Rough road ahead

Patients with physical disabilities face obstacles on their way to hospital due to the city's lack of barrier-free facilities.

Once Mr Wong Tai-shan, 82, steps out of his home, the nightmare begins. Trudging down the narrow road towards the hospital for a regular body check, he has to press through the throng of pedestrians queuing for buses while bearing the pain of his crippled left leg.

"Even climbing up a few stairs can be a tremendous task for me," said Mr Wong, who lost his ability to walk with ease due to severe injuries sustained more than 70 years ago. Since then, a crutch has become his inseparable companion.

Amid rising public demand for barrier-free facilities for the disabled, Chief Executive Mr Leung Chun-ying pledged to create "an environment free of barriers" for the city when he took office in 2012.

Financial Secretary Mr John Tsang Chun-wah announced in his latest budget speech that footbridges, elevated walkways and subways would be built to enhance accessibility for the disabled.

But Legislative Councillor Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said that areas near major hospitals should take priority for the establishment of barrier-free facilities.

Among the 3.6 million disabled people in Hong Kong, nearly 46.2 per cent of them require physical assistance in transportation for medical treatment, according to the Census and Statistics Department.

Hospitals providing medical services in prosthetics, orthotics and rehabilitation – such as Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Queen Mary Hospital – receive most patients with physical disabilities.

Yet most of these hospitals are located uphill where patients have difficulty reaching, according to Mr Wong.

Although wheelchair riders enjoy Rehabus and Diamond Cab, both of which serve to transport patients from their homes to hospitals, Dr Cheung said not everyone can bear the costly service in the long run, as poverty often co-occurs in cases of physical disabilities.

According to a survey conducted by the Centre on Research and Advocacy of the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation in 2013, 51.5 per cent of the disabled suffer from unemployment and over 50 per cent of families with disabled members are living below the poverty line.

Transportation by Diamond Cab and Rehabus charges at least $115 and $24 per person per trip. Rehabus only runs for four designated routes which cannot reach all hospitals. Patients can also request for Dial-a-Ride service but more than 7,000 applications have been rejected last year, Dr Cheung said.

"Transportation services such as rehabilitation buses are launched to make up for the lack of barrier-free facilities for elderly patients on their way to the hospital," said Mr Rex Luk, director of transport and travel from the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation.

He added that barrier-free facilities and point-to-point transportation from home to hospitals were what the disabled in Hong Kong needed the most.

"Difficulties occur on a patient's way to the hospital, not at the hospital," said Mr Luk. He added that most hospitals have followed the "Design Manual – Barrier Free Access 2008", which ensured easy accessibility for patients.

Dr Cheung said that nearby environment of hospitals had to be improved as he cited Kowloon Hospital, where many disabled patients frequent.

Suggested designs include tactile guide paths for visually impaired patients, ramps that liberate patients from stairs and dropped curbs to accommodate patients concerned with the differences in levels between the pavement and road.

Dr Cheung also urges the government to increase connective facilities such as elevators at footbridges near bus stops.

According to Ms Amy Wang Su-qin, President of the People of Fortitude International Mutual-aid Association, an organisation that reintroduces disabled people to the labour market, the government has been facing difficulties in building barrier-free facilities near hospital over the years.

"Slow progress is inevitable. Noises from construction may disturb nearby hospitals, which mostly operate for 24 hours," she added.

But Dr Cheung hopes that a government bureau tasked with helping disabled people will be established.

"Everywhere you look, there's demand for barrier-free facilities. We have the resources. What we lack is a head that bring things together," said Dr Cheung.

Reported by Alpha Chan

Edited by Coco Zheng

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