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Disability is everywhere: Hong Kong and other places

by Simon Minty

29th April 2010

In his latest dispatch, we find Simon Minty has been travelling and he reports back on how and where disability breaks through its restraints and into mainstream life.
Hong Kong garden
You'd be forgiven for thinking that disability inclusion is a recent phenomenon but it's been around in various guises for years. Twenty years ago I visited Hong Kong as part of the UK's Dragon Boat team. Dragon boat racing is almost as popular in Asia as football is here in the UK. The boats are long thin and canoe-like, with a crew of 20 or 40 paddlers who race over short distances.
I was the person who beat a large drum at the front of the boat to help keep the rowers in time. The rules state each boat must have an adult drummer which I was, but helpfully I was a smaller and lighter adult than most. Our creative use of disability here helped us win all but one of the races and started my love of the place.
Dragon Boat Racing
I've recently returned from a visit to Hong Kong for work, without a paddle this time. During the trip I had two suits made by their famous tailors, and enjoyed the unusual pleasure in trying on something that is made well, is my choice of colour and material and fits perfectly.

Having a physical difference doesn't concern Hong Kong tailors, so long as you have some money. A word of warning, I chose some material for one suit based on the tan colour of the swatch. When made in to a suit however, it turned out to be almost white. So if anyone knows of a John Travolta or Miami Vice party coming up, I'm ready.

General access and disability thinking has increased hugely since my first visit to Hong Kong. The subway is better than London by far although you may need to ask for assistance. Dropped kerbs, tactile paving and reasonably accessible hotel rooms are fairly commonplace.
Hong Kong at night
At the airport, physical access is good but the antiquated rules are something of a barrier. For the umpteenth time, I found myself waiting by the plane door for forty minutes whilst ground staff tried to fob me off with reasons as to why my mobility scooter couldn't be brought to me.

My persistence paid off and eventually it arrived and the group of six officials all thankfully disappeared except for the one who insisted on escorting me through the airport. This was to ensure I didn't run over any hapless travellers on my lethal 100 cm long, 4 miles per hour scooter.

Sometimes, disabled people don't venture too far due to a lack of knowledge of the surroundings; I might hesitate or refuse something because I think it might be too difficult just because I know no better. However, I've found a solution to this when in Hong Kong via a disabled travellers guide, written by a local called Sarah Fuller whose dad is a wheelchair user.
Garden in Hong Kong Park
The guide encouraged me to go beyond the regular safe places I already knew and so for the first time I had a proper wander around Hong Kong Park. You start at ground level and if you have the stamina, or good battery power, you can follow the path up several hundred feet.

During the ascent, I discovered: a tea museum, an aviary, an art gallery, a wedding chapel and an Olympic Venue from the Beijing 2008 games; and at the top, fantastic views. Amazingly, close to the top I found a functioning accessible loo. So this disabled man can now go everywhere.

During one of my quiet nights in Hong Kong, I decided to visit to the cinema. The staff didn't bat an eyelid when I arrived on my scooter. The bow-tied ushers ran around the cinema to open the not very often used ramps and access routes. In the auditorium itself were three front row wheelchair spaces but I transferred to a seat. It was so easy.

I went to see How to Train Your Dragon in 3-D and think it's a delightful story well told. And whaddya know, disability appears in the film via losing a limb (or a tail if you are a dragon) and fantastically is simply explained as an unfortunate but natural part of life - especially if you fight dragons, I guess.
Australian flags outside parliament
Returning to travel, it seems the Australian government has been making sure disability doesn't get everywhere. If you want to move to Australia, under their Migration Act you have to undergo a health test. An Australian Senate committee's investigation is highlighting how Australia systematically discriminates against disabled people as they are seen as a 'financial burden'. Their contribution is not considered and disabled people are simply 'not cost-effective'. Now where have I heard that before...?

The Sydney Morning Herald points out that deafblind role model Helen Keller would have been automatically excluded, as would Stephen Hawking. It goes on to say Gordon Brown would be denied residency too being a visually impaired man ... so if it doesn't go too well for him on 6th May, retirement down under doesn't look like an option.

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