Colombo Telegraph

Democratizing Disability: A Dawning Discourse

By Avanthi Kalansooriya and Rasika Sumudhu Jayasinghe

Avanthi Kalansooriya

“What does Disability mean to you? What are our perceptions?”

Do we see disability in a mother whose hearing is rapidly deteriorating, a father who’s become partially paralyzed after a stroke, an aunt who’s become bedridden simply due to old age, or a brother born with a physical, cognitive, or mental impairment? For many of us it is only the latter that we label as being disabled but, whether we notice it or not; whether a consequence from birth, a result of old age, a product of the war, or an act of fate, disability permeates through the walls of our families and friends, more than we are often willing to recognize.

On the 3rd of September, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in collaboration with Wheels in Motion (WIM) facilitated a roundtable discussion on the Draft Disability Law and the National Action Plan on Disability (NAPD) at the ICES Auditorium. The roundtable was attended by a wide cross-section of participants, including representatives from a number of key Ministries, UN bodies, disability advocacy groups, legal establishments, academia, civil society and various organizations in the donor community. Moreover, the discussion was not only enlightening in terms of raising awareness regarding the current state of disability in Sri Lanka, but dynamic and productive in terms of identifying key issues that need to be addressed and rectified by the government and civil society alike.

At present, Sri Lanka has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) but has yet to ratify it. The Convention provides an excellent framework and aims to promote and protect all human rights, ensure the full and equal enjoyment of rights and fundamental freedoms, and provide respect for the inherent dignity of people living with disabilities. Our current National Policy thus, draws strongly from the UN CRPD.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s National Action Plan on Disability (NAPD) provides a multi-sectorial long-term framework to implement our National Policy and has been inspired by the World Report on Disability (WHO/World Bank 2011). For all those living with disabilities, the NAPD also aims to promote and protect rights, provide opportunities for enjoying a full and satisfying life, and ensure equal opportunities for contributing to national development. Formulated under seven thematic areas; Empowerment, Health and Rehabilitation, Education, Work and Employment, Mainstreaming and Enabling Environments, Data and Research, and Social and Institutional Cohesion, the document provides a holistic action plan. Furthermore it uses a twin track approach, the first of which, enables interventions within our environment to better facilitate the mainstreaming of people with disabilities, in areas such as; education, work and employment, social cohesion. The second track meanwhile, involves interventions at an individual level, for example in health and rehabilitation, in order to prepare the individual for future mainstreaming (the ultimate aim track one seeks to make). The NAPD currently, has been approved by the National Council of Disabled Persons and will be submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers for approval.

Additionally, the Draft Disability Law which has been in the pipeline since 2006 will be submitted to the Parliament shortly. The Draft Law recognizes that discrimination against any person on the basis of disability is a violation of the inherent dignity of the human person and reaffirms the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the need for persons who are living with disabilities to be guaranteed their full enjoyment without discrimination.

However, despite the overlapping aims of these four policies and documents, the ICES-WIM roundtable discussion on disability, identified several issues that require proactive and immediate attention.

The lack of a rights-based approach and an impartial effective implementation mechanism were identified as major gaps in the current Draft Law. Discussants at the roundtable stressed a need to follow an inclusive development agenda where legislature addresses the everyday challenges of the disabled person, in areas such as accessibility. Moreover, it was agreed upon that, the day to day issues disabled persons undergo vary from one individual to another. Thus, it becomes crucial to detect and cater to their needs in a sensitive manner, in order to avoid exclusionary repercussions. It was suggested that, this sensitization needs to be adopted across primary and secondary education curricula, familial structures and dynamics, government and armed force trainings, as well as across many other sectors of society, in order to ensure an effective change and growth in current social mindsets concerning disability.

The discussion proposed that disabled persons need to be included, integrated and mainstreamed into society. Treating these individuals as a separate group will only aggravate their grievances, foster discrimination and enhance their sense of isolation and exclusion. To rectify this, we need to strengthen the disability movement, in order to propel present-day discourse on disability into a stable and well established one. Moreover, we need to consider celebrating disability, in order to allow this dawning discourse to, rather than being viewed as disable, enable disabled persons to be perceived as capable of being a positive and vibrant contribution to society.

Perhaps the most significant concern raised was the astonishing gap between the NAPD and the Draft Disability Law, in terms of catering to the needs of the disabled. Several participants highlighted the need to involve those living with disabilities in the planning, coordination, monitoring, implementation and evaluation of disability policies and frameworks. The NAPD is seen as a progressive document, having undergone a consultative process that repeatedly circulated drafts for feedback and improvement, ultimately involving over 600 individuals from various fields and organizations. The Draft Law on the other hand, has lacked this same level of consultation, involvement and multi-sectorial engagement. General consensus among the participants expressed dismay over the growing disparity between the two documents and urged disability policy makers to follow the NAPD’s example in the future.

Strengthening legal mechanisms and awareness and creating a research and data base on disability were amongst the other suggestions that emerged at the ICES-WIM roundtable. Based on the findings of the discussion, ICES and WIM formally requested the Human Rights Commission to lead a process of public consultations, in at least 10 locations around the country, on the Draft Disability Law in tandem with the NAPD. The objectives of the consultations would be to ensure that people living with disability, and organizations working with disabled people, have a full and fair opportunity to participate in the drafting of this important piece of legislation; a call that was strongly supported by the participants at the disability roundtable.

Robert McRuer, an American theorist once said, “everyone is virtually disabled, both in the sense that able-bodied norms are ‘intrinsically impossible to embody’ fully, and in the sense that able-bodied status is always temporary, disability being the one identity category that all people will embody if they live long enough.” Sri Lanka has made several important strides to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. Let us continue to acknowledge the prevalence issues of disability have in our lives and move towards a progressive, systematic and sustained commitment to bettering the lives of not just those who we view as ‘disabled’, but also, by recognizing that we ourselves are susceptible to being disabled at some point in our lives, our own.

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