Hong Kong is truly a city on the move. Its streets are jammed with various types of vehicles, its pavement packed with people. Because Hong Kong always took it seriously, it is also blessed with an extremely efficient and extensive public transport system. A system that is generally easy to get around. But for those with physical disabilities, that use an electric wheelchair, what would be a simple journey for most of us can be a lot less convenient.
Take the case of Henry Tam Wing-hang, 23, who is a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Tam has spinal muscular atrophy and his mobility is restricted to the four fingers of his right hand. He uses a helper and has an electric wheelchair to go about his daily life.
Tam often takes the public bus to get around. Currently, most buses in Hong Kong are super-low floor models allowing for easier access from the sidewalk onto the bus for people using motorized wheelchairs and walkers. The Kowloon Motor Bus Company (KMB) in 1997, introduced the world’s first super-low floor double-deckers.
Electric wheelchair users sometimes still need assistance from the bus driver to board. The driver usually needs to leave their seat to lower the ramp for those to get on and off the bus. Tam says most drivers are helpful and he attributes this to the training that the bus companies are providing to their employees.
However, it is a different matter when it comes to fellow passengers. Tam says many times passengers are reluctant to make room for him when he is boarding the bus.
“In fact, the capacity of the area [set aside for wheelchair users] can accommodate several people. If they are already standing there before I come on board, then for sure they are not willing to move,” says Tam.
Fortunately, most of the time, the passengers do eventually cooperate after being asked by the bus driver. But Tam can tell that some of them are displeased by the expressions on their faces.
“There was one time about a year ago, where there was a group of ladies standing in that area on the bus. They didn’t say much when the driver asked them to move away. But when I walked pass them, I heard them murmur, saying that I am ‘annoying and shouldn’t have taken the bus’,” Tam recalls sadly.
Apart from the unpleasant experiences, Tam says safety concerns are another issue to deal with when taking the bus. There is only one seat-belt attached to the disabled seat, and it is not long enough for the larger models of the wheelchair. The problems Tam encounters on public buses are not an issue on the Rehab Bus, the rehabilitation bus service operated by the Hong Kong Society of Rehabilitation with funding from the government. However, even with those positives, there are drawbacks even with this service.
Electric wheelchair users have to book the service several months in advance because many of the time slots are reserved for elderly groups and students at special schools. With such a long waiting period, many are willing to take the risk of hiring privately-owned vans that are modified specifically for wheelchair users. The problem there is that these privately-owned modified vans are not licensed, regulated or insured to provide passenger services. Yet, service providers with these vans freely promote their businesses online, and there is no sign the government is cracking down on them.
Tam thinks the fact that people are willing to pay for these vans despite the potential dangers, both physical and legal, illustrates shortcomings in the provision of licensed transportation for disabled passengers in Hong Kong. Bookings made long in advance are also needed for Diamond Cab, a taxi service for wheelchair users run by a social enterprise. Apart from the long waiting time, users also have to be willing to pay a high cost for these cabs. The fare can be three to four times that of a regular taxi. There is a reason why most wheelchair users prefer taking the MTR to buses. Many users electric wheelchairs are too bulky for the buses and give trouble getting on them. The gangway in the buses can barely accommodate the electric wheelchair so he needs to be extremely careful when he moves through the bus.
Many think the gangway and wheelchair prioritized areas on buses are too narrow because the carriages were designed before bigger electronic wheelchairs became commonplace. Some stakeholders think public transport for wheelchair users has improved in recent years because different government departments and public transport operators are willing to consult passengers with disabilities.
Vicky Ho Hoi-yin, the senior organizing officer of the Direction Association for the Handicapped, says the Transport Department and the MTR have invited the group’s members to meetings and site visits to see whether the existing facilities can cater to their needs.
Ho says getting around on public transport has been getting easier for motorized wheelchair users but there is still a lot to be done. She stresses that meetings and consultations need to be followed up with prompt action.
She said, “People without disabilities may need to use them as well at different times of their lives. Anyone may need them when they are old and have difficulty in walking or when they are carrying infants, young children, and a stroller. Creating a barrier-free public transport system should not just be seen as a matter of rights for people with disabilities, but also an issue that is relevant to everyone.”