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Some new developments in the fight for equal education rights for students with disabilities/ SEN in Hong Kong

The world observed World Down Syndrome Day on March 21. The message this year was "My Opportunities, My Choices", urging us to see those with the syndrome as people first, enjoying full and equal rights.

Next up is World Autism Awareness Day, on April 2, and the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, on December 3.

These dedication days not only raise awareness of disability, but also remind us that it is but part of humanity. With or without disabilities, each individual is an equal member of society, worthy of inclusion and development.

It is all about appreciation of different abilities; provision of equal opportunities; accommodative support and adjustments.

Advancing equality requires different people to make an effort and push boundaries at all levels, small and big.

At home, some developments in the cause deserve serious attention:

First, in a judicial review earlier this month, Law Chi-yuen, a pupil of a special school for the intellectually disabled, challenged the secretary for education's rejection of an application from his school to access resources under the Native-speaking English Teacher (NET) scheme on the grounds of discrimination and equal protection of the law.  The judgment is yet to be delivered. (Law Chi Yuen v. Secretary for Education (HCAL91/2011))

This case recalls a judicial review in 2009 on behalf of Tong Wai-ting, 18, in which age restrictions imposed on special schools for intellectually disabled pupils were challenged. The application did not succeed, but it raised consciousness among parents and pupils.  (Tong Wai Ting v. Secretary for Education and Another (HCAL73/2009))

Many aspects of the city's education policy for pupils with disabilities and special learning needs are still exclusionary and based on assumptions that are no longer sound in the light of the new paradigm of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and trends in equality and anti-discrimination laws. Much has to be done to reform our law and policies.

Second, the government seems at last to be recognising the need for specialised coordination of support for pupils with special learning needs in ordinary schools.

The Community Care Fund is tasked with launching a programme to establish coordinators in some mainstream schools.

However, it is dubious whether the fund, set up primarily to tackle the needs of people who fall outside the social security net, is the appropriate agent to carry out a programme that is not necessarily for only the economically underprivileged.

Third, legislators Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung and Dennis Kwok have joined hands to push for legislation to protect the education rights of pupils with special education needs. They have put forward a comprehensive proposal covering a wide range of topics. [Facebook page link]

While we are benefiting from the proposal, we should also bear in mind a more fundamental need to reform the Disability Discrimination Ordinance - which is under review - in particular establishing the duty to provide reasonable adjustments.

Before the hearing of Law Chi Yuen's application on 9 March 2015

*An edited version of this article appeared as "Disabled or not, everyone is equal in our society" in the South China Morning Post on 31 March 2015.


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