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Fast tracking access for the disabled

The word accessibility means the ability to 'gain entry' to something. We usually think of physical infrastructure when we use the term. Accessibility, as applied to the disabled, has become a major issue in modern society. Developed countries are far more advanced than the developing world in this regard and every building is designed from the ground up to accommodate the disabled.

But accessibility is not all about gaining entry to buildings and using their facilities. It should be an all-inclusive process on a variety of fronts. The disabled should feel at home in society and should be given facilities that allow them to lead a contended life.

Some of them can be small mercies. They need not even be 'physical' in the strict sense of the word. Subtitles (in the same/another language) on films and TV programmes will help the deaf follow the story and sign language interpretation can be used for some of the more important programmes. Currency notes and coins with embossed features can help the visually impaired. The widespread availability of braille material will also lighten up their lives.

The availability of equal opportunities is another form of access and integration. While some jobs can obviously only be done by able persons, there are many vocations which persons with some form of disability can engage in. It is the duty of the authorities to guide the differently abled persons in this direction.

The same applies for the availability of educational opportunities. The disabled should not be denied access to education. The usual trend is to guide the disabled to institutions that cater only to them, such as the Deaf and Blind School, but an inclusive approach can sometimes be more beneficial to the individual and to the society as a whole.

Disabled persons educated at 'normal' educational institutions do have the chance of gaining better prospects in society and indeed, in the job market. Moreover, this helps the 'normal' children also to look at the disabled in a new light, as equal partners in play, work and life itself.

Quality of life matters, not matter whether you are disabled or not. If the society closes its door on you even if you are physically and mentally sound, the disabled face a worse predicament. Accessibility is thus another name for more opportunities in life.

Do ponder these issues and join in our debate this month, on "Fast tracking access for the disabled". We welcome articles upto 1,000 words on this topic before May 29, 2007.

Write to Debate, Daily News, 35, D.R. Wijewardene Mawatha, Colombo or email [email protected] Fax 2343694.

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Accessibility enables everyone



SPORTS: Not only for the able-bodied

Access: "Regulations enabling Access by the 'Dis-Abled Persons' to public buildings, places and services were gazetted on 17th October 2006.

Effective implementation is now crucial. Until and unless that happens, the wide range of benefits they bring in, will not be realised. There is no better time to make that happen than 2007, this 'Year of Accessibility for All'. However, already five of its months have gone and hardly any existing or new public building or place has been made accessible.

Access is a long awaited need. The 'right' facilities have the potential to bring immediate benefit to an estimated 30 per cent of the population in this country and to their immediate families. With time, it will bring rich dividends also to businesses, society and the country. 'Mahinda Chinthana' is presented to us as a plan for national rejuvenation. For it to become a meaningful reality, accessibility is paramount.

We are a rapidly ageing population. Even the younger generation is hit by accidents and debilitating medical conditions. We also have increasing numbers of war-heroes who have unhesitatingly sacrificed arms, limbs and eyes to save mother Lanka.

Together with the pregnant, elders with small children and those with less apparent debilitating medical conditions such as arthritis, back and hip problems, diabetes, diminishing eye sight, weak heart we are reminded that 'chances run very high that each and every one of us, for different reasons, will spend some of our time living with an inevitable drop in our physical and sensory abilities to move or to maintain a proper balance to walk or climb steps'. It's a fact that none can escape from.

As fate is no respecter of persons and positions, any one of us, even you, could be the very next victim in the least expected manner. The quality of living you then enjoy will greatly depend upon how accessible, accommodating and user-friendly the immediate living environment around you happens to be.

Added up to about near five million people, undoubtedly this is the biggest minority group of Sri Lanka. It is made up of a wide and diverse range of people experiencing difficulties to walk steadily or climb even few steps in attending to daily living activities in being physically or/and visually impaired.

The protection of essential basic rights and related vital issues concerning them, especially accessibility - the most important and urgent necessity-* should soon be addressed adequately, effectively and expeditiously by the ruling party.

There is much talk at all levels about human rights and entitlement of a seven percent (7%) of our population living in the Northern Province.

