Disfigured victims plead for 'face equality'

Top News | Carain Yeung 11 Jul 2016

Burns victims and their supporters are planning to campaign for "face equality."

For, despite what can be shocking challenges, they are not usually classified as disabled and so are not well protected by disability discrimination laws.

That leaves them up against discrimination in the jobs market, points out the Burns Association, a self-help group launched after the 1996 Pat Sin Leng wildfire. The fire on February 10, 1996, killed three students and two teachers of the Hong Kong Chinese Women's Club Fung Yiu King Memorial Secondary School and injured 13 students, leaving some with permanent disfigurements.

The call for face equality comes a year after the Taiwan "color party" inferno caused by flammable cornstarch- based powder igniting. That took 15 lives and injured 454 people, six of them from Hong Kong.

The association provided assistance to the victims of the June 27 tragedy at the Formosa Fun Coast water park in New Taipei, and member Gloria Chan said she and colleagues are still in touch with two of the injured Hongkongers receiving treatment and rehabilitation in Taiwan.

"They don't tell me of their immediate needs," Chan said. "Rather, they've been telling me what they want to do after recovery." And that, she said, raised the question that applied to all such victims: "Does the community want an extra burden or contributors?"

Chan, a university staff member, speaks from painful and bitter experience. Burnt when a child, she recalled an employer telling her she was qualified for a job but she could only get it if other colleagues did not find her appearance terrifying. Still, she added, people will at least show "sympathy" to burns victims as their scars are visible.

But other facially disfigured people are less lucky, especially sufferers of neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to form on nerve tissues.

Yet most burns victims and disfigured people are not entitled to a disability allowance, Chan said, as mobility and capabilities are often not affected.

Although the Disability Discrimination Ordinance is applicable to the facially disfigured, she added, the protection is limited as it is difficult to prove that someone has been rejected because of appearance.

An Equal Opportunities Commission spokesman said the number of discrimination complaints involving disfigured people is low but stressed that "the concept of face equality" is included in current campaigns.

There is also the Community Participation Funding Program offering a one-time payment of up HK$50,000 to non-profitmaking organizations for activities promoting equal opportunities, he said.

The idea of face equality has been promoted by Britain for more than 20 years and by Taiwan for at least 10 years. It is, however, a major struggle, Chan said, requiring a lot of public education and resources.

The Social Welfare Department, she noted, will provide a HK$400,000 two- year subsidy to qualified groups, though whether that is enough depends on the work of those organizations.

If self-help groups collaborate then resources can be better utilized, Chan said, and the Burns Association is seeking to work with others.

According to the Hospital Authority, 988 people were admitted to public and private hospitals in 2012-2013 for injuries caused by burns or corrosive elements.

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