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Voices unheard in Parliament; Budget fails to see largest minority!

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Monday, 5 December 2016 00:01



An 'Accessible Toilet' at a five star city hotel. It fails to comply with even basic safety and access standards


Dr. Ajith Perera receiving the two APEX Awards at the UN observance day 2016 from Una McCauley, the UN resident coordinator in Sri Lanka, for his outstanding voluntary contributions made in promoting accessibility rights 















Poorly designed flight of Steps without hand rails at a recently refurbished reputed conference hall in Colombo

The UN established an essential Convention (2007 March) on the Rights of People with dis-Abilities (CRPD) as a set of legally binding instruments and enforceable obligations on all countries. It came into force on 3 May 2008. Sri Lanka ratified the CRPD last February. 

The Government now has a binding legal obligation to fulfil its requirements especially to guarantee the birth rights of people with dis-Abilities and to afford productive opportunities to live life to their fullest potential.

Every one of us is only temporarily able-bodied. Already an estimated 20% of Sri Lanka’s population, for different reasons, have restrictions in their abilities. As the Supreme Court accepted in 2011, they form the largest minority of people in Sri Lanka.

Its Article 4.3 stipulates: To closely consult with and actively involve people with dis-Abilities in the decision-making processes and developing policies, concerning issues related to them. 

To comply with this requirement, we do not require any new laws and bills but only a true desire with commitment.

Hence the Government had every possible reason to have afforded us the equal right to participate in the decision-making processes in formulating Budget proposals that affect our wellbeing.

The Government must get funds from people who have funds. No one can justify why those unemployed due to permanent major untitled-4dis-abilities and those terminally ill should be equally taxed!!

They are much worse off than even the seniors as travel and medical costs alone are extremely high. The total benefits they receive far outweigh additional outgoings. They are the people who make best use of the internet to pay utility bills, channel doctors, etc. but are now asked to meet a telecom levy enhanced to 25%. So why rob poor Peter to pay Paul?

Yes, the Budget proposals have failed to recognise the existence of dis-abled persons – the country’s largest minority of people!

This article also justifies the proposals made here are low/no cost feasible investments bringing rich dividends, either economically and socially or to start fulfilling enforced legal obligations and the moral duties of this Government. 

The best time is now

In 1996 an Act (No. 28) was established by the Parliament of Sri Lanka to achieve mainly the following two key objectives: 

  • To set out the rights people with dis-Abilities are entitled to enjoy 
  • To guarantee their full enjoyment on an equal basis with others.

For three main reasons the full enjoyment of rights is a high priority:

  • For our protection against other people who might want to harm, hurt, oppress or marginalise us. 
  • To protect our inherent dignity and basic humanity. 
  • To enable our participation in daily life as equal members of society. 

20 long years have passed since then. Where are we today? Where is the reality of the promises we were given of the inclusion and equality in January 2015?

Enjoying rights equally must be seen as an indispensable investment for a better tomorrow.

Hence this assessment should be the moral duty and legal obligation of all top politicians and decision-makers.

The best time for us to open eyes and check the realities is this week - starting on 3 December, the International Day of People with dis-Abilities, and ending on 10 December, World Human Rights Day. 

Recognising dis-Ability

Many people suddenly encounter restrictions, either for a short time or a long time, concerning moving, climbing, getting around (mobility), physical coordination, eyesight, hearing, speech or recollections of facts, etc. 

What are the real killers of the ability of man? 

The UN Convention accepts persons with dis-Abilities as part of human diversity and humanity. It explains: “Dis-Ability is the restriction of normal activity through discriminatory practices of society in taking no account of the inevitable physical and sensory functional limitations that hinder their full and effective participation on an equal basis with others from the mainstream of social activities.”

These injurious practices of man, often going against the laws and court orders, even mask the Ability within apparent dis-Ability.

As these are man-made, this is a low-cost feasible reversible trend. 

The way forward

Today the emphasis is on economic growth with a formidable and sustainable national economy. Two prerequisites here are: 

  • To arrest the waste of human potential; instead mobilising this asset. 
  • To minimise unwanted dependency through empowering and opportunities. 

