Hong Kong’s equality watchdog and lawmakers have raised concerns over a complaint by a hearing-impaired man who spent six days at a psychiatric hospital after police officers and medical staff failed to communicate with him properly.

The 32-year-old man surnamed Liu was taken away by police last November following a quarrel with his mother, HK01 reported. His mother told officers that she was assaulted and that Liu had “mental problems.” Failing to understand Liu’s sign language, officers sent the man to Tuen Mun Hospital’s emergency unit without seeking a sign language interpreter.

Castle Peak Hospital. File Photo: Wikicommons.

Two days later, doctors at Tuen Mun Hospital sent Liu to Castle Peak Hospital, a psychiatric institution. Liu’s confinement was only discovered after his sister received a phone call – three days after Liu’s arrest – from Liu’s employer saying that Liu had been fired for an unexcused absence from work.

After spending six days at the psychiatric hospital, Liu was discharged with the help of his sister, friend, Chinese medical practitioner and lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung.

‘Effective communication’

A spokesperson for the Hospital Authority New Territories West Cluster said that Liu and his relatives did not seek sign language services during his stay at Tuen Mun Hospital. It said Liu was able to “communicate effectively” through writing with medical staff.

Liu “voluntarily” signed an agreement on December 2 to be transferred to Castle Peak Hospital, and Liu’s wife and father also agreed to the arrangement, the spokesperson said. It added that sign language services are generally available at institutions under the Hospital Authority.

Tuen Mun Hospital. File Photo: Google Street View.

At Castle Peak Hospital, a sign language interpreter was arranged to assist doctors in confirming that Liu “fully understood” the content of his written communication with medical staff, the spokesperson said.

‘Lack of sensitivity’

Liu told RTHK through an interpreter on Friday that he did not understand the documents he signed at the hospitals, as he could not comprehend long sentences. He said he felt frightened after the incident, but did not intend to file a complaint to the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Siu Tsan, founder of the NGO “Silence” who assisted with Liu’s discharge from Castle Peak Hospital, said Liu’s reading ability was equivalent to that of a Primary Four student.

“People with hearing impairment usually have low self-esteem and will sign documents even if they don’t understand the content,” he said.

“I found it strange that the hospital said Liu did not seek sign language services. You know he is hearing-impaired, then you should be proactive and offer a language interpreter, rather than ask him if he needs an interpreter,” he added.

“Many people in society and even organisations lack an understanding of [the needs of] people with hearing impairments.”

Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung described the incident as “bizarre” and criticised the series of mistakes made by public institutions.

Photo: StandNews.

He said the incident reflected the “lack of sensitivity” towards the needs of hearing-impaired patients among frontline medical workers.

The Equal Opportunities Commission said in a statement that it is “highly concerned” about the incident.

“We urge the person involved to contact us directly and we would do our utmost to provide assistance,” the watchdog said, adding that people with hearing impairment and other forms of disabilities should be given equal access to services and facilities.

“The [Equal Opportunities Commission] hopes relevant departments can follow up on the case as soon as possible, and make improvements if necessary, to prevent similar incidents in the future.”

Correction: A previous headline mistakenly suggested that the police had directly sent Liu to a psychiatric hospital – in fact, he was referred there by Tuen Mun Hospital’s emergency unit. 

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.