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