Groundviews

The rights of the disabled: Forgotten and forsaken?

Of the more than 6 billion people in the world, the UN estimates that more than 500 million of them are disabled. That is approximately 8%. In the early 1900s and before, little knowledge and awareness existed about people with disabilities, so much so that  the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not even mention the rights of the disabled. However, since then awareness and activism concerning disability has increased tremendously with the UN alone, in ensuring that the rights of people with disabilities are met on a global scale, championing and adopting numerous measures.

Following these international developments, the National Council for Coordinating the Work of Disability Organizations (established in 1989) in Sri Lanka, began discussions about the necessity for legal provision to safeguard the rights of people with disabilities. On August 9, 1996, a Bill was presented to Parliament and was passed unanimously on September 17 that same year entitled the Act for the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which came into effect on October 24, 1996. In 2003, the Act was further amended with the addition of a subsection that referred specifically to providing facilities to allow disabled persons access to public places.

Fast-forward thirteen years after the Act of Parliament. On October 14, 2009, a Supreme Court ruling was required to implement this existing law in Sri Lanka. The Court ruled that all authorities empowered to approve building plans should ensure that the plans are in compliance with the provisions stated in the 1996 Act before doing so (http://www.dailynews.lk/2009/11/20/fea04.asp).

Dr. Ajith C. S. Perera, who filed the fundamental rights application which led to the Supreme Court ruling, says that 16% of Sri Lanka’s current population is disabled (in 2001 the WHO estimated that the total disability rate in the country was 162.9 per 10,000 population).  Dr. Perera, a Charted Chemist and former Cricket Umpire, became a paraplegic in 1992 in a road accident when a tree crashed onto the car he was travelling in. While undergoing rehabilitation in London, Dr. Perera says he identified how little changes in the environment could help make life easier for people with disabilities. “Just having the right sized steps and staircases, and railings at the right heights, and the right sized toilets can make a huge difference,” he said, going on to estimate the added cost of these adjustments as less than 0.01%.

Commenting on why the 1996 Act for the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has proved largely defunct, Dr. Perera said it was partly because the penalty for its violation was minimal. Failure to adhere to the previous law would have resulted in a fine not exceeding Rs. 10,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, or both, (http://www.dailynews.lk/2009/11/20/fea04.asp). According to the current law, any violation of it could result in punitive repercussions.

Ms. Sunethra Bandaranaike, Chairperson of Sunera Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for persons living with disabilities, says that it is unfortunate that a Supreme Court ruling was required to push society to look into the needs of disabled people. “These things should happen even without Acts of Parliament,” she said, “I feel it is shameful, honestly, that a Supreme Court ruling was even necessary.” However, Ms. Bandaranaike said she was optimistic that this law would hold up as it threatened punishment for those in violation of it, ensuring the adherence of authorities and even engineers and architects, at least out of fear of legal action against themselves.

Talking about the differently-abled people in our society, Ms. Bandaranaike says that there is a lot more that should be done in meeting their needs. “The Government should be the key player in providing assistance to the disabled,” she said, “Instead it is organizations such as the Sunera Foundation and others like it in the non-government sector who do much more for them.” She also stressed that more awareness was needed about what these people are capable of and said that they should not become marginalized in society. While acknowledging that seeing to the needs of differently-abled persons is perhaps a low priority for Governments in a developing country like ours, she stated that what can be done should be done, with promises made carried out in practice and the pledges to International Associations and Conventions honoured.

One such Convention would be the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to which Sri Lanka became a signatory on March 30, 2007. While Sri Lanka, along with 143 other countries,  has signed this Convention, which aims to change the manner in which society views people with disabilities, we are yet to ratify it unlike other developing countries such as India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines to name a few.

In ensuring the human rights of those with sensory disabilities, such as people who are blind and deaf, Sri Lanka has again, a long way to go. A lack of Television programmes in sign language, specifically the news, partly denies people who are deaf their human right of receiving information as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Out of the leading State run television networks (Rupavahini, Channel Eye and ITN), only Rupavahini presents a News Programme in sign language, and that also just once a week (Wednesday, 6pm). On the education front, Ishan Jalil, who has been blind since birth and attended the blind school in Moratuwa, says that during his O Levels (in 2005) there were no textbooks available in Braille for subjects like Mathematics, Science and English. While he is unaware of the current situation in the school, Ishan said that during his time there, many of the teachers were volunteer workers who also worked in the administration and were therefore, at times, unable to fulfill their duties as teachers to the utmost. However, at the Colombo University where he is now reading for a Bachelor of Arts degree, Ishan says that not only is the Administration extremely helpful, but facilities for visually impaired students are also of a very high standard, mentioning specifically the availability of a computer centre specially designed for those who are visually impaired.

On paper, Sri Lanka’s record of ensuring the rights of disabled people is commendable. Among other things, we have joined the Asia Pacific Development Centre on Disability (APDC), established a National Secretariat for Persons with Disabilities, passed a Bill in Parliament, signed a UN Convention and have several NGOs looking after the needs of disabled persons. In practice however, we still have a long way to go. According to some of the rhetoric concerning differently-abled people in the incumbent president’s 2005 election manifesto (Mahinda Chinthana), families with a differently-abled person and without an income are entitled to a monthly grant of Rs. 3,000, which, according to an article in the Daily News on July 21, 2009, is currently being distributed to 2,125 families island-wide. However the Mahinda Chinthana also states that “appropriate steps” will be taken to “provide facilities for differently abled children to receive education in popular government schools, in order to move away from the practice of having separate schools for those with different disabilities”. Telephone calls to Visakha Vidyalaya, Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya, Devi Ballika, Ananda College and Mahanama College determined that these schools did not accept differently-abled students (D.S. Senanayaka College does, but through an application from the education ministry). The election manifesto further states that “Convenient access facilities will be provided as matter of priority in all government buildings”, another promise that is yet to be fulfilled.

Internationally too, there is some way to go in ensuring the rights of people with disabilities. None of the eight Millenium Development Goals mentions people with disabilities. James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, has said in relation to this that ‘Unless disabled people are brought into the development mainstream, it will be impossible to cut poverty in half by 2015  or to give every girl and boy the chance to achieve a primary education by the same date”. With this in mind, it must become essential then that more is done on a larger scale both locally and globally in ensuring the rights of people with disabilities, for as Hellen Keller, a blind and deaf advocate for people with disabilities, stated, “Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.”

By Nishika Fonseka, Groundviews Staff Writer