Image courtesy Global Abilities blog

To visit a place of worship seems such a natural thing to do to the extent that we rarely consider it in terms of entitlements. Yet for people with physical disabilities, especially for those of us who use wheelchairs, this entitlement to attend and participate in temple worship is at best provisional and more often than not, impossible because of the profound inaccessibility of temple sites and lack of accessibility information.

I have been a wheelchair user for many years and can also ‘walk’ short steps with assistance. My country of residence is Australia though I am Sinhala Burgher. Let me tell you a story of my recent visit to three Buddhist sites – The Dalada Maligawa in Kandy and the Samadhi Buddha statue and Ruvanweliseya in Anuradhapura. I was full of great expectation about my visit to Dalada Maligawa since the temple had a special place in my heart as a Buddhist and also because of an ancestral connection to Kandy. My companion had enquired about access from the Tourist Board (which did not return the enquiry) and then after several attempts was informed by the Dalada Maligawa office that there was an elevator in the temple precinct which could be accessed by bringing our needs to the attention of the police officers at the gates. Most disabled people are unaware of the existence of an accessible route at the Dalada Maligawa since it has not received any publicity. There is no signage that I am aware of outside perimeter of the temple regarding disability access arrangements. If you are a foreigner (i.e. you do not have a Sri Lankan ID card) you are required to purchase a permit which is fair enough, except that the permit stand is a long way from the entrance and cannot be accessed by a wheelchair user. It took three temple visits over two days to finally gain access to the temple because there was much inconsistency and confusion among the police guards ergarding how to ‘deal with’ a ‘foreign wheelchair user’. We were given differing information as to how to get into the building and were told that I could not take my own wheelchair in. However, we were able to convince the guards that it was necessary to take my wheelchair since it was specially adapted and provided me with independent movement. Because I did not speak Sinhala I was told that I had to get a permit despite the permit counter being inaccessible. On one of my three attempts, I was not granted entry on the basis that there was CCTV in the temple monitoring how many foreigners (in wheelchairs?) there were. All this happened amidst crowds gathering and staring at the unfamiliar spectacle of a person in a wheelchair wearing the usual white temple clothing as well as the rude remarks and unhelpful behaviour of police officials. On the third visit we accessed via a security controlled gate leading to a rear entrance, on sloped uneven paths to an elevator. There was some photocopied signage about disability access written in Sinhala script only. The lift gave access to a narrow enclosed balcony which ended with a closed solid wooden door leading to the principal puja area. Unfortunately to get access, one had to wheel through a narrow door, only wide enough for a small manual wheelchair and basically fall into the worship area since there was a steep step at the end of the ‘accessible route’. This effectively made it inaccessible. Furthermore in order to get the door open all the other worshippers who were sitting along the solid door (which they did not know was the accessible entrance due to the lack of signage) had to scatter around – thus heightening the spectacle of my presence and ‘invasion’ into this scared space.

Access to the Samadhi Buddha statue, compared to other sites was not as difficult – again there were a few small steps, negotiated with assistance from my driver and companion who knew of the best paths to take for access. There was no disability signage and of course there was the usual ‘circus freak show’ with mass staring by other worshippers upon the sight of a disabled person paying homage and in meditation. My visit to Ruvanweliseya was probably the most traumatic of the four site visits to the extent that I feel I can no longer visit this special place. Any sense of Ruvanweliseya being sanctuary for me has diminished not just due to the poor access that I will describe but also due the lack of metta evident in the officials and swell of crowds who in some case actively obstructed basic access by just stopping in our pathway and pointing and staring. Even though the terrain adjacent to the Ruvanweliseya site is a gentle inclining slope that’s potentially suitable for an accessible route, the built entrance has five major points with steep steps. There are modern handrails on the final lot of steps but because they are positioned low to the ground are of little use except maybe to small children and short people. There is no reason why a parallel entrance/ramp could not be constructed to visit Ruvanweliseya which would not impede the archaeological integrity of the site. Again there was no disability access signage and hence we are not aware of an alternative entry. I noticed one amputee sitting along the pathway, other than this gentleman and my companion; physically disabled people were absent from the worshipping crowd. What was starkly evident to us and perhaps not to others was the complete absence of disabled soldiers, those very individuals who had made these sacred sites safe and free for worship to all those who were there.

Climbing the numerous sets of steps was slow and exhausting even though we visited in the evening when it was cooler. I was determined to worship the Ruvanweliseya, but that effort took a heavy toll on my body. The lack of co-operation, “freak show” mentality, stares and physical obstruction by other worshippers was mentally draining. It sadly created an absolutely inaccessible and inhospitable setting, both physically and mentally at a sacred site that epitomises the serenity, compassion and hospitality of the Buddha. The journey back to our car was even more difficult due to my state of mind which became despondent Each time the wheelchair had to be carried down the steps and I had to use a walking frame. I was left with a deep sense of trauma, disappointment and humiliation and I don’t think I can return to that revered and beloved temple again.

My personal experience reflects the current situation of disabled people who wish to worship at a temple in this country. Due to intent or non-intention (the participation of disabled people not being at the forefront of built environmental planning), physically disabled people are in effect banished from participation in Buddhist community life. As Dr Diana Cousens, former Vice Chair of the Buddhist Council of Victoria, Australia remarked “being able to get into a temple is a basic expectation of everyone within the Buddhist community. Temples provide Buddhist teachings and are the places for rituals and important life events including ceremonies for the deceased. They act as community centres and they enable connectedness within the Buddhist community. They provide access to teachers and the spaces themselves are thought to retain the blessings of the events they host”. In Sri Lanka, temple life is connected to notions of Nation and hence it is ironic that those soldiers who gave their bodies in full earnestness to protect the nation, especially the cultural heritage of Buddhism, currently cannot participate in temple life without extreme difficulty. Disability access is not only for disabled people themselves, but also for others in the community such as aged people, pregnant women and children. Furthermore, in accompanying disabled people in worship, the community is exposed to mingling with people different from themselves therefore enhancing felicitous fellowship.

Disabled people are absent from temple grounds and religious sites, not because they are disinterested or disinclined but because those spaces are made physically and mentally inaccessible.

In a country that is largely influenced by Buddhist ethics, a country that owes the integrity and preservation of its sacred Buddhist sites to its soldiers, including disabled veterans, the time has come to ‘take back the temples’. Now is the time to make our temples sacred spaces of inclusion and fellowship as opposed to sites of entitlement and exclusion.