The Office of the Ombudsman has criticised the Hong Kong government for its “passive attitude” towards increasing access to transport services for people with physical disabilities.
In a report published on Thursday, the official watchdog cited the under-supply of customised “Rehabuses” for disabled people and the delays in introducing wheelchair-accessible taxis as areas of concern.
The 156 Rehabuses in Hong Kong are operated by the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation, a charity, but are subsidised and monitored by the Transport Department. They carry passengers along both fixed and customised routes.
The Ombudsman reported that, every year from 2011 to 2014, there were over 10,000 unsuccessful requests for Rehabus services, compared with around 80,000 successful requests.
“Our case studies and stakeholders’ views indicated that quite a number of Rehabus services applicants simply withdrew from or did not even apply for the services because of the exceedingly long time needed for booking,” said the watchdog.
“They unanimously pointed out that bookings for Rehabus services often took several months or even a year in advance, yet provision of the services requested was not guaranteed.”
The number of unsuccessful requests for Rehabuses has nevertheless declined over the years, to 9,000 in 2015.
In its criticism of the government’s mentality on providing transport services for the disabled, the Ombudsman highlighted the belated introduction of wheelchair-accessible taxis.
Although wheelchair-accessible taxis and minibuses were proposed in the government’s Hong Kong Rehabilitation Programme Plan of 2007, the taxis were only introduced widely eight years later in 2015, while disabled-friendly minibuses have not been developed at all.
The Ombudsman added that the under-supply of transport services for disabled people has led to their frequent hiring of unlicensed rehabilitation vehicles, converted from private cars or vans.
It urged the Transport Department and the Labour and Welfare Bureau to evaluate the demand for special transport services in Hong Kong, and set service targets.
In its response to the Ombudsman, the Transport Department said that Rehabus operations have improved over the years. Both the number of vehicles and their usage have increased.
“The Transport Department employed consultants in 1989, 2003, 2007 and 2015 to conduct comprehensive reviews and surveys to improve Rehabus services.” it said.
The department added that it was considering introducing minibuses with lower platforms that would facilitate disabled access, and requesting taxi operators introduce more wheelchair-accessible vehicles.