By Ajith C. S. Perera –
For a secured brighter future as a developing country, today we are focusing a formidable and sustainable national economy.
It is thus imperative to arrest colossal economic and social waste that plague the country in untold proportions.
Two prerequisites here are: (i). Arresting the waste of human potential and instead mobilizing this asset and (ii). Minimising unwanted dependents through empowering, inclusion and equal opportunity.
Our Constitution Article (12.2) recognises race, ethnicity, religion, caste, gender and place of birth as non-discrimination states.
For a SINGLE REASON, that’s yet not included even under (12.3), continue to marginalise and discriminate the BIGGEST and the WIDEST sector of our population!!
As such, amidst legislation, a diverse range of our population at least 20% continue to cry louder over near twenty years concerning their marginalisation, exclusion and discrimination in day-to-day life.
They are the voters, not fewer than four (4) Million in number, those the inevitable accidents, debilitating illnesses, wear & tear of the body, etc., and the ended 30 years of war, have robbed of their abilities to see, walk, climb or even stand steadily, whether that be to a greater or lesser extent, whether permanently or temporarily.
The biggest minority group of Sri Lanka.
A Person with dis-Ability (often still termed injuriously as Differently-abled) legislation defines as: **Any person who, as a result of any deficiency in his physical or mental abilities, is unable by himself to ensure for himself, wholly or partly, the necessities of daily life**.
Sri Lanka has the fastest ageing population in our region. 17% of our population will soon be over 65 years.
Every one of us, inevitably, undergoes a process of decay, often meets numerous debilitating conditions or is convalescing after surgery or illnesses.
Almost all of us, thus, is certain to spend some of our time living with deficiency in ability, in moving and seeing, physical coordination, manual dexterity, etc.
All this means, more than one in five, experience deficiency in mobility.
World views and perceptions, thus, on what it means to be dis-Abled have changed rapidly and changed for the better to enhance equally the quality of life of ALL people.
The focus hence, is on **Persons with RESTRICTED ABILITY**.
However, for this fast increasing biggest minority group, the degree of their mobility should never be a disadvantage caused by physical and architectural barriers. Everyday activities should NOT become a daunting task to accomplish.
A malady of national importance
Leaders seeking our votes still fail to recognise the country’s biggest minority group – a huge voting base when their families are also added.
Legislation recognises ‘a public building’ as any Government or Private Sector Building used by the public in daily life. Design of public buildings is the prime factor which affects them adversely in their day-to-day life.
Unable to move freely, significant numbers are often forced silently to fight daily an uphill battle in approaching, accessing and using even the NEW and recently RENOVATED public buildings and facilities – an essential prerequisite in everyone’s normal life.
The root causes for this malady are: Overlooking the parliament approved standards for designing building parts and violating the Supreme Court’s orders concerning access for all.
Furthermore, when we disregard conformity with standards for constructing all parts of public buildings, such buildings end-up DIS-ABLING, to exclude people from participating fully as equal members of society.
No government has ever before, given any due recognition to the colossal waste they bring, both socially and economically, in the form of safety hazards, waste of their ABILITIES (within dis-Abilities) and human potential, loss of opportunities for employment, education and recreation, unwanted dependency.
This has also led to the denial of their democratic rights to become equal partners in development programmes.
The plight after 20 years
Enacted by the Parliament of Sri Lanka, Act No. 28 for the Promotion, Advancement and Protection of Rights of Persons with dis-Abilities came into effect from 24th October 1996.
Clause 23(2) of this Act clearly states: “No person on the ground of disability, be subject to any liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to, or use of, any building or place which any other member of the, public has access to or is entitled to use”.
On 30th March 2007 Sri Lanka signed the UN Convention for the protection of the rights to the dis-Abled persons. Accessibility is one of the eight pillars on which this convention stands.
Although 152 countries have ratified it – Viet Nam the last on 5th of this month – Sri Lanka is yet to do it!
Over the past nine years, we have heard politicians and bureaucrats talk ebulliently of ‘Making Sri Lanka a truly dis-Abled friendly country’ and ‘Integration of those with restricted ability into society for full participation in all spheres of daily life as useful and equal partners’.
After near 20 years, although the measures required to achieve them are low cost and easily feasible, have they become a meaningful reality to any significant degree?
