Skip to main content

Hong Kong's laws on autism and disabilities are decades behind

Let everyone bloom!

The United Nations has designated April 2 as the World Autism Awareness Day since 2008. This year, the UN secretary-general calls for more efforts on education programmes, employment opportunities and other measures so people with autism can be realize their full potentials.

Autism is an inherent, life-long condition of difficulty in communicating and interacting with others, and the presence of repetitive and stereotyped behaviour and interests. It is a spectrum condition, meaning how these challenges may affect varies from individual to individual.

The incidence appears to be on the increase. The latest figures show one in 86, 64, 55 and 38 in the US, UK, Japan and Korea respectively are autistic.[1]  Some estimate there are more than 70,000 people in Hong Kong with autism, while the official estimate is 3,800. [2] However, it is unclear whether the condition is genuinely becoming more prevalent, or whether the increase reflects changes in assessment methodology and greater awareness.

Autism is an invisible disability. But Temple Grandin, a noted US animal science professor with autism, once said: “You have got to keep autistic children engaged with the world. You cannot let them tune out.” [3]

Unfortunately, many people still see individuals with disabilities as handicapped, faulty and abnormal, and even a welfare burden. Ignorance and stereotyping beget unnecessary discrimination and exclusion.

The world is shifting towards a social model, which underlies the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It requires that we treat every person with disability as a full member of the society, capable of holding rights and taking part in the community.

The model sees disability as a disadvantage caused by both personal traits and social setting. If appropriate support is in place and the environmental, social and attitudinal obstacles are removed, a more equal and inclusive society will be possible. This paradigm shift has profound influence on law.

Many societies have taken legislative and policy steps to reconstruct the legal personhood of the people with disabilities based on equal rights, and to make education, employment and other areas more accessible and barrier-free, besides anti-discrimination. Vivid social movements and rights discourse have been taking place for decades.

The groundbreaking Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, stipulates that reasonable accommodation be made for qualified individuals with disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act further prescribes a rights-based comprehensive framework of individualized education. Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act 1992 has a comparable concept of reasonable adjustments. The UK’s Equality Act 2010, which unifies the previous standalone anti-discrimination enactments including the Disability Discrimination Act and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, carries elaborate provisions on reasonable adjustments and accessibility strategies. Case law and dispute resolution mechanisms have also developed significantly in these societies.

An autism act was enacted in the UK in 2009, requiring the government to produce a strategy for each adult with autism and to issue statutory implementation guidelines for local authorities and health services. A local authority which fails to comply is subject to judicial review. The law, which was proposed in the form of private member’s bill in the parliament, has won unanimous cross-partisan support. It was an outcome of concerted campaign by the disabilities community.

Hong Kong’s Disability Discrimination Ordinance, enacted in 1995, still highlights “unjustifiable hardship” as an exemption to accommodation. It is unclear on the rights of the individuals with disabilities and the obligations of educators and service providers.

Developments in other societies in the last two decades simply dwarf those in Hong Kong despite its claims to be an open, equal and free society.


[1] China, Hong Kong and Taiwan do not provide reliable data.  Figures from the US, UK, Japan and Korea were converted by me from the numbers quoted from various sources in Xiang Sun et al 'Prevalence of Autism in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis' Molecular Autism (2013) 4:7 (doi: 10.1186/2040-2392-4-7)

[2] Ada Lee and Lo Wei,
 "Autistic children 'held back' by Hong Kong's rigid education system
South China Morning Post (2 April 2014)

[3] Interview with Temple Grandin by Stephen Edelson 
Autism Research Institute (Feb 1, 1996)

Further readings:

Fayyaz Vellani, Understanding Disability Discrimination Law through Geography (Ashgate 2013)

Michael J Prince, 'What about a Disability Rights Act for Canada? Practices and Lessons from America, Australia and the United Kingdom' Canadian Public Policy Vol 36 No 2 (June 2010) 199-214

Adam Samaha, 'What Good is the Social Model of Disability?' The Chicago University Law Review Vol 74 No 4 (Fall 2007)1251-1308

*An shorter version of this article appeared in the South China Morning Post on 8 April 2014 as "When it comes to autism, Hong Kong's laws are decades behind" (on-line edition) and "Our stance on autism is decades behind" (print edition).