General News

Right of access Justice not charity

In early July, millions of people in the country, including thousands of disabled soldiers, may get the hearing they have been waiting for, when the Supreme Court hears a Fundamental Human Rights petition brought before it. It will be the opportunity to ensure access with dignity, like everybody else, to the countryโ€™s public buildings and spaces, and thereby, assist them to integrate productively into society

By Samantha Whybrow

Not so long ago, a friend of mine was attending a function at a five-star hotel in the city. Inevitably, as happens at such long events, he needed to heed the call of nature. When he asked the staff where the bathroom was, he was discretely handed two plastic bottles; the bathroom in this lavish hotel could not accommodate him in his wheelchair.

And, while my friend was busy figuring out just what he should do with those bottles, my husband and I were busy wondering which restaurant we could go to with some of our elderly friends, whose previously agile legs did not move them about quite like they used to. We were discovering there were very few places where there was no risk of falling down stairs or tripping over broken pavements.

Meanwhile, across town, another friend was in a genuine dilemma about how he would go to work, after an old back injury flared up. In particular, it was difficult to climb stairs, and since there were no handrails outside his office and the steps were quite steep, he had to forego several days work (and income), until he could be sure he could manage. He too, worried about how he might stand up from the very low office toilet.

Even if you are embarrassed about all this talk of toilets, you, no doubt, understand their significance to a happy and healthy social life. Imagine what your life might be like, if the only toilet you could ever use was the one in your home. Could you go to work? Could you go on holiday? Could you go to a family wedding? But toilets are just a piece of the accessibility puzzle.

Imagine your indignity, if a security guard sat outside the local post office, bank, hotel room, cricket stadium, eatery, bus or market and told you that you were not allowed to enter, even though he let other people in.

It might sound unlikely, but this is effectively what happens every day to thousands of people with mobility impairments. Only, it is not a security guard turning them away, it is an architect, engineer, town planner, politician, manager or the average citizen who has placed an obstacle in their way.

Empty legislation

Interestingly, Sri Lanka has had legislation designed to combat such problems in place for almost 15 years. This includes physical access standards with specific measures designed to remove these barriers, although these latter guidelines were only legislated in 2005.

Yet, despite the talk of equal opportunities, there is little evidence to show that people with mobility problems have the opportunity to physically access places in their communities. This is a significant oversight, since physical access is often considered a pre-cursor to other opportunities such as employment and education. After all, if you cannot get to or into the building, how can you get a job there?

โ€œThe problem is that legislation is not being enforced,โ€ says Dr Ajith Perera, a former Test cricket umpire with a PhD in Chemistry, who became a disability activist following personal adversity.

โ€œYou know, if the police catch a person drink-driving or speeding, he is immediately fined. But if a person puts up a building that violates the laws of this country, adherence to which will bring a wide range of benefits to the people and the country, there is no punishment. But it certainly punishes us!โ€ exclaims Dr Perera.

Dr Perera is the man who filed the Supreme Court petition. He resorted to this action after years of sitting on various committees and lobbying for implementation with no result. These committees include those made up of government officials, businessmen, and civilians, meaning, inaction exists despite the fact that politicians and key decision makers are well aware of the existence of the legislation, with some even sitting on high level councils chartered with furthering equal opportunities for people with disabilities.

Dr Perera calls this inaction a national crime, pointing out that it has discriminated against or marginalised millions of people, making them virtual prisoners in their homes. โ€œPeople cannot find jobs, if they cannot get into the offices or use a toilet. They cannot deposit money in banks, if they cannot get in. They cannot even spend their money, if shops or restaurants put obstacles in their way,โ€ says Dr Perera.

Dr Perera estimates his case is relevant to a minimum of three million others in the country, who are prevented from accessing or suffer loss of dignity or danger to their safety, when trying to use public facilities, in the hope that justice will be served. This three million includes thousands, nobody knows for sure how many, of soldiers injured in battle.

Insult to soldiers

Major Anil Seneviratne is one such soldier. He lost a limb serving his country, and now acts as the CEO of a community based disability organisation in Tangalle, Navajeevena.

In an interview with The Nation, Major Seneviratne spoke of the โ€˜insultโ€™ to a soldierโ€™s pride, at having to face the indignity of being helped or being denied access to public facilities, after fighting for the protection of their country and its people.

โ€œIt is an insult that the environment that we build to live in does not include the disabled. It is a dishonour to those proud citizens,โ€ says Major Seneviratne.

โ€œIt is true that disability changes your whole lifestyle, behaviour, and hopes; but it does not and should not erase ones beliefs โ€“ especially, core beliefs of a sense of self-pride. Therefore, it is much needed to enforce laws and create an attitude that considers their pride and dignity, if you really want to respect them as heroes.โ€ (Read more of what Major Seneviratne had to say in Box).

The period after a major war, has been a time for positive changes for people with disabilities worldwide, as injured and disabled soldiers return home to re-integrate into society.

In Sri Lanka, these disabled war heroes are likely to face hardship, if these laws do not get enforced without further delay. While most of them will still be โ€˜fighting fitโ€™, they may encounter more difficulty attending their sisterโ€™s wedding, than crawling across the battlefield.

Dr Perera has had opportunities to talk with some of these Ranaviru soldiers, facing the new battle for their Rights for a dignified and productive integration into society.

