Ability within disability

By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando

Health in human existence is the supreme wealth. Money alone cannot make a person healthy and happy. On the contrary, a healthy person always maintains a state of bliss and happiness, including a healthy mental state.

Whenever the term 'disabled' is mentioned, it becomes the general perception that one is completely crippled or bedridden, and dis-abled are judged as being completely hopeless and unable to fend for themselves. Disability is known to be caused by impairments of several subsystems of the human body. Disabled people can suffer from visual impairment, physical impairment, intellectual impairment, mental illness and other several types of chronic disease.

The United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities is an international human rights instrument, which intends to protect the dignity and rights of individuals with disabilities.

Rights of disabled persons

UN Resolution A/RES/30/3447, at the 2433rd session on 9 December 1975, declared the rights of disabled persons without any distinction on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, political or other opinions and they shall enjoy all the rights set forth in the declaration. UN resolution Article 4, specifically mentions about the rights to accessibility, including the information technology. It also requires the need to ensure that disabled individuals are provided with full equality and respect for their dignity.

The term accessibility basically states that all individuals with disabilities should be able to participate and live independently in all the aspects of life such as, employment, transportation, education and right to vote. It also focuses to insure the safety and protection of disabled people in case of a natural disaster, humanitarian emergency or an armed conflict. At present jobs for people with disabilities are more available than years back thanks to the rights of disabled persons' ratification.

On a wider scale, facilities for the 'dis-abled' populace include specially designed vehicles, exclusively allocated parking bays on streets (with signs of the international disability insignia), sign boards right in front their residences marked 'for disabled parking' to keep parking available for them 24 / 7, and allocate special 'disabled badges' too, to display on their car windscreens.

National Health Services

Further aid is extended by the appropriate National Health Services (in conjunction with local councils) within registered disabled persons' houses by fixing a variety of supporting equipment in the form of door-grip handles in bed rooms, in toilets as much as providing especially designed shower units. Special air mattresses are supplied for severely handicapped and bedridden persons to avoid bedsores, along with the installation of special hoists (next to beds) to help attendants lift heavy patients (without injuring their own backs) in transferring patients from bed to comfortable chairs in the bedroom, in the process of improving of circulation of the patient.

'Disability' does not mean a person should be condemned and written off from society completely or looked at the individual scornfully. Equally, some 'dis-abled' persons maintain a certain amount of pride too in them that, at times they reject any momentous assistance from a third party. This basically boils down to the fact that a 'dis-abled' person will always attempt to be able within his/her dis-ability for which the society and the government machinery should work hand in glove to help them.

In the West, specially designed ramps are fixed onto school buses to transport disabled school children (with an attendant). In modern public transport, spacious areas are designed and allocated where 'wheelchair passengers' could park themselves inside the bus itself while travelling. British Government pays an additional 'disability' allowance for registered disabled persons.

Easy access

Government statues make it compulsory to have modern and easy access to disabled people when designing new buildings and/or to provide access points in all public buildings, hospitals and toilets. In addition to healthcare services, there are private companies, which provide education, tools, and resources so that their disabled clients could move towards independence through health, safety, and productivity. Can any disabled person travel in busses in Sri Lanka when even the daily commuters travel in sardine packed buses like animals in cages, while at times women get subjected to vulgar movements by maniacs and sex perverts?

"The right of every person to be treated with equality and human dignity is globally accepted. However, this common acceptance has not been able to sufficiently protect vulnerable groups, who need special care and attention to stand up independently within society. Among them, as a world's largest minority, disabled persons are significant. Therefore, to ensure their well-being and social security, in 2006, the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Peoples with Disabilities (UNCRPD) was formed.

Accordingly, persons with all types of disabilities have a right to enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedom without any discrimination. The convention specifically identifies the right to accessibility, medical treatment, rehabilitation and personal mobility as rights specific to develop their wellbeing and inherent dignity. Therefore, after its adoption, nearly 160 countries and regional organizations have ratified the convention and its optional protocol. Article 12 of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka guarantees the right to equality and non-discrimination as fundamental rights, “according to D.S.R. Jayawardena, Faculty of Law, University of Colombo.

Myriad of regulations

Regrettably, in Sri Lanka though there are myriad of regulations in the statue book, it is a pity that the authorities are being either naïve, lackadaisical or simply not bothered about improving facilities for the disabled populace. Whenever there are attempts to improve by designing new buildings 'average' architects who are not in ' disabled persons' shoes end up doing blunders rather than helping the handicapped.

