By Senarath Attanayake –
Persons with disabilities are considered one of the most marginalised communities in the world. The inequalities however, do not arise from their disabilities but from social and institutional barriers that deprive them of the opportunity to enjoy the same rights and privileges as their non-disabled peers. Governments in most parts of the world ignore the community of persons with disabilities in the formulation of laws and policies mainly due to the lack of understanding of issues that particularly affect disabled persons. One of the main reasons for this ignorance arise from the exclusion of persons with disabilities from the political process.
Equitable participation is the primary requirement of a sustainable democracy. Gender advocates have, for a long time, fought for gender equality in politics and have demanded women’s representation in the legislature. We saw in the news this week that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has requested all political parties contesting the August parliamentary elections to nominate at least 30 percent of women candidates from their respective parties. Let us hope that the parties respond to this call and make changes in a country where women’s representation was one of the lowest in South Asia so far.
The community of persons with disabilities across the world are believed to comprise of at least 15% of the global population according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In Sri Lanka, available data indicate that 8.6% of the population live with some form of disability, which means that at least 1.7 million Persons could be living with Disabilities in the country. Added with the family members and caregivers, the entire constituency of disabled persons could be at least 5 million persons in Sri Lanka. These numbers could prove to be much more if accurate statistics on the population of persons with disabilities were available. Additionally, due to the rising percentage of older persons in Sri Lanka, who are estimated to reach 22% of the population by 2030, there is a sharp increase of age-related disabilities in the country.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in Article 29 of establishes the right to equal participation in political and public life including the right to vote, stand for elections and hold office. The opportunity of equal participation is at the heart of what it means to live in a democratic society for persons with disabilities.
The people of Moneragala have been a step ahead of other districts from 15 years ago when they elected me to represent them at the Uva Provincial Council. I have been consecutively elected for 4 terms. Persons with disabilities should therefore be encouraged by the fact that disability will not be a disqualification as long as you stay committed to your ideals.
As the first person with a disability to enter politics in Sri Lanka and to hold portfolios including that of Acting Cheif Minister of Uva Province, I have been trying to raise the profile of disability throughout my 15 year political career. I have urged the leaders of this country to recognize the population of persons with disabilities and the population of elderly persons as a minority community that needs to be included in the political process and to create an inclusive society where they enjoy the same rights and privileges as non-disabled citizens.
My achievements as a politician, particularly with regard to the developments I have brought to my district in relation to inclusion stands witness to the fact that persons with disabilities being represented in legislative bodies are able to contribute immensely towards inclusive development. The Disable and Age Friendly City project of Moneragala District which has received recognition and acknowledgement internationally, is one achievement I am humbly proud of. The project was established with the technical support of WHO-Sri Lanka and is a member of the Global Age-friendly Cities Network of WHO. This project is a unique effort by a large number of stakeholders committed towards creating a model inclusive city.
Moneragala will also be the first district to establish access to polling stations in Sri Lanka, ensuring that all persons with mobility impairments will gain independent access to voting. A few of the centres will have ramp access with tactile paving by the August elections and the entire district will be completed by the end of 2015.
Sadly however, we have not yet been able to make inclusion a part of our national development programmes. Almost all of our major cities still remain inaccessible and we have not yet been able to give meaning to equality in our democracy.
I strongly believe that there is no better time than now to give priority to the concerns of the large community of persons with disabilities, their families and the older population in Sri Lanka. Such measures would no doubt set an example to the entire South Asian region. Let us hope that all the political parties will address the concerns of the disability community in their political manifestos and let us hope that the number of persons with disabilities who exercise their vote independently will see a sharp increase this year. Let us also hope that we would be able see an increase of disability representation in our legislative bodies.
*Senarath Attanayake is an Attorney-at-Law and an elected member of Uva Provincial Council. He was the first wheelchair user in Sri Lanka to become a lawyer and the first elected politician with a disability. He is one of the few politicians with a disability in the world to be elected into a legislative body with no merit given based on disability and contesting alongside non-disabled candidates. He is also the first person with a disability to hold ministerial portfolios in Sri Lanka and the first person with a disability to be appointed an acting chief minister. Senarath has represented Sri Lanka in may international forums and as a leader from the global south at the United Nations on three occasions. He conceptualised the concept of a Disable and Age Friendly City, and has implemented in Moneragala, the district he represents with the support of a wide number of stakeholders.