to find one. Where accommodations were provided, they were poorly designed in regards to convenience and efficiency. For example, ramps are often too long or steep, making them tiresome to use efficiently unless someone assists with pushing the wheelchair.

Hong Kong’s urban design is devoid of disability-accommodating structures; when they are provided, they are poorly integrated into infrastructures, proving difficult to use and leaving the disabled discouraged from engaging in public life. Cheng commented saying that it is not just about creating a way for people with disabilities to access the building. It is also a matter of giving this minority group with the respect they deserve, instead of treating them in such a way that further marginalises and alienates their citizens. In the video Cheng posed the question: “Something is done but is the problem solved?” This is a question that needs to be taken into greater consideration for future developments in the city’s urban design.

Accessibility issues extend to more than just those in wheelchairs; other people with disabilities such as the visually impaired, experience their unfair share of difficulties in their day-to-day lives. A 13-year-old boy named Hong who lives with visual impairments has spoken out about the inadequate accommodations throughout Hong Kong’s transit systems. Issues such as low broadcast volumes and lacking raised yellow spots (formally known as tactile ground surface indicators), put those who rely on these features in hazardous situations. And where there are features to accommodate the disabled, there are time when they do more bad than good. According to Jason Ho Ka-leung, executive committee member of the Hong Kong Blind Union, some lift buttons that do have Braille on them are incorrectly translated, and end up leading people to the wrong floor.

Unfortunately, those who are most responsible for Hong Kong’s inaccessible urban design are those who have the most power to change it for the better. Kenneth Ip Tze-chung, designer of residential buildings and hotels, claimed that real estate companies need to be pressured to change their attitudes towards creating accommodating spaces for people with disabilities. In a statement to SCMP he said: “Property developers want to maximise their profits, so barrier-free access is not a priority for them. When architects go farther than the minimum requirements stipulate, they see it as a waste of gross floor area.” The best way to pressure property developers to change, according to architect Joseph Kwan, is for the government to set regulations that prioritise barrier-free design.

One recent update that may guide Hong Kong towards a barrier-free future lies in the expansion of the Admiralty footbridge system, which will connect Pacific Place to the Government Complex. Footbridges can be an ideal way to improve daily commute for people with disabilities, as they overcome the safety hazards and inconveniences that create constant obstacles on the ground below. Architects must ensure that access to these footbridges are not just “barrier-free”, but are also integrated into the infrastructure such that people with disabilities can smoothly access the interior with as little difficulty as the average commuter would experience.

With more government-led initiatives like these, Hong Kong will not only be a more walkable city, but one that is accessible to all.

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