The simple answer is “NO”.
As discriminatory attitudes and practices still continue, increasing significant numbers of this biggest minority group tend to live in the shadows and margins of society, and as a result their rights remain overlooked.
For a secured brighter future under Maithri Rule
Safety of customers under all conditions is not negotiable for any business. Inclusion of all customers in embracing human diversity is paramount for the growth and success of businesses and to maximize its potential.
As invisible debilitating conditions world over are rapidly increasing, we witness fast growing ‘ability restricted’ senior touring populations demand their right for equal access.
Hence, **accessibility in tourism** is indeed an indispensable economic element.
With their high spending potential, they are an unrecognized but growing niche – certainly an overlooked growth market. Sri Lanka can no more be inept and left out but must tap this **NEW profit resource**. BUT that requires tourist establishments and essential facilities truly meeting accepted design standards.
Even NEW and RENOVATED hotels meant to boost our tourism industry and human rights image, inspite of ignoring design standards for accessibility and safety, are rather disgracefully, still, awarded five and six star status. These awarding procedures must be remedied immediately.
The way a country treats its ‘dis-Abled’ population is an internationally recognized measure of a country’s good governance and a far more telling indicator of society’s development than GDP.
The Supreme Court has recognised the importance of the unlawful playing with human life and has ruled that anything less than full compliance is a serious punishable offence attracting punitive repercussions.
However, the violators often backed by political powers, still, continue to go free; the victims are stranded and must either plead and earn the good-will of violators or suffer further!
Access for all really means Access for Justice which can no more be delayed under this regime’s good governance!
It should be seen as an investment towards moral duty, social responsibility and legal obligation.
Leaving these issues unresolved is a growing threat to the economic and social development of our country and the quality of people’s lives.
Sri Lanka to be truly a new country in 100 days under Maithri rule, can no more remain inept to such tragedy!
Proposed remedial action – Fast track them
(1). To make all Ministries, Departments and Organisations implement measures towards Barrier-free, inclusive and accessible Sri Lanka for all, as each one’s moral duty, legal obligation and social responsibility.
(2). To establish an overall mechanism for the EFFECTIVE overall enforcement and implementation of laws and court orders to prevent issuing of ‘C.O.C’s to illegal buildings failing to comply totally.
(3). To require decision makers to obtain periodic guidance from those with proven expertise, specific practical experience and thorough working knowledge on accessibility – a rare commodity indeed!
For two reasons this is an essential prerequisite.
(1)Reality has proved repeatedly that it is a costly blunder to believe professionals in the building construction industry are competent enough to establish a society inclusive and accessible to all.
(ii). Complying with standards to ensure accessibility with safety is a specialised job. It is NOT one where standards and specifications can be read and easily applied in bits and pieces here and there. This practice causes waste and added safety hazards.
(4). To enforce a system of **independent** audits for compliance especially at Hotels, Hospitals and places of Higher Education.
Awarding procedures for star-status to Hotels must be remedied immediately making compliance with accessibility legislations mandatory.
(5). To make certain that all NEW Court Complexes, comply with Supreme Court Orders for accessibility issued under SCFR 221/2009 on 27 April 2011. Most of the accident victims continue to find access to courts a nightmare.
(6). To ensure this biggest minority group gets represented effectively at the proposed National Advisory Council to Strengthen Democracy, as stated in January 12th entry of the Government’s 100-day programme.
(7). To provide Constitutional Protection under the Clause (12.3) to this biggest minority group which is highly desirable.
Clause (12.3) should thus be amended to read as:
“No Person shall, on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, limitation in physical and / or mental ability or any one of such grounds, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction, marginalisation, safety hazard or condition with regard to access to buildings and facilities therein the public needs to use in day-to-day life, including shops, hotels, restaurants, banks, hospitals, sports stadia, places of education – employment – recreation – entertainment and worship of his own religion.”
*Dr. Ajith C. S. Perera – a former senior manager in industry, founder / chief executive of IDIRIYA, was left instantly a paraplegic for life by a fallen way side tree in 1992. By reason of this personal adversity he has bounced back to serve the humanity – most importantly as a reputed pioneer activist and a widely experienced accessibility advisor / auditor, facts of which have been befittingly recognised even by reputed bodies overseas. For further information see http://goo.gl/3FWyW