Photo courtesy of Sunera Foundation

Today is International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Article 12 (1) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka 1978 recognizes that people are entitled to equal protection of the law. Therefore, the state is under an obligation to ensure through law equality for persons with disabilities in civil, political, economic, social, and cultural spheres. Persons with disabilities constitute 8.7% of Sri Lanka’s population. However, Sri Lanka’s approach towards dealing with their needs continues to take a charity-based rhetoric. Furthermore, the needs of persons with disabilities are privatized as a burden to their families and friends. Consequently, persons with disabilities struggle to enjoy their civil and political rights and their economic, social, and cultural rights. Because they are excluded from education, they find it difficult to get employment that will enable their financial security and independence. As a result, they are left in poverty and dependency, thus deprived of the inherent dignity and individual autonomy (including the freedom to make one’s choices and independence of persons) which are at the center of the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)Sri Lanka ratified this Convention on 8th February 2016, but five years later we are yet to see enabling legislation giving effect to these international obligations.

Persons with disabilities have suffered disproportionate consequences of manmade and natural disasters that Sri Lanka has undergone. As the Consultation Task Force Report 2016 recognizes, persons with disabilities affected by the civil war faced – and undoubtedly continue to face – heightened violence, trauma, and poverty. Persons with disabilities have further struggled due to their intersecting identities of gender and ethnicity. Women with disabilities, for instance, face more risks of sexual and gender-based violence and barriers against enjoying their autonomy and securing their financial and social independence.

The position of persons with disabilities has only been further neglected during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the start of the spread of the coronavirus in March 2020, Sri Lanka has resorted to island-wide and selected area lockdowns from time to time. These were further complemented by quarantine of groups of people who were either tested positive of the Covid-19 virus or identified as being exposed to an infected person and isolation of high-risk areas. While these measures inevitably involved a restriction on freedom of movement, the legal basis for them remained precarious. Moreover, the response was military-led despite this being a public health crisis.

People’s capacity to fend for their basic needs was severely affected due to the restrictions on freedom of movement. People with disabilities face aggravated consequences of these restrictions. For instance, the ad hoc food delivery arrangements, short windows of opportunities provided to access the stores were not designed and implemented to accommodate them. Therefore, persons with disabilities had to rely further on the goodwill of their families and friends. They faced further difficulties to access their routine medical needs in a backdrop where hospitals were overwhelmed with treating Covid patients and the pharmacies were trying to adapt to the sudden shift to online deliveries. Difficulties in accessing administrative apparatus also affected the persons with disabilities in receiving the monthly financial aid provided for them by the Ministry of Social Welfare.

As a result of the restrictions, people’s livelihoods were severely affected and persons with disabilities face further challenges in this regard. Persons with disabilities generally face discrimination in employment and are mostly self-employed. The travel restrictions and transportation difficulties during the pandemic have further limited the capacity of persons with disabilities to engage in their livelihoods. They are unable to work for long hours and retain customers due to health and safety reasons, which severely affects their livelihoods and financial security, which they have had to work harder for in a physical environment and a societal outlook that are generally hostile towards their capabilities.

Health and safety guidelines to maintain distance leaves persons with disabilities further vulnerable in an environment that is generally not made accessible even after the enactment of Accessibility Regulations in 2006 and 2009 and the Supreme Court’s reiteration of the importance of their implementation in Perera v Minister of Social Welfare (2011) and Perera v Minister of Social Welfare (2019). Even the requirements of washing hands, facilities for sanitizing, and wet carpets that do not take into steps to accommodate persons with disabilities pose added problems for them in accessing buildings.

While the digitalization of many aspects of life ranging from online shopping to online studies and audio/video consultation of the doctors may seem to bridge the gap of accessibility for persons with disabilities as well, access to digital devices and internet facilities remains low. In this situation, the persons with disabilities who are generally most affected by poverty face a further barrier of the digital divide. Therefore, persons with disabilities have struggled to access and decipher the ever-changing health and safety guidelines, travelling and assembly restrictions, and methods of accessing basic needs and services. Lack of English literacy and digital literacy that they face as a result of general lack of accommodation in education has proved to be a further barrier in adjusting to the new normal.

Persons with disabilities were identified as a vulnerable category at heightened risk during the pandemic. As a result, these people faced heightened restrictions in their daily lives, stigma as well as fear. However, in the rollout of the vaccine during this year priority was given to front-line workers and then senior citizens, while the persons with disabilities received focus only much later. Sri Lanka started its vaccination of the general public in March 2020 and recorded a 50% vaccination rate by September 2021It was only in August 2021 that efforts focusing on vaccinating persons with disabilities took place through a mobile vaccination fleet deployed by the armyChildren with disabilities (between ages 12 to 19) started receiving vaccinations in September 2021.

Therefore, neglect and the exclusion of persons with disabilities continue. While they have shown remarkable resilience and positivity in their quest to achieve their basic human rights, odds continue to stack against them through state inaction.

This article is based on the journal article the writer co-authored with Dr. Niro Kandasamy and Prof. Karen Soldatic titled ‘Disability Exclusion during the Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19) in Sri Lanka’ (2020) 1 Colombo Law Review 47-59.