EOC Releases Study Report on the Procedures and Training Needs of the Immigration Department in Handling Persons with Disabilities
On the initiative of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in August 2000, the Secretary for Security invited the EOC to provide advice “to enhance the relevant internal guidelines and staff training” to the Immigration Department, after the disappearance of Yu Man-Hon, an autistic boy, then 15 year-old who was mistakenly sent across the border by immigration officers last year.
Chairperson of the EOC, Ms. Anna WU said, “Persons with disabilities should be recognized as individuals, and not identified by their disabilities. Removal of stereotypical assumptions on the part of the Immigration Service Staff regarding the abilities of PWDs and the consequences of their disabilities will enable them to be treated with sensitivity and understanding.”
In releasing the Commission’s Report today (30 October 2001), Ms. WU said, “The initiative is intended to assist the Department to enhance its sensitivity to disability issues and increase its capability to discharge its obligations to PWDs. The most effective way of sustaining change is to introduce equal opportunities principles into all aspects of an organization and its operation. This is mainstreaming equal opportunities culture in the Department’s operation and it is a process of organizational transformation. Mainstreaming the equal opportunities culture also requires tracking of outcome of the core policy commitments of a department to the small everyday decisions of implementation.” 
The study examined the level of the Immigration Service Staff’s knowledge about disability and sensitivity towards PWDs; the experiences and expectations of PWDs; the adequacy of the Department’s internal procedures, guidelines and instructions and the Immigration Service Staff’s training needs.
The study highlighted two key areas of concern.
The first area of concern is the ability to identify and recognize disabilities and their characteristics, manifestations and special needs. Failure to identify and recognize disabilities may result in inappropriate responses and will not trigger the use of any special procedures and support mechanisms. Survey findings in the study reflected that in an unprompted situation only a low percentage of the immigration officers could identify the main types of disability. The Immigration Service Staff must be trained to know what to look for.
The second concern relates to the development of skills in handling PWDs with particular emphasis on communication skills. Communication difficulty was regarded by immigration officers to be a significant problem. Appropriate communication can elicit useful information, such as personal identification, and can reduce misunderstanding. The study showed communication and interaction skills to be a major area of difficulty.
Four situational examples are annexed. No reference has been made to any government departments for response or investigation as those cited are presented for reference only and not as complaints or allegations.
Ms. WU said, “Training of the management is also important to ensure that the Department knows how to discharge its vicarious liabilities for the acts of its employees, that is, whether the management has taken reasonable steps to prevent discriminatory acts from occurring.”
A review of the service guidelines made available to the EOC showed that they do not provide comprehensive guidance on the handling of PWDs. For example, guidance on the handling of PWDs in the areas of communication, transportation, interviewing and detaining them, taking of fingerprints, removal of belongings, administration of medication and special assistance that need to be provided is not available.
Separately, there are internal instructions dealing with operations which make no specific reference to PWDs but which have implications for PWDs such as those dealing with the handling of detainees’ property and valuables. Strict enforcement of these without accommodation such as deprivation of assistive and therapeutic devices could cause unnecessary hardship to PWDs and could amount to discriminatory practice under the DDO.
Our survey findings revealed that the overwhelming majority of Immigration Service Staff felt the need for enhanced training.
Guides produced by overseas jurisdictions cover legislative requirements, the characteristics of disability, interaction and communication with law enforcement and sensitive responses to disability. They may also cover specific disabilities such as hearing and speech disabilities, mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities and seizures and epilepsy. (Epilepsy is sometimes mistaken to be drug overdose.)
The U.K. Immigration Service runs an induction course covering six key areas: equal opportunities legislation; discrimination and harassment; standards of behaviour expected; personal and vicarious liability; public perception of immigration officers; and dealing with enquiries from the press and public.
As part of the EOC study, three half-day introductory sensitivity sessions were organized by the Commission for about 270 Immigration Officers as an immediate measure to increase their sensitivity in handling PWDs. During the study, the Department also invited the City University of Hong Kong to organize three one-day training sessions for senior officers on how to deal with persons with mental retardation (terminology adopted in the training programme) and autism.
The Department has indicated that based on these training sessions organized by the EOC and the City University, its training school has improved the training on the three anti-discrimination ordinances and equal opportunities principles and extended the coverage to both new recruits and serving Immigration Service Staff.
While recognizing that adoption of the Study Report’s recommendations may take some time, it is suggested that the following actions be accorded priority for implementation and that an action plan and an indicative time frame for implementation be developed by the Department:
- designation of an equal opportunities officer,
- adoption and promulgation of a public mission statement committing the Department to equal opportunities principles,
- development of a train-the-trainer programme and provision of training in equal opportunities principles to Immigration Service Staff, and
- development of the Service Guidelines, practices and procedures regarding the handling of PWDs.
Ms. WU concluded, “The EOC will be more than willing to provide technical assistance to the Department in the formulation and implementation of the action plan. The Commission is aware that the Immigration Service Staff are often under stress and pressure and do have to face difficult situations and possibly difficult individuals as well from time to time. It is recommended that the skills of the Immigration Service Staff be tested under simulations of real conditions.”
Throughout the study, the Department has been very supportive and has provided the EOC with considerable information. The Department has initiated action in respect of some of the recommendations in relation to training and compilation of consolidated Service Guidelines on disability. The Department has indicated that it will positively consider the recommendations made in the EOC Report. The Commission is most appreciative of the supportive and positive stance taken by the Department throughout the course of this study.
 It is noted that a disability self-help group has written to the Department commending it as the first government department to introduce indoor tactile paths in a government building.
Some Situational Examples
Some respondents indicated that they were scared and felt insecure when approached by LEOs (Law Enforcement Officers). For example, the fear of ex-mental patients that they might be compulsorily admitted to a psychiatric hospital made them extremely nervous when they met uniformed LEOs.
Persons with visual impairments, when confronted by someone claiming to be a LEO, felt insecure because they could not inspect the warrant card visually and therefore could not confirm the LEO's identity.
A person with a visual impairment described his experience of being checked by some LEOs. Without any prior warning or explanation, he suddenly found somebody's hand moving over his body, which made him feel very uneasy. When the search was over, the officer who searched him just told him: "straight ahead", "turn left", "turn right" etc. He felt like being treated as a toy car under remote control. Finally, when he asked the officer to help him get back his bag, the officer asked him, "Which one is yours", as if he could point to his bag.
A person with a hearing impairment explained that before he got into any queue for processing of documents, he would observe the LEOs at the counters to identify an officer who would look at the person standing before him. He explained he had a much better chance of indicating his hearing impairment and communicating with the officer if the officer looked at him. If the officer kept his head bowed, he would not be able to see the officer's lips move and the officer would not be able to see his face or his gestures.
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