Don’t ‘dis’ the ability of the largest minority | Daily News

Don’t ‘dis’ the ability of the largest minority

An appeal to all political leaders and decision makers

The Government in the 2016 budget proposed to encourage people to open and use bank accounts for their salaries and pensions. This is due to increasing security threats. They also want to discourage the transportation of cash and increase the use of ATMs.

However, like most essential day-to-day needs and facilities, the marginalisation, discrimination and the denial of rights is escalating for the majority of the 20% of the population experiencing restricted ability.

In most cases it also poses unwanted threats to personal safety. Main root causes are non-compliance with laws, regulations and Supreme Court orders concerning accessibility at public buildings.

The theme for this year’s International Day of Disabled Persons is: “Inclusion matters: Access and Empowerment of People of all Abilities”. The right to enjoy access is the single right on which enjoying several other rights depends. Evidence shows that when barriers are removed and access is promoted, the entire community benefits and colossal wastes a country incurs is minimised.

Where are we today? – Open your eyes

Laws and regulations made in 2006 October and the Supreme Court Orders SCFR:221/2009 in April 2011, enshrined the principle of equality and accessibility. Except for bits and pieces here and there, these are unimplemented, which propagates the marginalisation of a community. It is very important to bridge the gap between Policy and Practice. For this reason, I pose some pertinent questions to decision makers today:

1. How many five-star city hotels, renovated and even new, prevent the marginalisation of non-ambulatory tourists by providing safe access to washrooms and toilets? – Hardly any; but they are awarded 5 and 6 Stars!

2. How many private sector hospitals charging colossal sums of money, accommodate wheelchair access to washrooms in newly built wards? – None. They are often safety hazard even for the ambulant.

3. How many newer and affluent higher education institutions, afford equal rights and opportunity for children using wheelchairs? – Hardly any.

4. Access to how many ATMs in residential areas are user-friendly and safe even to most elders and less-able soldiers? Perhaps none?

5. What international sports stadium and newly built restaurants and Government institutions have even an accessible toilet for the disabled? Perhaps none.

Without convenient and safe access, complying with design standards to products, facilities and services at these business establishments, what genuine customer care and customer satisfaction are they extending?

Securing a brighter future requires building a NEW Sri Lanka, founded on the values of democracy, social justice, equality and accountability. The Governments needs to go beyond these sweet promises, especially to the largest minority of people - those with restricted ability. For a formidable and sustainable national economy, it is imperative to arrest the colossal economic and social waste that plagues the country in untold proportions.

Two prerequisites here are: (i). Mobilising human potential to eliminate waste and (ii). Minimising unwanted dependency through empowerment and inclusion.

The significance of the ‘International Day of Disabled Persons’

All of us, for different reasons, are certain to spend time living with those deficient in ability - to move, see, hear or think, to establish physical coordination and manual dexterity - to varying degrees. This is inevitable and forms part of the natural diversity of human life.

The significance of a day set apart for the disabled is with the view of achieving the following:

(i). To promote an understanding of crucial issues.
(ii). To mobilize support for empowerment, rights and dignity.
(iii). To meet health needs concerning physical and mental well-being.

(iv). To increase awareness of gains to be derived by governments and societies for full participation of persons with restricted ability in every aspect of social, economic, political and cultural life.

Understanding Disability

Our reactions to and beliefs about disability influence greatly our progress towards an Inclusive Society. Legislation defines a person with disability (often still termed injuriously as differently-able) as:

“Any person who, as a result of any restriction in his physical or mental abilities, is unable by himself to ensure for himself, wholly or partly, the necessities of daily life”.

The growing emphasis world over has now shifted to making sure that:

(a). The degree of one’s mobility should NEVER be a fact for marginalisation.
(b). Everyday activities should NOT become a daunting task to accomplish.
(c). Make communities inclusive and livable by everyone.

Sri Lanka’s largest minority

The benches of the Supreme Court, in 2009 and in 2011, have unanimously recognised that nearly 20% of our population experience significant deficiency in physical and sensory abilities or brain functioning, temporary or permanent. Many Sri Lankans with restricted ability often face discrimination, unable to enjoy access to society on an equal basis with others.

But, it is NOT their impairments that have them fighting a silent uphill battle; but the man-built social environment that renders life difficult for people with disability. Hence, this trend is reversible!

Action proposed

Action Proposed: No. (1) - Amend Article (12.3) of the Constitution

All citizens require the basic protection enshrined in the Constitution to guarantee that no class of persons shall be denied the same rights that are enjoyed by other classes in same society in like circumstances.

The constitutional protection we seek will even enable us to revise the star-status awarding procedures to hotels and thereby make them complaint with the accessibility legislation mandatory for the tourism industry to reach greater heights.

