In Hong Kong, when the tempo of traffic-light signals accelerates to about 800 ticks a minute, visually impaired residents know they can safely cross the road. But over the past six months of unrest, many streets have lost their beat.
Anti-government activists have smashed more than 700 traffic lights since demonstrations erupted in June, significantly altering the soundtrack of daily life for the southern Chinese-ruled city’s estimated 174,800 visually impaired people.
While images of black-clad protesters hurling petrol bombs and riot police shooting tear gas have become ubiquitous, the visually impaired hear, rather than see, the unrest that has plunged the former British colony into crisis.
The holes and debris left behind after protesters dig up sidewalk bricks and scatter them across roads to disrupt traffic render pathways disorienting for people with a visual impairment.
“Suddenly I wonder why the road in front of me is now broken. Am I on the pavement or am I on the road?” said Joy Luk, 41, a blind lawyer who stands on the frontlines of protests and offers general legal advice to demonstrators.
“The people in Hong Kong think that as disabled people, we can do nothing to contribute to the betterment of society,” Luk said. “Protesting is a way to express my opinion and to show my ability to others.”
Demonstrating, however, is not easy for Luk, who taps a white cane to feel for obstacles and relies on bystanders to guide her.
“Many people tell me to go straight, but for a blind person it is very hard to go straight,” said Luk, who tends to veer left as she walks.
BEAUTIFUL HEARTS AND MINDS
At a recent protest, several demonstrators’ hands threaded through Luk’s arm as they walked together along the route and offered grapes or homemade walnut cookies.
Recalling photos of Hong Kong she saw when she was younger and still had vision, Luk said: “Now the picture itself is not beautiful, but the hearts and minds of the people are very beautiful.”
Luk was born with 3% vision in one eye and lost all sight before she was 30.
Billy Wong, a 38-year-old visually impaired theology student, also supports the anti-government movement but has found himself increasingly home-bound due to escalating violence.
The “unified voice” he said he heard at earlier mass protests has been overtaken by the cacophony from clashes between protesters and police.
“When you turn on the TV … You hear people demonstrating, running. They are screaming. These sounds are so strange and unfamiliar to Hong Kong people,” Wong said.
Wong finds it difficult to imagine the mass rallies.
“I would never be able to form an image of hundreds of thousands of people in one place,” Wong said. “What would the scene look like? I can’t imagine.”
One Facebook group has stepped into the breach by describing images and videos in text that can be dictated by phones.
Dorothy Ngan, one of the group’s five editors, said the 20 volunteer audio describers found it increasingly harrowing to repeatedly watch the violent scenes that have been playing out on Hong Kong’s streets.
“Sometimes, I look at the photo and I can’t write. Sometimes, I cry,” Ngan said.
Another challenge for people with low vision or blindness has been the sudden closure of subway stations due to safety concerns.
W., a 50-year-old visually impaired woman who asked to be identified by her initial, plans her subway trips to the last step.
“If the entrance or lift is closed, it would be like hitting a dead end in a maze,” she said.
W. described Hong Kong before the protests as “a far away memory”.
For Luk, the pro-democracy movement could be a step towards stronger legal protection for disadvantaged groups.
“If the system is fair to everyone, maybe we as minority groups can also have better rights,” she said.