โ€œBut what some of them have been telling me is that they are really afraid that people will just take pity on them and see them as charity cases, especially, if they have to be helped into a buildings in day-to-day life,โ€ says Dr Perera.

โ€œWhy should they continue to be physically helped or be dependent on others to access our countryโ€™s buildings? They, like other people with mobility impairments, are productive members of our society, and if we just stop constructing these obstacles, then they could integrate like everybody else.โ€

Justice not charity

Dr Perera is hoping that a favourable Supreme Court decision will help people see the accessibility issue as one of justice rather than charity.

He feels that, often, the only reason there are some accessible features in the country is because people feel it is charitable to help people with disabilities, rather than understanding it as a legal right and moral duty.

โ€œThey think they do not have to do it, and if they do make the necessary changes, they feel they are doing some sort of favour, rather than serving justice to the people of this country, who rely on these laws to give them the opportunities every other citizen has.โ€

Dr Perera also points out that, this charity mindset often leads to people putting up ramps and facilities that are unsuitable, since they fail to get the correct advice from those who have the practical experience or consult the relevant guidelines. Apparently, they think any type of ramp will do, and do not realise that, it is essential to meet certain requirements.

The lack of enforcement compounds the problem, since no one is checking that people do the job right or do it at all, according to Dr Perera. He also points out that, it leads to time, effort and money wasted, since a ramp that is built wrong, will be just as inaccessible as no ramp at all or, even dangerous to use.

Access for all

Dr Perera and Major Seneviratne both empahsise that this legislation is, effectively, to help the entire population, since accessible premises are more convenient and safer for everyone.

โ€œBesides,โ€ says Dr. Perera, โ€œthere are many people with hidden debilitating conditions or temporary illnesses or injuries that cause mobility impairments. You do not just have to use crutches or a wheelchair to have a mobility problem.โ€

โ€œPeople say it only affects 3% or 4% of the population, so why should we spend money on such a small number of people? But what about the elderly people, people with arthritis, people with heart conditions, diabetes, obesity or temporary illnesses?โ€ asks Perera, who adds that, such low estimates of disability have in any case been discredited.

And he is right. In a recent study, the World Bank predicted the number of people considered elderly, set to make up a quarter of the population in the next few decades.

Moreover, the number of elderly people, who are physically disabled is further predicted to make up one third of the elderly population within the next few decades.

There is a truth in Buddhism about impermanence, that points out we cannot escape growing old, we cannot escape the decay of ourselves or the people around us, and we cannot escape ill-health.

With this in mind, for those of us who hope to lead fulfilling lives amongst our communities throughout our lifespan, accessibility certainly becomes everybodyโ€™s business. Here is hoping, we see some action.

Common issues of the disabled

The Nation spoke with Major Anil Seneviratne, who was injured during the war and lost a limb. He is now the CEO of Navajeevena, a Tangalle based organisation that has been serving disabled people for many years.

Thousands of soldiers have given their limbs to help defeat terrorism in Sri Lanka. They were previously toughing it out in the dense jungles and difficult conditions on the battlefield, but now, it seems that many of themโ€”while still young and fitโ€”are prevented from entering the public buildings of this country, because of thoughtless design.

Yes, I think the topic is both current and timeless.

My opinions on this issue have developed as a soldier, a person wounded in the field, a disabled person, a private sector employee, and a disabled Rights activist. We have to admit the fact that the number of disabled persons has now increased due to a three-decade-long war. Most of the soldiers, who have been injured, are young and strong. And, although it is unintentional, it is indeed a sad situation to see that those people are now not included in the mainstream.

This is due to a lack of anticipation as a nation, and a lack of caring for marginalised communities, by society. Those young people still have responsibilities to their families and loved ones. They still have a role to play in their family and in society, and to do this, need to access buildings and public facilities often. If the environment is not ready to accept them, it makes them frustrated, which can end up with them developing hatred towards society.

A disability is, anyway, an unpleasant thing that no one likes to have. So, the environment should be modified in such a way that such difficulties can be reduced. And, actually, whether you are a soldier or not, once disabled, the needs are common. We are moving towards an inclusive society, and physical accessibility is the key to an inclusive society. People also fail to realise that, when we afford accessiblity for the disabled, we are making it easier and safer for everybody to use.

And, you know, the other thing is, if society does not consider disabled people, that means, society neglects a potentially lucrative consumer market.

How do soldiers feel, when, though they are considered war heroes, they are not supported in their basic Rights for accessibility, that are the laws of the land?

There is another sensitive and little spoken of aspect of those individuals. That is, not everyone can be a soldier.

A soldier is a person who places his self-esteem over his life. I still remember the motto of my troops; โ€œDeath before Dishonourโ€.

It is an insult that the environment that we build to live in does not include the disabled. It is a dishonour to those proud citizens.

It is true that the disability changes your whole lifestyle, behaviour, and hopes; but it does not and should not erase ones beliefs โ€“ especially, core beliefs of a sense of self-esteem. Therefore, it is much needed to enforce laws and create an attitude that considers their pride and dignity, if you really want to respect them as heroes.

What are some of the common issues disabled soldiers face with regards to accessibility?

There are many, and their needs are just like other citizens. But some of the common ones include: using public transport, using roads, accessing water and sanitation, getting into public and private buildings and using its facilities or services, moving around their own houses โ€“ especially, the toilet facilities, problems in the workplace, and isolation due to inability to use common facilities that everyone else in the community can.

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