The following is the speech by Dr E K Yeoh, Secretary for Health and Welfare, at the opening ceremony of the Interregional Seminar and Symposium on International Norms and Standards Relating to Disability today (Monday):
Ms Wu, Prof. Chen, Mr Rapely, Distinguished Guests, Participants, Ladies & Gentlemen,
It is my very great honour and privilege to be with you today at this opening ceremony of the Interregional Seminar and Symposium on International Norms and Standards Relating to Disability.
Disability as a Global Concern
It has been estimated by the UN that there are over 500 million persons with disabilities worldwide, or 10% of the global population. And it is said that "Disability is the only minority that maintains open enrollment 24 hours a day, 365 days a year." People are joining this significant minority, through birth, through accident, through injury,through illness or through the aging process every second of each day.
The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted in 1993 the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. UN Members are expected to implement these Rules, which are not mandatory requirements nor subject to any signatory formalities. The Rules lay down a framework to help ensure that all persons with disabilities can enjoy the same rights and meet the same obligations as all other members of their societies.
Under Article 39 of the Basic Law which is HK's mini-constitution, Hong Kong abides by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). As such, we have a strong commitment to safeguarding fundamental human rights, that is the dignity and worth of each person in each society.
Development of HK's Rehabilitation Policy
Rehabilitation work in Hong Kong first began in the last century with the construction of the first home for the blind in 1863. Since then, progress has been continuous.
The development of policies has followed a similar pathway as with elsewhere in the world: from basic care in institutions to education for children and rehabilitation and culminating in equalization of opportunities for the disabled.
Through education and rehabilitation, persons with disabilities have become more active and their own driving force in the furtherance of policy development. This is indeed progress. People with disabilities have gone from passively accepting whatever was made available to them to actively asserting themselves and enjoying confidence in their abilities to lead self-reliant and independent lives.
The Hong Kong Government has identified three areas as our policy objectives for rehabilitation: (a) preventing disability; (b) developing full potential of the disabled; and (c) encouraging full participation and equalization of opportunities. I will not attempt a detailed account of our work in these areas today but you might find it interesting if I share with you some facts and some issues associated with formulating and implementing our policy.
As a point of information, we estimate that in Hong Kong 6% of our population have a disability. The Government provides over 8,000 residential places and over 24.000 day places to persons with disabilities covering a wide range of services including special education and skills training.
Service delivery is the result of the joint efforts of government departments, statutory bodies and over 90 non-government organizations (NGOs), including many self-help organizations.
In 1999-2000, we will spend about HK$14.5 billion (US$1.9 billion) on rehabilitation, representing 5% of the total government recurrent expenditure, or over 1% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Cost-effective Use of Resources
We recognize that there are still many gaps in our services. We also see that some services need to be re-focused and re-engineered to meet evolving community needs.
Like every other government facing the same challenge, how do we target resources at helping those who are in need of assistance in the most cost-effective way, in the context an ever changing environment? How could we do more and do better within the inevitable resources constraints?
This is an area which we all, including our NGO partners, need to think more deeply about. It is a challenge for all of us to identify, re-prioritize and re-deploy our resources from out-dated or less needed services to new and more pressing needs.
On the promotion of equal opportunities, our Disability Discrimination Ordinance came into effect in 1996. A wide range of public education activities is launched every year by the Government and NGOs to enhance public understanding of disabilities. Through legislation and these continuous public education efforts, prejudice and apathy in the community has been tackled head-on and progress has been made.
However, changing people's perception, which often arises from ignorance, neglect, or fear, is a difficult task. We still have a long way to go. None of our legal accomplishments will mean anything unless we can change attitudes in the community. In this regard, I am pleased to report that the Government is most fortunate to have such an active and committed partner, the Equal Opportunities Commission.
One of the most significant issues still to be addressed is the accessibility of the disabled to new and emerging information technology and telecommunications.
Good examples are: hands-free operation through voice driven software which enables many people with physical disabilities to operate computers. Telephones with amplified head-sets assist those who are hard of hearing. E-mail, and instant messaging via text, helps put individuals with speech or hearing impairment on a level playing field with other members of society.
Yet, in too many situations people with disabilities are unable to use and benefit from the same technology as others. We all agree that we need to do more in this area.
This is an era of unprecedented technological advancement. People sometimes forget to ask "How can this work for a person with visual impairment?" Or "Can a person in a wheelchair operate this equipment?" or, "How does this work with a braille printer?" It is our voices, and our efforts, to alert the community that this should be an age in which people with disabilities are able to participate fully as members of society.
Whether or not historians label this the computer age, information age, cyber space age, or digital age, I sincerely hope it will be remembered as a new age of opportunity for people with disabilities.
The Way Forward
In the coming days you will be pooling your expertise during your in-depth discussions. I trust all - the government, NGOs, and people with disabilities could benefit from this occasion.
I wish the symposium much success and delegates, an interesting and productive time. For our visitors to Hong Kong, may I wish you an enjoyable stay in this wonderful city.
End/Monday, December 13, 1999