HONG KONG (Reuters) – In Hong Kong, when the timing of traffic lights accelerates to around 800 tics per minute, visually impaired residents know they can safely cross the street. But in the last six months of unrest, many streets have lost their pace.
Anti-government activists have broken more than 700 traffic lights since the riots broke out in June, significantly altering the soundtrack to the daily lives of the estimated 174,800 visually impaired people in the southern China-ruled city.
As images of black-clad protesters dropping gas stations and riot police firing tear gas became ubiquitous, the visually impaired hear rather than see the unrest that plunged the former British colony into crisis.
The holes and debris left behind after protesters unearthed the sidewalk bricks and scattered them through the streets to disrupt traffic, making paths disorienting for the visually impaired.
“I suddenly wonder why the road in front of me is now broken. Am I on the sidewalk or on the road? ”Said Joy Luk, 41, a blind lawyer who stands at the forefront of the protests and offers general legal advice to protesters.
"People in Hong Kong think that as people with disabilities, we can do nothing to help improve society," Luk said. "Protesting is a way of expressing my opinion and showing my ability to others."
Demonstrating, however, is not easy for Luk, who touches a white cane to sense obstacles and trusts viewers to guide her.
"A lot of people tell me to move on, but for a blind person it's very difficult to move on," said Luk, who tends to turn left as he walks.
BEAUTIFUL HEARTS AND MINDS
In a recent protest, the hands of several protesters tucked Luk's arm as they walked along the route together and offered grapes or homemade nut cookies.
Recalling the Hong Kong photos he saw when he was younger and still had vision, Luk said, "Now the image itself is not beautiful, but people's hearts and minds are very beautiful."
Luk was born with 3% vision in one eye and lost sight before age 30.
Joy Luk prepares her megaphone as other protesters prepare to march in Hong Kong, China, on December 8, 2019. REUTERS / Leah Millis
Billy Wong, 38, a visually impaired theology student, also supports the anti-government movement, but finds himself increasingly at home due to escalating violence.
The "unified voice" he said he heard in earlier mass protests was overcome by the cacophony of 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 unknown to the people of Hong Kong, ”said Wong.
Wong finds it hard to imagine mass rallies.
"I would never be able to form an image of hundreds of thousands of people in one place," said Wong. “What would the scene look like? I can not imagine. "
A Facebook group broke into the loop describing text images and videos that can be dictated by phones.
Dorothy Ngan, one of the group's five publishers, said the 20 volunteer audio descriptors found it increasingly distressing to repeatedly watch the violent scenes on the streets of Hong Kong. “Sometimes I look at the picture and can't write. Sometimes I cry, ”said Ngan.
Another challenge for people with low vision or blindness has been the sudden closure of subway stations due to security concerns.
W., a visually impaired 50-year-old woman who asked to be identified by her initial, plans her subway trips to the last step.
"If the entrance or elevator is closed, it would be like reaching a dead end in a maze," she said.
W. described Hong Kong before the protests as "a distant memory."
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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.
Sarah Wu Reporting; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Stephen Coates
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