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Accessibility - Whose responsibility is this?

YEAR OF ACCESS: Politicians, decision makers, business leaders and other professionals are aware that Sri Lanka can no longer afford to waste the precious innate human potential and also the increase in number of unwanted dependants.

‘Designing for inclusion’ is the effective way to arrest these colossal wastes and make everyone ‘meaningful equal partners’ in development.

Accessibility means ‘more opportunities in life to all’. More than anything else, ‘access to physical environments, facilities and services’, has the potential to ‘enable everyone equally’. In fact this alone could make or break the quality of one’s life. But whose responsibility is it to enforce this?

The Ministry of Social Services and Social Welfare under the leadership of the Minister Douglas Devananda over the past 20 months have completed an enormous amount of work.

Making good use of her long years of experience, its secretary Mrs. Viji Jegarasasingam has initiated an ambitious diverse plan of action, towards making this goal a reality this year.

In fact it was her foresight that enabled 2007 to be declared by the Government as ‘The Year of Access’.

The most significant breakthrough this Ministry achieved through the National Council (NCPD) was the establishment of Sri Lanka’s first ever ‘access regulations’ in November 2005.

Immediately a small committee of NCPD members headed by the Minister’s personal advisor Ms. Maheswary Velautham, an attorney-at-law, went into action.

Within a period of few months, they not only finalised a more effective set of regulations for access, but also expeditiously overcame a bottle neck at the legal draftsman’ department.

This enabled the Ministry to gazette on October 17, 2006 (Reference: 1467/15) the ‘Regulations in force’ to enable access by the ‘dis-Abled persons’ to public buildings, places and services.

Furthermore, the Ministry has also published a comprehensive 45-page A4 size ‘planning and design guide’.

Last March SLSI took the initiative to establish ‘Sri Lanka Standards’ for inclusive design of buildings. These outstanding results have already laid the much needed firm foundation for us to move ahead on ‘fast tracking access’.

The National Council of the Disabled People, under the chairmanship of the Minister Douglas Devananda and backed by Jegarasasingam, Ms. Velautham, its Director Mr. M. Allam and a set of few enthusiastic members, have already embarked on this ‘life-giving’ mission to near five million people (and their families), undoubtedly the biggest minority group of Sri Lanka.

The ultimate aim of this noble mission is to improve the quality of life, physically, mentally, economically and socially of a wide and diverse range of physically or/and visually impaired people who experience difficulties in walking steadily or climbing even a few steps in attending to daily activities.

‘Implementing access regulations’ now heads the agenda at NCPD meetings. Plans of action include awareness programmes at various levels in different parts of the country and providence of financial grants to modify existing public buildings that come under various other ministries and bodies.

To overcome the dearth of architects, designers and builders who are ‘truly’ competent to do a meaningful job for ‘inclusivity of all’, the NCPD as a short-term measure has appointed for a two year period, a four member panel of ‘experts on this task’, to advise and guide those who desire this vital help.

Why fast track access? - Five reasons.

(1) ‘Accessibility is a National issue’. Accessibility minimises unwanted dependencies, reduces poverty through enhanced employment opportunities, promotes self-esteem and has the potential to make everyone truly productive. These are essential prerequisites for ‘National development’.

(2) Access to buildings, facilities and services is a democratic right. ‘Denial of access’, is a fundamental human rights issue that has already caused a gravely rising social problem threatening to hit potentially everyone.

Protection of this essential basic human right should very soon be addressed adequately, effectively and expeditiously by the ruling party.

(3) ‘Mahinda Chintana’ is presented to us as a plan for national rejuvenation. For it to become a meaningful reality, accessibility is paramount. Delaying implementation of access regulations, is a denial of prompt support for implementing Mahinda Chintana!

(4) Designing physical environments that are ‘truly enabling for everyone’, is making available more opportunities in life, not only to individuals and families, but also to the society and entire country! It is a ‘Winning Way’ to everyone and also a vital ‘National need’!

(5) Six days ago, Nation paid the highest tribute to our gallant war heroes. Making productive their daily lives in society, is our moral duty. Accessibility to shops, cinemas, government offices, banks, sports stadia, etc. is an essential prerequisite here.

Accessibility - whose responsibility ?

What is most crucial now, is the effective enforcement and expeditious implementation of such beneficial regulations. There is no better time to make that happen than 2007, this ‘Year of Accessibility’.

The Social Service Ministry with the NCPD have already implemented many measures in embarking on this mission of national importance. But they cannot clap with one hand.

It is a tragedy that many political, business and social leaders, even professionals, wait ineptly under the false belief that it is again the Ministry of Social Services who must (i). Arrest the on-going injurious design and construction and (ii). Make happen the rightful constructions.

Two decades ago, the Quality Assurance Department of a factory was held responsible for delivering products that satisfy customers.

The world now knows how foolish that was. From the success stories here and world over, we know the strategy for success implies that quality must be made the ‘equal responsibility of all departments and every single employer and employee’.

The responsibility to drive down this vision and implement measures, lies with the top management.

Ultimately it is this ‘team effort’ that brought resounding victory. But of course the Quality Assurance Department, should continue to play a leading role through awareness, monitoring and guiding all others.

For Sri Lanka to win this daunting battle in implementing access regulations, we too should adopt this proven universal strategy for success. The Ministry of Social Services resembles the QA department.

The factory here is ‘Sri Lanka’. Other departments that must support the QA means ‘every single minister and his ministry and every single business leader and his company. ‘Top Management’ here is the President.

We sincerely feel that only an initiative taken soon by the President, can and will make these right things happen here. We very kindly urge him to take soon such an initiative in the best interest of our country.

The true measure of success is not the number of activities initiated and completed but the results they delivered. i.e. ‘How many buildings and places are now truly accessible and enabling to all’. It is this figure that will matter at the end, nothing else!

Already half the ‘Year of Access’ have gone but buildings and places coming under various ministries / ministers and business organisations, still continue to remain unfriendly to most people. This indicates failure to respect a gazetted regulation that gained Parliamentary approval.

On the other hand, every ‘new’ public environment built that is not barrier-free to access and use, will to isolate more people and thereby waste human potential, bring misery and create more unwanted dependents.

To arrest this trend and the damage it causes, all local authorities (Municipalities, Provincial Councils, Pradeshiya Sabhas, etc.) should actively support clause number (3.2) of the ‘access regulations’ in restraining the issue of ‘certificates of conformity’ to faulty design plans.

It is the responsibility of all Ministers and Ministries to support the Social Services Ministry in implementing fast this ‘National Policy’ at all public buildings coming under them.

For example Ministry of Finance for all bank buildings, Ministry of Sports for all sports venues, Ministry of Housing and Ministry of Construction for houses and other public buildings, Ministry of Tourism for hotels and recreational places. This is their moral duty.

Business professionals should make certain that all buildings the public need to access in daily life, such as markets, cinemas, restaurants, banks, etc., are modified to welcome all and deny none. Without access to facilities for this increasing sector of potential customers, what ‘customer satisfaction’ is there ?

In the end the real solution to creating an accessible and thereby ‘Inclusive Society’ rests in the hearts and minds of each one of us, and in the souls of our communities. We all have the moral duty continuously to urge politicians and all leaders to make these right things happen soon.

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, BUT, because of those....... who looks on and only talk, doing nothing.”

- Albert Einstein

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