Furthermore, Article 12.3 needs to be amended to read as follows:

“No person shall, on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, limitation in physical and / or mental ability or any one of such grounds, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction, marginalisation, safety hazard or condition with regard to access to buildings and also facilities therein the public needs to use in day-to-day life, including shops, hotels, restaurants, banks, hospitals, sports stadiums, places of education, employment, recreation, entertainment and worship of his own religion.”

Action Proposed: No. (2) – Ensure an Inclusive Megapolis Agenda

The new Megapolis Urban Agenda must ensure that future cities, towns and basic urban infrastructures and services are environmentally accessible, user-friendly and inclusive of all people’s needs, regardless of the degree of ability.

Action Proposed: No. (3) - Activate dormant legislation

Prioritise the dormant legislation that needs activation concerning the Empowerment of People of all Abilities. Setup the framework and ensure the law is effectively implemented to strengthen the rule of law in Sri Lanka. The Supreme Court in April 2011, has ruled that anything less than full compliance of accessibility regulations is a serious punishable offense attracting punitive repercussions. However, since the violators are often backed by political powers, they continue to go free; victims are stranded and must either plead to earn the good-will of violators or suffer further!

Furthermore, the Disability Rights Bill (2010), which resolves key issues, is yet to be enacted. ‘Sign’ language – the only mode of communication for the hearing impaired - is still not legally recognised or promoted in Sri Lanka.

Action Proposed: No. (4) - Promote ‘Accessible Tourism’ for all

As invisible debilitating conditions world over are rapidly increasing, we witness a fast growing ‘ability restricted’ senior tourist population of around 16% who demand their right for equal access. Let us recognise this as our next untapped lucrative business opportunity, identify priorities and implement effective measure soon.

Action Proposed: No. (5) – Make the international theme a reality.

The theme for this year’s International Day of Disabled Persons highlights the importance of Empowerment of People of all Abilities through Inclusion and Access. What must ALL of US - especially the political leaders and decision makers here - DO? This list includes:

(a). Implementing effective measures to ensure disability becomes largely visible in the mainstream development policies, agenda and its processes.

Success requires the active involvement of competent disabled persons in the planning of strategies and policies.

(b). Resolving the vital issues of national importance that are highlighted here.
(c). Hiring the services of an experienced accessibility expert to guide the processes.

The imperative need for accessibility experts – The missing link

When the spatial requirements and other essential design requirements of accessibility are addressed so late in the construction process – which is what still happens here in Sri Lanka, – architects and building owners are often forced to make difficult choices about where this space can be included.

Unless an experienced Accessibility Expert audits the facilities, the critical shortcomings will never get highlighted, fueling social exclusion. Often this plight make the professionals in the construction industry here feel and believe that making the built environment accessible is difficult, expensive, and frustrating. Guided by such injurious myths our leaders and decision makers thus falls into a disastrous pit.

Access and Empowerment of People of all Abilities is a crucial subject of national importance. It concerns playing with human lives and their safety. Hence, there cannot be any margin for error or any compromising. Politicians and decision makers still injuriously believe that the architects and engineers in the building construction industry - they alone - are competent enough to ‘break barriers and establish a society inclusive to all’.

Just take a closer look at the facilities and parts of recently concluded public buildings highlighted earlier here. The reality proves that, in most cases, this thinking is a costly blunder causing colossal wastes of assets and added hazards to safety.

The crucial role of an accessibility expert

Accessibility Experts need to perform a highly specialised job, yet are under-estimated and unrecognised in Sri Lanka. The work requires a good in-depth understanding of the intricacies, backed by adequate practical experience and a thorough working knowledge on this subject that goes far and beyond what university courses on architecture and civil engineering teach in Sri Lanka.

It is NOT one where standards and specifications can be read and applied in vital tasks. Only an experienced Accessibility Expert will know the utmost importance of considering (future) population demographics - which means the full range of functional abilities and practical needs – apart from the mere text-book knowledge from building codes, court orders and design standards.

In conclusion

Activity limitations and participation restrictions are now recognised internationally as a human rights issue, causing denial of the democratic rights to become equal partners in development programmes. No government has ever before, given any due recognition to the colossal waste marginalisation of this nature brings to this country, both socially and economically.

The five remedial measures proposed are practical, low cost and an imperative investment. The mission for an Inclusive Society and its tasks – arm-chair pundits are sure to say is a Himalayan one - must fast track now on a high priority basis. As Dr. Lee Jong Wook said, during his stint as Director General of WHO:

“The way a country treats its ‘ability restricted’ population and the true extent to which they are respected as fully-fledged citizens is a realistic internationally recognized measure of a country’s good governance, reflects its Human Rights image and is a far more telling indicator and a sure test of society’s development than GDP.”

(Dr. Ajith C. S. Perera - a former senior manager in his industry, was left instantly a paraplegic for life by a fallen way side tree in 1992. By reason of this personal adversity he has bounced back to serve humanity as a fervent advocate of design for inclusion and safety - most importantly as a widely experienced and highly competent accessibility advisor and auditor recognised by reputed bodies overseas.


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