At Rotary, we strive to create a society where every person is valued and respected for their individuality, irrespective of age, sex or other status. In this month’s issue, we continue our “Why DEI Matters?” Series, by highlighting the experiences of people with blindness and visual impairments, together in celebration of World Braille Day.


World Braille Day [Jan 4]

(An international day currently observed by the United Nations)

World Braille Day is observed annually to raise awareness of the importance of braille as a means of communication in the full realization of human rights for blind and visually impaired people. It started back in 2019 and has since COVID emphasized the need to intensify all activities related to digital accessibility to ensure digital inclusion of all people, especially during the pandemic when people rely on screen touching to communicate their needs and access information. We have interviewed the Hong Kong Blind Union (HKBU) to learn more about the blind community.

Common Stereotypes Society Often Forces On The Blind Community

There are currently more than 190,000 visually impaired people across the city, accounting for 2.7% of the total population with reference to the HKBU’s figures. There have always been worries over how the blind community looks after themselves on a daily basis. How do they get their groceries? How do they take escalators and cross the street safely? Do they manage to cook, pick an outfit or do the laundry? As the HKBU pointed out, we are often over worried about a blind person’s ability to manage their own daily routine.

For example, blind people recognize a garment in their closet by memorizing the garment’s unique touchable traits, including texture, fabrics, sleeves, collars, and even prints with identifiable patterns and fabrics distinctive from other parts of the piece, and recalling other untouchable features, such as colors and brands, which they learned and pieced together a complete image in mind with both touchable and untouchable features combined from the day they bought it. Besides, in addition to guide dogs we’ve traditionally seen as blind people’s best helpers, phone apps can nowadays in the digital era help them with voice support and scanning functions, such as scanning an object and reading aloud the color, or guiding the user to pick up a needle from the ground etc.

Education For Blind Pupils

Speaking of education, there is only one specialized school in the city offering primary and secondary education to the visually impaired with multiple insufficiencies. As a result of much less extensive and progressive curriculum coverage because of prolonged hours in teaching certain subjects, chances for blind pupils to further their education are slim in general. Classes only conducted in Chinese and their lagging learning progress also limit the possibility of transfer to other schools.

Even though some successfully transfer to traditional schools under the government’s policy of inclusive schooling, they are often subjected to grade retention or even demotion. More than half of the schools in the city have none or inadequate accessible facilities. There are no braille translations of teaching materials including textbooks, of which more often than not, blind students can only receive a copy after a semester ends. Each teacher is required by the authorities to take only 30 hours of training before handling a blind pupil, which the HKBU said is desperately far from enough.

Insufficient Inclusion & Blind People’s Difficulties

In view of most public services available in town predominantly set to facilitate medical care and provide daily baseline necessities, there is an emerging voice for a greater focus on how society should shape a mindset more inclusive of blindness as in a more DEI-based approach to the whole situation, as the HKBU explained.

Inclusion, however, is by far beyond mere physical facilities. Despite a period of drastic digital transformation pushed through in us by COVID, not all content on the Internet and online service providers have taken a proactive role in pursuit of inclusive cyber accessibility, although a few local phone apps have become increasingly more blindness- friendly, with some of the mainstream food delivery and ride-hailing platforms improving their app features upon requests for greater accessibility.

A superstitious saying in Cantonese, that if you get hit by a white cane, you get haunted by bad luck for the next 3 years, still persists across some generations. Many employers have no plans to hire blind people with certified qualifications such as a bachelor’s degree simply because they refrain from putting in resources to turn their office into a better access-friendly setting for physically challenged groups.

Compared to many other cities, Hong Kong does exhibit a holistic series of installations of hardware and accessible facilities, such as braille signs, tactile paving and audio signals seen in the city’s public areas, malls, universities and train services etc.

While a tactile paving is required by laws to have no other physical objects or structures within a 3.5 meter stretch from the paving, ignorance and lack of logistical consideration for actual execution tell the other side of the story. For example, fixtures, such as a sconce, attached to a wall next to an elevator for decorative purposes could pose a mounted obstacle for a blind person who cannot detect such lifted objects with their white cane.

What’s worse is one’s active renunciation of seeing blind people’s obvious need and respecting them as everyone else’s equals. Guide dogs are denied entry at many places for the alleged purpose of compliance with internal rules that do not allow “pets” in, for which relevant legislation has a clear indication that guide dogs are not pets and shall be excluded from such arrangements. Blind seniors are often rejected to join outings and other recreational programs organized by community centers, for reasons that they do not have enough staff specifically trained to host events for blind people

How Do We Move Forward?

Taking Japan as an example, there are over 80 libraries which contain a corner for braille publications. Where do we stand today? When we build our society, design a new product, organize a new office, have we ever stopped and asked, whether we should expand the team’s diversity and hear opinions from different perspectives?

To work our way as an individual to become more inclusive, we have to ask ourselves what everyone’s needs actually are. Blind people depend on sounds and touches for communication. Do we break down our visual observation, which we have always taken for granted, into more descriptive wording? Darts and rock climbing are among some of the activities that the visually impaired community also loves doing. Do we often assume they just can’t? When we observe, connect and understand by heart, a blind person can do what we do, see what we see, and achieve what we can. Never limit ourselves to see beyond how things are visually presented, and never be blinded by an image at our first sight.

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