Dr. Ajith C. Perera is a Chartered Chemist. In November 1992 while he was being driven along Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7, in the vicinity of the UN compound, a large tree fell on his moving car instantly killing his driver and making him a paraplegic for life. Ever since, by reason of personal adversity, he has become an author/publisher and speaker on 'accessibility within disability' and a human rights activist as much as experienced and highly competent accessibility adviser recognised even by reputed international bodies. His prime aim is only to propagate sympathy towards the dis-abled rather than empathy.

Dr. Ajith Perera's advice to commercial institutions has all along been that, "No company can afford to leave out any potential customers. All feasible steps should be taken judiciously – (and that is where the top management needs right guidance) – to comply the built environment and facilities comply with standards; and no more deter the 20 per cent of the population with restricted mobility from doing business with you."

Exhaustive appearances

After three years of exhaustive appearances in person on a wheel chair, he sought redress for physically disabled persons accessing new public buildings. Finally he succeeded single handedly to pursue a public interest litigation Fundamental Rights application maintaining that although the rights of the disabled have been guaranteed under the Protection of the Rights of Persons with the Disabilities Act No. 28 of 1996 and the Disabled Persons (Accessibility Regulations) Regulations No. 1 of 2006, those rights were not recognized and neglected at even new public places.

In April 2011, he achieved a significant enhancement when the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka made a landmark decision by a panel of judges comprising, Chief Justice Asoka de Silva, Justices Saleem Marsoof and S. I. Iman ordering that "all new public buildings, especially toilets facilities should be under the accessibility regulations No. 1 of 17 October 2006 should provide reasonable access in accordance with the design standards of regulations in force. The Court further ordered, "No building plan should be approved, and no certificate of conformity for buildings be issued by any local authority unless conforming to the above order, and failure to comply with would draw penal repercussions under the laws set out."

Dr. Ajith Perera became the Founder, Chief Executive/Secretary General of a non-profit humanitarian organization in 2005, named "Idiriya". It was the first time in Sri Lanka a disabled professional, confined to a wheelchair for life, was recognized by a national body for 'ability within disability, which is one of the key areas what the UN CRPD stresses.

Different roles

Dr. Ajith C. Perera having played eight different roles over 17 consecutive years in a voluntary mission of national importance is the pioneer fighter to open the road to rights of all by design. At 'The Sri Lankan of the Year' awards ceremony held recently at the Hilton Hotel, Dr. Perera was adjudged the unanimous and undisputed winner as 'The Unsung Hero' after being on a wheel chair for 24 solid years. He received the coveted award amidst a standing ovation in the presence of the country's most influential opinion leaders, and the VIP guests of a very distinguished gathering.

The ceremony had been designed as an exhaustive, rigorous and credible platform to recognize and honour individuals and groups whose dedication, commitment, efforts and achievements in their chosen fields nominated across multiple categories as Sports, Global Entertainer, Entertainer, Global Scientist, Entrepreneur, and Global Businessman who have had far reaching influence on the country, positively impacting the local community and helping to profile Sri Lanka among the international community.

Purely on merit

It was certainly an honour received by Dr. Perera not in any way on sympathy but purely on merit, which he earned with unreserved commitment to the promotion of accessibility to the built environment, and thereby to the enhancement of the quality of everyday life of all persons with the widest possible range of abilities.

The most significant feature at the occasion was it being the first time ever in this country a person with a disability and confined to a wheelchair was befittingly recognized for his 'Ability within dis-Ability' and appreciated for his outstanding achievements and significant voluntary contributions to his country and his people, where over 20 per cent of the population experience restricted ability.

Internationally this unsung hero has already been accepted as a Fellow of three universal bodies with two awarding him the Chartered Status, and four more global organizations, that are promoting accessibility, have offered membership status.

Dr. Ajith C. S. Perera has represented Sri Lanka at the International Congress on Standards in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2010 November, organized by the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO).

It is a pity indeed that the topmost decision makers in Sri Lanka still cannot realize "Accessible Sri Lanka" as a low cost feasible investment with rich dividends (to them also in plenty). Perhaps it is befitting for an eminent professional such as Dr. Perera to be afforded the opportunity to promote and make the concept 'Accessible Sri Lanka' a meaningful reality, appreciating it as an indispensable part of the economic and social development plans for Sri Lanka.

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