We urgently need leaders with genuine commitment and a sense of urgency, to talk sensibly concerning this four times bigger sector of Sri Lankans living in several other provinces. Structural and attitudinal barriers deny access facilities and place them in physically disadvantaged and socially marginalised states, which we label as 'Dis-Abled'.

Our commitment to UN Convention

In March this year, Sri Lanka signed the UN Convention on the 'Rights of Persons with Disabilities' and thereby agreed actively to promote the fundamental principle that all people must be provided with the opportunities to live life to their fullest potential.

This is NOT a new right or a new entitlement, but one that has sadly been overlooked for over a decade in Sri Lanka, despite regulations made in 1996 under Act No: 28.Even in this signed UN Convention, 'Accessibility' is a high priority as it is the most essential pre-requisite for equalization of opportunities.

Already 30 per cent experience difficulties to walk and climb steps in daily life. ACCESS to services and facilities to ALL People, in fact, is a democratic right of everyone. 'Denial of access', is a fundamental human rights issue that has already caused a gravely rising social problem of national importance. It is our moral duty to 'Make everyone Equally Able', by empathetically designing/modifying our environments.

After all, that's the real and only solution to this. Accessibility minimises unwanted dependencies, reduces poverty through enhanced employment opportunities and thereby promotes self-esteem and self-respect. It has the potential to make everyone truly productive, fruitful and full-fledged citizens, without being added burdens to society.

On the other hand, every environment built that is NOT barrier-free to access and use, wastes human potential and creates more unwanted dependents.

The sooner this trend is arrested, minimal will be the damage it is causing the country.

True most of those labelled 'dis-Abled, require some type of basic support and external assistance to overcome their limitations in mobility. If you open your eyes wider you will recognise the abilities, strengths, talents, as well as interests and dreams of them.

It is accessibility and usability that has the required power to unlock the innate potential they posses with a wealth of experience and vast knowledge. It is also the one and only way, for improving their quality of life, economically, socially, physically and mentally.

Hence, more than anything else, 'Freedom of Access' meaning, 'access to physical environments and access to facilities and services', is the most critical need that determines many things in daily life. In fact this alone could make or break the quality of one's life.

Hence, designing environments that are 'truly enabling for everyone', as we have discovered, is a 'Winning Way that will empower Everyone'. But its art and science, most of our professionals in building construction, are yet to understand well enough.

Business sector's moral duty

It must also be remembered that, beyond a minimum, it is neither practical nor healthy to prolong charity based social welfare work. This is what most of our business organisations still do, under the *false belief* of 'corporate social responsibility'.

Such activities will only create more dependents and further burdens society. Instead, they should promote opportunity and provide chance, not charity, backed by the right encouragement and morale boost.

It is the winning way to get them back 'on their feet' again and thereby empathetically transform them as much as possible into independent and productive citizens and equal partners in development. Here again it is 'establishing the right facilities rightly' that will enable access with dignity, equally for everyone at all public buildings and places. This should be the business sector's moral duty.

There are many ways to overcome structural barriers and improve accessibility, thereby promoting the number of 'enabling environments' at banks, markets, hotels, restaurants, other business places, sports stadia, etc. It is encouraging that voluntarily formed humanitarian service organisations such as Idiriya, have come forward to campaign and stimulate interest on this crucial subject and thereby induce positive change in attitudes of stakeholders and the people of Sri Lanka.

We can boast that regulations for access and Sri Lanka Standards for inclusive design of buildings are already in place. Statistics may project progress. Benefits may accrue from these legal and social policies. But the real solution to creating an accessible and thereby 'Inclusive Society', rests in the hearts and minds of each us, and in the souls of our communities.

Remember: 'Time is always right to do rightly, what is right". Dear fellow readers, shouldn't this be your moral duty ?

(The writer is the Secretary-general of Idiriya and a well known pioneer campaigner for 'enabling environments for all'.)

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Helping the Disabled: A noble task



EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES: Essential for disabled

DIFFERENTLY ABLED: Not all of us are lucky enough to be gifted with good sight, perfect hearing, the ability to speak and sound mental faculties with well functioning limbs and other internal organs.

Considering the vast number of physically handicapped, visually impaired, deaf, dumb, and mentally retarded people whom we constantly hear of, often see, and sometimes get into contact with, we can swiftly conclude that the above statement needs no further proof.

