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Supreme Court order propels 'accessibility for all'

*Compel adherence to the law by architects, builders and local authorities

*Punitive repercussions for violators

*Rich dividends on implementation for Sri Lanka

Dr. Ajith C. S. Perera

Accessibility has the 'Power to emPower' everyone and 'enable our dis-Abling new buildings to serve the public.


Access to public buildings - a basic human right. Courtesy: Google

Significant numbers of our heroic soldiers and war victims are disabled. Soon 17 percent of our population will be over 65 years. A great number of youth have debilitating conditions, often not visible.

An estimated 3 million citizens with curtailed mobility continue to fight a daily battle discriminated, dis-advantaged and thereby unable fully to benefit from the resources the State provides and unnecessarily continue their dependency on others.

Power of accessibility

Providing an accessible environment means preventing safety hazards 'any time', supporting independence and promoting the dignity of 'every person'.

It means, more opportunities, especially for people with curtailed mobility, to perform the necessary normal activities of daily life, acquire gainful employment and inclusive education, reach their optimum potential and participate as productive members in society.

Accessibility hence, is indeed an indispensable basic human right.

The need for court orders

Laws to require public buildings and facilities to be made accessible to disabled persons were established in 1996 and further strengthened by the introduction of accessibility regulations under this law in 2005 and thereafter, receiving unanimous Parliament approval.

However, inept stagnant bureaucracy failed to establish a formal mechanism to implement and pursue the legislation and thereby to deliver practical effect, even in respect of new public buildings.

Violators roam scotfree causing substantial losses to the country, significant setbacks to disabled people and their families and thereby reduce our limited resources. Even after 13 years this malady continues. A fundamental rights application aimed at preventing further colossal losses the country incurs, was filed at the Supreme Court by this writer.

Court orders

Although the court is not empowered to make new laws, in delivering their unanimous judgement on October 14 last, orders were issued having the potential to reverse these adverse trends and reap over 30 rich dividends for the country and its people - disabled and non-disabled alike.

"The Court recognises that in terms of the 'Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities' Act No. 28 of 1996 and accessibility regulations made there under, no person should be discriminated on the ground of disability and their mobility restricted in a manner which precludes or impedes them from gaining reasonable physical access to public buildings and facilities provided within such buildings, especially the toilet facilities".

Accordingly, the Court ordered the following,

1. All new public buildings as defined in the accessibility regulations No.1 of 2006, should provide 'reasonable access' to persons with physical disabilities.

2. All authorities that are empowered to approve building plans or issue any 'Certificate of Conformity' for public buildings should refrain from doing so in respect of any building which would violate this court order.

3. Failure to comply would draw punitive repercussions as set out in the law (which would very soon be made more stringent).

4. The proceedings were terminated with liberty to you to file a motion, if there is any violation of the court orders.

Clarification of court orders

What's acceptable as 'reasonable access'? It means the following key parts of a new public building stipulated by the accessibility regulations in force, not just the entrances, should be designed in accordance with the minimum design requirements there: floor surfaces, pathways and corridors, doors and entrances, steps and stairs, hand rails and grab bars, ramps (where needed), lifts, toilets, car parks and signage.

Design requirements provide the basic essential architectural needs that address the diverse mobility needs of the widest possible range of persons.

Sri Lanka Standards Institution must be congratulated for establishing Sri Lanka Standard SLS ISO TR 9527:2006 for building construction to provide minimum design guidelines.

Prevents safety hazards anytime for everyone

"Good design enables; poor design dis-ables - could be even for lifetime!" Design standards specified in accessibility regulations bring added safety at anytime to everyone, especially to vulnerable groups. It is thus a huge benefit, incalculable in value to all.

The design requirements are also relatively few and cost less than 0.02 percent of the total building costs. Hence they could be met easily - practically and economically - as an investment, at the planning stage of a new building or a renovation to an existing building.

The Court orders deal with human life and thereby we cannot afford to leave any margin for error. It is a highly responsible task that requires a good practical understanding of its intricacies and proven expertise. Also, every building and each site is unique in its problems and solutions.

As such, authorities undertaking constructions may well need expert guidance as to how best to do them 'right first-time' and prevent waste of resources.

Unfeigned voice of the disabled

This petition concerned the continuing very poor accessibility to services even at new public buildings, as stated clearly in the petition, was not a potential threat to anyone but certainly a big wake-up call!

Within six months of filing the petition, there have been a great many gains of accessibility, albeit largely limited to entrances to public buildings, perhaps more than in all the previous six years! That alone constitutes success.

Perhaps for the first time, the unassuming but able voice of disabled persons praying for 'justice to access public facilities' echoed loud and clear at the country's apex court.

Submissions were made on behalf of disabled persons (and also non-disabled persons) by a disabled petitioner appearing in person. It was a significant achievement, 'not simply' but the hard way.

It's important to state with gratitude that this writer was inspired to initiate positive action by the leadership qualities, especially understanding and impartiality, of the leader the disabled persons are privileged to have as the Chairman of the National Council for the Disabled Persons - Minister Douglas Devananda.

(The writer - a wheelchair user, is a voluntary disability rights activist, advisor on accessibility and the Secretary General of IDIRIYA that's exceptionally responsive towards constructing user-friendly Environments. acsp@sltnet.lk)

Related Notice: Accessibility at public buildings

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