|Thursday, 13 February 2003|
Cricket brings hope for the disabled
by Ajith C. S. Perera
Cricket enthusiasm again runs very high as the best teams compete for the best spot. Sports, if played within the spirit of the game, bring healthy benefits. In fact for one million wheelchair users and their families in Sri Lanka, cricket, yes cricket, now brings encouraging news infusing hope in their minds.
The P. Saravanamuttu International Cricket Stadium in Colombo will soon have the basic facilities for wheelchair users to access the physical environments and mix equally with the others in enjoying activities organised there, be it cricket or otherwise. This will hence become the first (sports) venue of international repute in this country that will break the shackles to welcome wheelchair users. This was revealed to the writer by Tryphon Mirando, the current President of the Tamil Union Cricket and Athletic Club, to which this stadium belongs, at a colourful historic felicitation ceremony held there on January 30, 2003, for 16 retired senior Test match and ODI panel cricket umpires of Sri Lanka.
The Moratuwa International Cricket Stadium, the world's 67th Test match venue, will have a new pavilion. The writer has communicated with Minister Tyronne Fernando, a former President of Sri Lanka Cricket Board and an elite cricketing personality of our's, under whose name this pavilion will be named. An assurance has been given that its physical environment also will be made wheelchair friendly.
Ace spinner Muttiah Muralitharan is a key figure in initiating action to construct a new international cricket stadium at Pallekele, supported by Minister Lakshman Kiriella. When I met 'Murali' last September during the mini world cup tournament here, he gleefully confirmed that, in its physical environment, all the essential facilities for the wheelchair users would be met.
On requests made, I have volunteered my possible services and active support at these venues to ensure that wheelchair users have 'barrier-free physical environments and safe access to goods, services, and facilities'.
A giant step
One may question, amongst a million wheelchair users and their families here, how many would be truly interested in sports to make use of these facilities once completed. First, do not underestimate the numbers, as the escalating enthusiasm for cricket runs sky-high here. Secondly, we see these initiatives in our society as encouraging giant steps forward in the correct direction, towards respecting and accepting the disabled as full-fledged citizens. In fact it could be seen as the beginning of removing the shackles of oppression.
We have just celebrated 55 years of political freedom. Freedom is a highly abstract idea of basic importance in many different fields, applicable equally to every citizen in everyday situations of life. It is essentially about making choices and about values. Its progress takes place at different rates in different individuals over different spheres of life.
In her address to the nation on 4th February, the President again stressed the importance of 'establishment and protection for every citizen to live with dignity enjoying equal opportunities. The Prime Minister himself endeavours to put into action the United Nations concept of equalisation of treatment and equalisation of opportunities for all, and be it the wheelchair users or otherwise.
Each year as the month of December dawns, we often hear sweet words and receive rosy promises with pomp and pageantry during the International Week of the Disabled. But nothing worthwhile eventually results at the end to resolve any of our prolonged critical problems. Unless thoughts and words turn into effective actions to deliver the desired results, confidence shatters, progress halts and problems stagnate blowing into burning issues.
"Freedom is the spiciest condiment in the feast of life". It drives most of our basic rights as citizens. Freedom of access and mobility, is the most crucial single problem that all wheelchair users continue to face in our society. The architectural barriers to access in our own physical environments of living, deprive us of this freedom. It is an established fact that many essential activities in daily living, such as gainful employment, recreation, socialisation, travel, education, access to information and knowledge, etc., all revolve round freedom of access.
However, the decision-makers continue to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to our vociferous appealing over a decade of time. Such lackadaisical attitudes by them have turned these issues into a grave social problem, as tens of thousand wheelchair users remain trapped in a vicious cycle of marginalisation and social exclusion from all mainstream activities.
Helpage indicates that our two million of our population are senior citizens. In addition we also have large numbers with restricted physical movements and impaired mobility/vision. What about those who meet accidents and are hit by debilitating illnesses on a day to day basis? As a result of such unexpected tragedy, for short periods of time they too suddenly fall into either of these categories. Every one of them and their family members too, although the latter may not be direct wheelchair users, will still benefit enormously in having environments that are wheelchair friendly.
I recollect a narration, in seeing our plight here, by John Reid OBE of New Zealand, when he last visited me. It was all about how the physical environment at one of their test match venues had been turned 'wheelchair friendly' through the voluntary joint efforts of a handful of people who could never forget and isolate their dearer and nearer friends after they had become physically impaired later in life.
At first they too saw many reasons why they could not successfully accomplish such a project. However, their commitment to the task was such that, they never game into any of them. In fact at almost all international (cricket) sports stadia elsewhere, Australia, New Zealand, England, and South Africa in particular, identified areas exist where wheelchair users are warmly welcomed as spectators enjoying equal rights as all others, without any discrimination.
This is a very good eye opener to all of us, especially to our cricket enthusiastic business community. Here is an opportunity they could exploit commercially in coming forward to make the remaining international sports venues appropriately wheelchair friendly. In England and Australia, facilities so constructed are turned into profit-making commercial ventures at these sites, even on 'no-match' days. This appeal hence is to each and everyone of them, to make certain that at least cricket for a start (and perhaps athletics and rugger too), do not any more permit discrimination against their sports enthusiastic fellow citizens, just because they now happen to use wheelchairs.
Let the spirit of sports in you, which we talk so highly of, propel you forward to open doors for our equal participation along with all others at these venues.
If our dynamic honourable Minister for Sports, Johnston Fernando, could see the merit here, we are certain that things will soon start to happen faster - happen for the benefit of the country in particular. "The time is always right sir, to do what is right, in the right way."
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