Oddly enough, the majority of us take all these priceless presents for granted, and remain in a state of constant dissatisfaction over what we have not been given or what we have failed to achieve so far. Dale Carnegie, the world-famous author who wrote the best seller, 'How to Win Friends and Influence People', however, looked on this as natural, and called this 'human nature.'

Who exactly are the disabled?

In general, the term 'disability', as it is applied to humans, refers to any condition that impedes the completion of daily tasks using traditional methods. But this definition is too simple, and covers too broad a context to be a sensible, meaningful, clear-cut one.

However, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, proclaimed by General Assembly resolution (XXX) of 9 December 1975, gives a more formal definition of the disabled; It says:

"The term "disabled person" means any person unable to ensure by himself or herself, wholly or partly, the necessities of a normal individual and/or social life, as a result of deficiency, either congenital or not, in his or her physical or mental capabilities."

This definition underscores the fact that a disability is a deficiency in an individual's physical or mental capabilities; physical deficiencies of a person may include blindness, deafness, dumbness and other physical disabilities caused either by accidents or by diseases like Polio while mental deficiencies encompass mental disorders such as Down's syndrome, Autism and the like.

As far as the situation in Sri Lanka is concerned, the disabled known now as the differently-abled, despite the respect and the recognition their newer name affords them, face severe problems and inconveniences as they interact with society, since hardly any aspect of it is so designed as to suit their needs.

For example it is awfully difficult for them to get access to public buildings to have what they want done. Unless some kind, compassionate person (this kind of people are very rarely found in today's society which is abounded by hucksters bent solely on their self-interests) lends them a hand, it is next to impossible for them to enter some place let alone get their needs met!

Further there are few measures in place to ensure their safety, while some people try to exploit them and others deliberately discriminate against them.

Rights of the disabled

In spite of their physical or mental deficiencies, the disabled have the inherent right to respect for their human dignity; that is why paragraph 3 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons says, "Disabled persons have the inherent right to respect for their human dignity.

Disabled persons whatever the origin, nature and seriousness of their handicaps and disabilities, have the same fundamental rights as their fellow citizens of the same age, which implies first and foremost the right enjoy a decent life, as normal and full as possible."

Let me quote the paragraph 5 of the same: "Disabled persons are entitled to the measures designed to enable them to become as self-reliant as possible."

This clearly highlights the need for the State to ensconce measures enabling the disabled to be self-reliant, without having to rely on others' sympathy or compassion.

The Government's plan to install such facilities is indeed laudable and is a significant step towards improving the present predicament of the disabled in Sri Lanka. But to be honest, I am scarcely aware of the nuts and bolts of these facilities being established and to be established before 2010.

However, if the installation of such facilities is or is to be done in the same way as some contractors taking on Government contracts build bridges, roads, and culverts, horse- sense tells me that the disabled will certainly fall into the fire out of the frying fan.

So whatever may be the measures designed, the State has to see to it that the safety of the disabled is not overlooked.

In addition to this, paragraph 8 declares: "Disabled Persons are entitled to have their special needs taken into consideration at all stages of economic and social planning."

This emphasizes the need for the State to give enough heed to the necessities of the disabled when it is engaged in social and economic planning, targeting the overall development of the country. Most importantly, the State can on no account neglect this duty, which is instrumental to the improvement of the living conditions of the country's disabled population.

Installation of special facilities helping the disabled get safe and easy access into the public buildings, which sometimes have a few floors, certainly results in an additional cost taxing the Government coffers, but the rewards that it promises definitely outweigh the huge outlays of cost that it entails.

Further, as I said earlier, the State has a momentous responsibility for the welfare of the whole populace. This is of greater significance when it comes to the disabled, because it is too glaring to ignore that, in Sri Lanka, despite the rhetoric, little has been done by the successive Governments to improve the abject living conditions of the disabled.

Though we cannot be blind to the fact that, for a developing country like ours, it is very hard to set aside a sizeable portion of its tax revenue for public welfare which do not yield direct financial benefits in the short run or even in the long run when it has plenty of investment options promising obvious, estimable, direct returns which will in turn ameliorate the country's economy, the onus is on the State to do the best it can to improve the lives of the disabled.

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