The UN Convention (CRPD) is focused on guaranteeing the rights and protecting the dignity of People with dis-Abilities. 

Protections presented through the convention are essential. It is also the only human rights instrument with an explicit sustainable development dimension.

Apart from the binding legal obligation the Government now has to fulfil its requirements, its implementation is of good economic sense and should be recognised as a feasible way to meaningfully achieve the results here. Amidst growing struggles for ten long years - until 2016 February - we failed to ratify this important convention. Ten more months have passed but nothing productive is emerging. As this convention calls for we need progressive realisation of its provisions instead of red-tape as a disability rights bill that has already killed 10 years. 

Short-term action is imperative but in the mid-term a properly enacted disability rights bill is indispensable.

Good economic sense the Budget missed

Budget’s focus is on upgrading lifestyles and human development. Are dis-Abled persons not human to be overlooked? From the Budget’s Clause 326 onwards there is talk about the empowerment of youth and women but there is nothing about youth and women with disabilities.

The following are examples of low-cost feasible openings to make perhaps even as part of the forced legal obligations of the UN Convention.

The elimination of physical and social obstacles is good economic sense as increasing numbers of dis-Abled persons are empowered to live up to their optimum potential, enabling them to become productive employees, entrepreneurs and consumers, along with everybody else.

The productivity of this large human capital together with good governance is essential for our country’s prosperity. Knowledge is perhaps the most critical competitiveness factor. Hence, these should be recognised as untapped investing opportunities for growth.

The following observations serve as testimony that something is seriously wrong as many dis-Abled children, adults and seniors, through no fault of their own, lack the opportunities of the mainstream population. 

  • Prevention of them accessing class/lecture rooms, toilets and other essential facilities at schools and universities so as to deny them an education. International schools and degree-awarding higher educational institutes that have extensive resources are the worst offenders.
  • Prevention of them accessing workstations, toilets and other facilities and thereby getting paid employment, even when they are highly qualified. 
  • Discouraging them accessing information and e-commerce as most websites are not easily accessible.
  • Hinder disabled persons in obtaining proper healthcare with convenience. Properly designed accessible toilets and wash facilities in wards are imperative even for the mandatory rehabilitation prior to discharge. Denial of accessible wash facilities for out-patients with severe burns are a stumbling block for burns surgeons.
  • Inaccessible tourism denies new profits for Sri Lanka. The international theme for 2017 is Accessible Tourism but we still waste resources and prevent Sri Lanka becoming the destination of choice for a generation destined to transform the travel, hotel and tourism industry.

SLTB, as an imperative investment, must establish the services of a truly competent independent accessibility expert to assess and report compliance of accessibility regulations at five star hotels, especially all the new ones. 

A good start - low cost and feasible 

A change of perceptions focusing on the ability within dis-Ability is an essential investment to project the positive image and improve the situation. Raising awareness over Article 8 and its preamble for states to recognise the existing and valued contributions made by persons with disabilities does not need legislation or extra costs. 

  • Participation restrictions are now internationally recognised as causing the denial of several rights and leading to colossal waste. Accessibility to built facilities is the single right on which several other rights depend heavily. It is also one of the eight key pillars of the UN Convention.
  • The Government now has a binding legal obligation to fulfil the requirements of the UN Convention. 
  • The 2017 Budget proposals should be made the ideal starter. It is also the last chance to rectify grave omissions. The Budget’s Article 4.3 suggests closely consulting with and actively involving people with dis-Abilities in decision-making processes and developing policies concerning issues related to them. Therefore, I propose:
  • That the Budget allocates several millions of additional rupees for improvements of the physical infrastructure facilities of the State and private sector in fields such as education and health, Acland House and Mumtaz Mahal and introducing light train facilities to upgrade lifestyles. 
  • Add a clause to make it mandatory that (perhaps also include Lanka Sathosa Outlets) all this work complies with the Supreme Court order SCFR 221/2009 of 27 April 2011 enabling physical access. 
  • Fines for non-compliance, which could be used to establish a new fund named the ‘Revenue with Relief’ fund.

