By Lasanthi Daskon Attanayake –
Dr Ajith C S Perera, in his article ‘Access to Justice : Constitutional Protection for All’ succinctly encapsulate the wide range of issues faced by persons living with disabilities in Sri Lanka. His emphasis is ‘access’ of all forms, not just to the built environment but to the entire social, political and legal fabric of the country. This is not the first time Dr Perera wrote about access. He being the only Disability Rights Activist in Sri Lanka to approach mainstream print media in writing critical pieces on the need for recognising the large percentage of persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka continues to campaign hard .
Less than four days after we read Dr Perera’s article, a news item appears in a local newspaper on the discrimination faced by a student with a disability in one of the leading Girls’ Schools in Colombo, which is followed by yet another article in Colombo Telegraph relating to the issues faced by a traveller with a disability.
It is sad that a child with a disability, be it in a leading school or not, has to fight for her rights while the School Principal apparently stated that they cannot make changes ‘just for one student’. What would that Principal expect that ‘one child’ to do, where does she expect the child to go, if she is not accepted by her own school? Do we know how many little girls and boys in this country are shut out of education in this way? Do we know that physical infrastructure, most of the time, is not the only issue they face? Do we know how much we are burdening the families of those children and the society in turn, by not providing them the opportunity to be productive members of society?
This is just one story, one aspect. Disability cuts across all dimensions of society, disability could affect any one of us at any given time. Disability in its various forms, come to us in our old age. Yet, we , as a society, look at disability as the abnormality or the impossibility. Our ‘normal’, ‘perfect’ human selves look at persons with disabilities and feel ‘sorry’ for them, wonder what sins they committed in their past lives to live with a disability in this life, and heave sighs of relief that we are fortunate not to have ‘sinned’.
*Dr. Ajith Perera – Campaigns for the Democratic Right for Inclusion
We take these attitudes to our governing systems, into our policy making and into our administration. And we ignore the concerns of persons with disabilities; because, to us, in all our undisputed self-proclaimed perfectness, they are only an unfortunate ‘few’.
What we, as a country are reluctant to understand is that persons with disabilities are the largest minority group in the country, and given the opportunity to be participants in our socio-economic sphere, they would make their contribution to the country as much as the so-called majority would.
Let us now explore a few of the prominent gaps.
Gaps in our Laws
Sri Lanka was among the first countries which signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on the very day it was opened for signature. We enacted a law relating to disability as far back as 1996, a decade before the CRPD came into being. Having made such progress, we now choose to shy away from ratifying the convention and bringing in new progressive legislation in relation to disability. It is therefore worthy of finding out what cause or causes have debilitated the aspirations of at least a million and a half (going by the government statistics) persons with disabilities living in the island.
Plainly speaking, the malady of disability rights in Sri Lanka has several tentacles; the archaic disability rights legislation, the non-ratification of the CRPD and the reluctance to enact a new, progressive law.
The 1996 Act (Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act. No. 28 of 1996), has only a fleeting mention of the ‘rights’ of the disabled and instead focuses heavily on the establishment of the National Council on Disability, its powers and functions. Professor Fiona Kumari Campbell writes that the Act, despite its pretence of being concerned with rights, severely lack in the provision of a codified statement of rights and a philosophical framework to support interpretation and generate the development of politics and law reform.
Since 2006, the Ministry of Social Services has been struggling with emerging and disappearing draft disability rights Bills. Mysterious circumstances have made a draft Bill disappear and a different version with no substantial improvements to the 1996 Act emerge. Another Bill was drafted in 2013 which again is mysteriously shelved away. Though wider, nationwide consultations were suggested on the draft bill by certain advocates, the furthest audience it reached were a few selected consultants (including the author). Yet, the consultants themselves were not informed whether their recommendations were taken into consideration or not, and as to why the drafting process did not proceed beyond the point of receiving recommendations from them.
The ratification of the CRPD is an issue vehemently debated by certain disability rights advocates themselves. Some were of the strong opinion that the State cannot ratify the treaty unless and until the domestic law falling in line with the CRPD is enacted.
The core of the debate, according to the author’s understanding, is the vexed question of the Disability Services Authority. The Ministry of Social Services seems to be of the firm belief (as expressed by its officials) that the establishment of an Independent Authority will take disability out of the purview of the Ministry and that it would be detrimental to the yeoman services offered by the Ministry to the community of persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka. The members of the National Council on Disability have not voiced their opinion on this issue in the open, yet it could be safely assumed that they are greatly divided among themselves on this issue.
Marginalisation within the Movement
It is sad that the majority of the outspoken members of the community of persons with disabilities are not widely represented in the National Council and that the activities of the Council are not as transparent as it should ideally be.
It is also sad that the majority of activities of Disabled Peoples’ Organisations in Sri Lanka remain in the periphery and does not penetrate into mainstream advocacy. While the need for empowerment and service provision is of paramount importance, the need for progression of the movement to influence legal and political changes cannot be ignored. The world has witnessed and is still witnessing the changes that are brought about through mobilisation and activism. I have often heard Disability Rights Advocates say that aggressive lobbying is not the way to get things done in Sri Lanka, and that we have to work hand in hand with the political and administrative authorities if we are to gain success. But somehow, this mild diplomacy does not seem to have brought much positive changes in the disability sphere.
There is also a lack of solidarity and transparency within the Movement The movement needs to revamp itself, open its doors to young people with disabilities and provide them space to express their views. A democratic movement, open for criticism will bring in vigour and vitality. A strengthened movement will inevitably influence social progression and bring in political change.
Our politicians still remain ignorant (at least) of the potential of the voter base of persons with disabilities and their families. If we go strictly by government statistics (2012) which state that 8.5% of the population live with some form of a disability and assume that there are close upon one and a half million persons with disabilities, and add one family member per each person with a disability, still the number would be at least three million persons. Surprisingly, our political leaders do not seem to accept this as a potential voter base.
Coupled with this disinterest and the severe lack of access in the electoral process, persons with disabilities are kept away from political participation.
Our entire legal system, including the infrastructure, the courts, the judiciary and the practitioners, remain in the dark of the issues a person with a disability would face in accessing legal redress, as quoted at the beginning of this article, majority of our schools and universities are not prepared to accept a child with a disability, our transport systems, our roads, our public places, despite recent improvements, remain largely inaccessible to persons with disabilities. Moreover, the corporate sector is poorly informed of the potential of inclusive businesses. All in all, as a country, as a society, we are completely oblivious to the challenges faced by persons with disabilities in our social and physical environment.
How do we move forward?
The answers are many, but the primarily we need to understand that disability is not an isolated issue. It is cross-cutting, and omnipresent, it could affect any one of us at any given time, temporarily or permanently. Persons with Disabilities are not ‘a few’ as many would like to believe. they are ‘many’, living among us and with us. Disabilities are not ‘uncommon’ or ‘abnormal’, they are a part of normality, a reality of life. Persons with Disabilities share the same dreams, aspirations, hopes and feelings as the non-disabled majority.
Therefore, as a country, as a society, it is important for us to first and foremost consider inclusion a necessity, not an option.
*Lasanthi is an Attorney-at-Law who is reading for her Masters in Human Rights at the University of Colombo. She is an independent consultant on disability and is a visiting lecturer at the Department of Disability Studies, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ragama. She is married to Senarath Attanayake, the first and the only elected politician who has lived with a disability his entire life and also the first person in a wheelchair to become an Attorney-at-Law