Paul Surtees said the city needs to do more to help visually impaired people and one of the best ways is to offer them work
For those many Hong Kong citizens unfortunate enough to be differently abled, the prospect of being able to hold down a job is more important than simply receiving the salary that goes with it. Being able to work brings with it greater self-confidence, a sense of self-worth and satisfaction and being a contributing member of society. They all add up immeasurably to their quality of life and happiness.
It is therefore all the more lamentable that for most of our visually impaired fellow citizens, their chances of landing a decent job are all too rare, no matter how well-qualified they may be. This unfortunate situation represents embedded discrimination against them, in terms of employment — a distasteful but often hidden level of discrimination that affects not only those victims who are blind, but also negatively affects many who are disabled in other ways.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong has recently conducted a small-scale survey on this issue, “Research on the employment of visually impaired persons in Hong Kong”, in association with the Hong Kong Blind Union. Unappetizing though their findings are, those connected to Hong Kong’s blind community will not be surprised by them, because the near-impossibility of the blind landing a good job is a reality for many of them.
This survey was rather small in scale, with only 136 valid questionnaire responses received from adult visually impaired people, but serves to confirm much anecdotal evidence seen by staff and volunteers who serve the blind.
Accepting more disabled individuals into the workplace is a truly win-win solution, as it not only assists these individual financially, some may even become tax-paying employees and possibly minimizing the need for a welfare subsidy for them
The survey found that though some 70 percent of them had received tertiary education, only 43 percent of them have been able to get a full-time job. The 57 percent of them who have not been able to find a full-time job comes as no surprise. Even those lucky enough to land a job are, for the most part, sidelined into more junior positions in clerical, sales or service-oriented employment. And many respondents reported long periods, of many months or even years, of searching before they found their full-time employment. Also, the discriminatory glass ceiling for differently abled employees in many workplaces generally restricts their progress up the usual promotion ladder, no matter how reliably or smartly they may work.
It seems that many first-time employers of disabled employees are initially concerned about their ability to fulfill their duties. But most of them are pleasantly surprised later to find that their disabled employees would prove to be more reliable because they do not wish to lose their hard-earned opportunity at the workplace.
Having undergone higher education would normally fit that potential employee for a more senior job. The great efforts and expenses expended to undergo tertiary education — especially if you are blind — would normally be expected to lead to a higher-paid job. But these expected rewards for going through higher education seem not to apply if the employee is visually impaired. The median salary earned by tertiary-educated people who are visually impaired, at a monthly HK$12,000, is less than half that paid to able-bodied higher-educated employees (the median is about HK$ 26,500).
To its great credit, the Hong Kong civil service makes special efforts to offer jobs to our disabled fellow citizens, thus providing a fine example of an enlightened employer. In any really large workforce, certain job tasks can be given to those who are differently abled, but only if the employer is willing to make some adjustments in work distribution. In fact, over recent years the number of disabled civil servants is slightly down. The government should set an example in creating a work-friendly environment for the visually impaired, and other handicapped individuals. Accepting more disabled individuals into the workplace is a truly win-win solution, as it not only assists these individual financially, some may even become tax-paying employees and possibly minimizing the need for a welfare subsidy for them.
Hong Kong’s public transport, and especially our MTR, is very well-planned with a variety of facilities provided to meet the needs of disabled people, so commuting to work should not represent a challenge to most of them. The challenge is to get work, rather than to get to work!
It is often proposed that the bigger business employers in Hong Kong should be obliged to offer jobs to the disadvantaged (such as the disabled) based on a quota that reflects the proportion of our Hong Kong citizens who are disabled. Let us hope that this approach could be explored more actively. Perhaps some financial incentives — such as tax breaks — could be offered to encourage employers to make more posts available to disabled citizens. Let us be guided by the wisdom of the great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, who said: “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
The writer is a veteran commentator on Hong Kong social issues and honorary lifetime adviser to the Hong Kong Federation of the Blind.
HONG KONG NEWS