CRPD Article 28 requires state parties to recognise the right of persons with dis-Abilities to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families.

Like in other countries we do not ask for financial incentives but appeal the generated monthly income through own investments with registered banks and financial institutions, be made totally tax-free, to prolong our survival.

It being an employable skill, facilities at 3,500 schools (clause 93) should afford increased opportunities for children and adults with dis-Abilities, and those with extraordinary skills amongst them (clause 97) should be further supported with the proposed Rs. 2,500 monthly grant.

When new legislation is introduced (clause 98), international schools and non-state degree awarding institution at least, must ensure physical access to all facilities so that Smart Classrooms (clause 92) also become accessible classrooms to extend the 13 years of mandatory education and higher education equally to dis-Abled students.

Like price regulations for selected medications, exorbitant escalating charges by hospitals on pre-determined routine medical tests and rooms along with fees by doctors, must also be subjected to a maximum amount. When pharmacies undergo compulsory registration with NMRA (clause 145) those remaining physically inaccessible and not user-friendly should be required to provide home-delivery services at no extra-cost for permanently dis-abled persons living within established distances.

Sri Lanka Tourism should take measures from January 2017 to comply by design with the international theme ‘Accessible Tourism for all’. It is now mandatory for the dis-Abled, like others, to enjoy the protection enshrined in the Constitution from the State and private sector.

The proposed bill of rights in the new Constitution should state:

“No person shall, on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, gender, limitation in physical and/or mental ability or any one of such grounds, be subject to any dis-Ability, liability, restriction, marginalisation, safety hazard or condition with regard to access to both State and private sector buildings, facilities and services 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.”

The Budget must enforce the introduction of laws and effective implementation from January 2017 to ensure that basic urban physical infrastructures, public facilities and services under the new Megapolis agenda end up accessible and inclusive of all people’s needs, regardless of the degree of ability.

The wake-up call

The international community measures a civilised society and a developing country by the inclusiveness of its citizens. Dr. Lee Jong-wook, the Director General of the World Health Organization from 2003-2006), correctly stated: “The way a country treats its dis-Abled population is a true reflection of its attitudes towards its people. It is a sure test and a far more telling indicator of society’s development than GDP.”

It is amazing why even the vociferous Joint Opposition (SLPP), JVP, JNP, TNA and the joint front of civil societies which the late most venerable Sobitha Thera gave birth to all continue to remain as deaf, dumb and blind towards the country’s largest minority of people. 

Justice delayed is justice denied and in this case, the loss of profits, a better tomorrow and the country’s good name too!  The final reading of the Budget 2017 is on Human Rights Day, Judgement Day for the dis-Abled people of Sri Lanka. 

All members of the Parliament have a moral duty to actively support them, which includes the heroic soldiers, in getting these proposals (No. 2 in particular) included in the Budget before its passage. 

Dr. Ajith C. S. Perera is Sri Lanka’s unsung crusader who over the past 18 years has fought voluntarily from eight sides for the rights of others focusing on inclusion by design for people of all abilities. Perera -a Fellow of several reputed international body and a former senior manager in industry - was left instantly a Paraplegic for life by a fallen wayside tree in 1992. Undeterred by this personal adversity and with the vision: Accessible Sri Lanka, he has defied convention with resilience and perseverance to break away from the shackles of traditional roles of our scientists to become an outstanding achiever with unreserved commitment– even as a wheelchair user - and impacted local society positively by becoming a fervent advocate of design for inclusion.He was also instrumental in paving the way with the Sri Lanka Standards Institution to establish the first Sri Lanka Standard for design in building construction SLS ISO TR 9527:2006. His outstanding contributions extending simultaneously to many fields is testimony to his in-depth understanding of intricacies backed by practical experience and thorough working knowledge that goes far beyond what our university courses on architecture and civil engineering teach. Today he is a widely experienced and highly competent accessibility advisor and accessor serving humanity befittingly recognised by reputed bodies both here and overseas. For further information visit: http://goo.gl/3FWyWand  http://goo.gl/VmYVSi


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