Exclusion through inclusivity: The differently abled community of Sri Lanka

Wednesday, 13 January 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Janani Balasubramaniam

A three-wheeler (or tuk-tuk) ride, I find, can be very educational (and upsetting, in this case) – people have stories to tell, and frequently, these stories highlight realities which one may normally gloss over. My most recent three-wheeler ride reminded me of my qualms with the use of the term ‘social integration’; its limited scope in application in policy frameworks in Sri Lanka and how much progress remains to be made on this front. 

A disabled three-wheeler driver recounted to me his experience as an amputee, of being duped by two young passengers just before I got in, of the stigma he faces in public spaces, of the difficulties he faces in earning a livelihood – a three-wheeler driver by night, and a casual street vendor by day, of being a father of a mentally disabled child, and of the limited assistance provided by the State; clearly befitting the notion of ‘marginalised population’.fgggg

Shouldn’t persons with disabilities such as him be high up on the agenda of social integration, considering that they form a large minority? Should ‘social integration’ not be inclusive of all people, demographic descriptions aside? Are we, ironically, excluding by attempting to be inclusive?

There is a tendency to associate ‘social integration’ primarily with social cohesion between different ethnic groups. While in the quest for reconciliation, resolving ethnic tensions is undoubtedly a key stepping stone, it is also worth noting that ‘vulnerable’ groups, such as persons with disabilities, deserve attention in this context too, particularly as societal attitudes are largely determinant of the lives led by those with disabilities. 

This is further underlined in the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development Commitment which identifies social integration as ‘fostering societies that are stable, safe and just and that are based on the promotion and protection of all human rights, as well as on non-discrimination, tolerance, respect for diversity, equality of opportunity, solidarity, security, and participation of all people, including disadvantaged and vulnerable groups and persons’. 

It is commendable that Sri Lanka has a National Policy on Disability (which comprehensively defines disability incorporating international frameworks), as well as a rights-based National Policy Framework for Social Integration which touches on persons with disabilities, however it is where implementation is considered, that alarming gaps are visible. 

Let’s start with accessibility. We have legislation in place (read Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act No. 28 of 1996), yet compliance with regulations remains an issue. Building design must incorporate features that allow accessibility and existing structures (such as yellow lines in the middle of pavements) must be maintained; persons with disabilities must not be deprived of their rights to spaces enjoyed by those without, and their rights to participate in public life. 

As the geographies of cities such as Colombo are reshaped (read Megapolis project), I am hopeful that opportunities are seized to create inclusive spaces with due recognition of rights of persons with disabilities, sensitised to their respective mobility, and other, needs. 

It isn’t common to see disabled persons in formal employment, especially in the public sector. Yet, again, we do have regulations which would suggest otherwise – Public Administration Circular No 27/88 of August 1988 instructs public services institutions to ensure that three per cent (3%) of vacancies should be filled by disabled persons possessing the necessary qualifications and whose disability would not bar performance of their duties. It goes without saying that, again, policy and practice tend to clash, and this is partly due to the social environment in workplaces which tend to revolve around an ‘us and them’ type of mentality, as well as a general lack of awareness and monitoring of such regulations. 

The Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) Population Census 2012 identifies that 8.7% of the population lives with some form of disability (this is a staggering 1.6 million people), with regional variations. Of the population identified as disabled, it is estimated that 5.4% belong to the 15-29 age bracket. However, these numbers are likely to be much higher, as the definition used by the DCS can be considered to be restrictive – it is based on six core functions (in line with the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health) and may not take into account the broader spectrum of categories of disabled persons (such as those affected by non-communicable diseases). 

Further, the war left many people permanently affected by injuries, many of whom suffer from multiple disabilities and many who may not be captured in official statistics due to existing definitions. War-affected disabled youth are therefore ‘vulnerable’ in more than one way; it is important that this group is not left behind in the social integration agenda. 

The importance of equality in social integration is echoed in the results of the National Youth Survey 2013 where 68.5% of surveyed respondents stated that young people were more aware now about the right to be treated equally and without discrimination, which is encouraging. Persons with disabilities, including youth, must be able to access education and employment opportunities as well as engage in social activities, without discrimination.

The National Human Development Report (NHDR) 2014 on Youth and Development identifies that quality and access to education are key strategic areas in the post-2015 development framework; for youth with disabilities, this is two-pronged, i.e. it is not only access but also ‘accessibility’ which is important – the built environment should be conducive to education for disabled youth in schools also attended by youth without disabilities, Braille books should be made available not only in schools specifically targeted towards persons with disabilities but also in other schools. Promoting accessibility promotes self-esteem and allows youth (and others) with disabilities to contribute to society as equals.

The 2016 Budget Speech by the President of Sri Lanka emphasises vocational training for youth; it is important that any such endeavours consider the diversity of youth; for example, the training requirements for disabled youth affected by conflict including those internally displaced, differ from those of other young people. It is equally important that they do not reinforce regional disparities – as noted in the NHDR 2014, vocational education must be extended to youth in regions with a deficit of facilities, particularly in collaboration with non-profit organisations and the private sector. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I would just like to highlight that what looks pretty on paper must be translated into practice – in policymaking, we tend to mechanically recognise certain groups as ‘vulnerable’ (women, children, the elderly, the disabled, HIV/AIDS-affected individuals and so on) but, when it comes to implementation, we do not always realise that they are included here for a reason; the importance of monitoring targeted policy implementation cannot be understated. 

In order to have inclusive communities, I think as youth we have an important role to play in shifting attitudes towards marginalised groups such as disabled youth, recognising that they are our equal counterparts; we also need to recognise our roles in influencing policymaking. I also believe that it is important to not get caught up in definitions which can sometimes limit possibilities, setting boundaries on what is deemed achievable. 

Fully aware of sounding like a hyper-idealist, I want to emphasise that we, as youth, and as the future leaders of this country, need to embrace the concept of inclusiveness in our daily lives and actions; we also need to be empathetic and remind ourselves of basic values of humanity – change ultimately begins at home. 

(UNLOCKED is a space for Sri Lankan youth to express their views and opinions on development with the aim of creating positive change in the world. The views expressed in the blogs are solely those of the authors. UNDP Sri Lanka and Daily FT do not represent or endorse the views expressed in these blogs. Read more about the UNLOCKED initiative www.lk.undp.org).