Disability and discrimination
Updated: 2013-11-18 06:35
By Paul Surtees (HK Edition)
It is a matter of debate whether or not anyone has the right to job. Hoards of young graduates need to find employment every year; but employment, for them, becomes a possibility only when the employers' needs match their skill-sets.
But what cannot be disputed is that job applicants should not be discriminated against. Discrimination on the grounds of color, race, religion, sexual orientation, among other things, can be legally untenable in many jurisdictions. Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, there still reigns a hidden discrimination against disabled job-seekers. The fact that more than 80 percent of the city's employable disabled people are not gainfully employed proves the point.
As it is, they lead a hard life because of their physical limitations and their predicament is made far worse by their inability to land jobs. Employment, however humble, can greatly enhance self-esteem, boost financial independence and honor human dignity. It is impossible not to be humbled by that fortunate minority of Hong Kong's disabled residents who do have jobs. For them, it takes immense courage and forbearance to negotiate the city's vast public transport system, overcoming physical limitations in every step, to reach their workplaces. And, yet, their resolve to triumph over their inadequacies every day is not honored, few are given a fair chance to meaningfully contribute to society. They are almost always placed at the bottom of lists of potential employees.
Organizations that do employ disabled people are too few and far between in Hong Kong but those that do, often report that such employees make much better and more reliable members of the staff than their able-bodied colleagues.
Some organizations are legally mandated to absorb a certain (small) percentage of disabled people as part of their "positive discrimination" action, which is also sometimes referred to as a "reverse discrimination" practice. For most of our physically-disadvantaged brethren, this is their only chance to get a job. Such government policies make the employment field more inclusive, and greatly benefit not only staff members recruited under such schemes and their families; but also bring benefits to their employer and to society at large. A more inclusive society is a more harmonious one and it also makes economic sense because an employed citizen would no longer have to rely on welfare, and may eventually become a member of the city's tax-paying fraternity.
Some may argue that positive discrimination is unfair to those potential employees who do not belong to the minority group under discussion. Need we remind them that a helping hand at the time of need can change lives?
The Hong Kong Civil Service has made some positive strides in this direction, and it is praiseworthy that many government departments nowadays employ disabled people. But a lot more needs to be done. Why only the government? Even the private sector can do its bit by taking affirmative action. It would only take minimal structural adjustments at workplaces to accomplish this. And if our private sector proves to be recalcitrant, they can be compelled to do so by way of a new legislation requiring them to retain disabled people at a certain proportion, say five percent, of their total number of employees.
But legislation could be the last resort of a government that is praised for practicing "positive non-interventionism" - something that is pegged by many as the secret of our economic success!
The author is a Hong Kong-based commentator, and adviser to the Hong Kong Federation of the Blind.
(HK Edition 11/18/2013 page9)