Amidst the frenzy of election campaigning, a forgotten
group of citizens fight for their rights
A forgotten franchise
By Hiranthi Fernando
Amidst the hurly-burly of election campaigning, a
neglected and often overlooked group of citizens, the physically and mentally
disabled, is crying out to be heard. A leading social service organisation
in the Southern Province is calling on all disabled people to vote only
for those politicians who listen to their needs.
"Little has been done to woo this bloc of voters," said Mrs. Kumarini
Wickramasuriya, Project Director of Navajeevana, a community-based rehabilitation
programme. "Despite the need for government action to bring about change,
the needs of the disabled have yet to be addressed by any political party."
jobs needed for the disabled. Pic by Gemunu Wellage
Navajeevana, established in 1987, is a non-governmental organisation,
which serves people with disabilities in the five Divisional Secretariat
regions of Angunukolapelessa, Beliatta, Dickwella, Katuwana and Tangalla
in the Hambantota District.
With the war situation in the country, the numbers of disabled persons
have increased in recent years. Mrs. Wickramasuriya says that surveys carried
out in their five project areas show that 13.75 percent of those surveyed
were found to be physically or mentally disabled. She said this included
persons with minor disabilities, which still needed intervention. In carrying
out this research, 221,662 persons out of a population of 348,759 had been
"We are calling on all political parties to state their positions on
disability and explain how they would tackle the inequality and prejudice
faced by so many of Sri Lanka's citizens," Mrs. Wickramasuriya said. "We
are also encouraging disabled people to challenge local politicians on
the issues facing them and vote for those parties who accept that drastic
action needs to be taken."
This campaign was initiated by the Disabled Forum, which has been set
up in the Navajeevana operational areas. "We meet regularly and they tell
us what they want," explained Karen Lardner, a volunteer worker at Navajeevana.
"With the election coming up it was decided to write to the candidates
contesting in these districts. "
The disabled people have several requests to make of the political parties
in return for their votes. "More government assistance is needed in helping
the disabled people in the community to integrate into society and lead
meaningful lives," Mrs. Wickramasuriya said. "More vocational training
and income generating schemes are needed."
Although legislation exists making it mandatory for public buildings
to have wheelchair access, this legislation needs to be enforced. They
request necessary facilities for the disabled at workplaces in order to
ensure that jobs and services are genuinely accessible. They also ask that
more disabled people are employed in the civil service to help eradicate
the stigma of disability.
Mrs. Wickramasuriya stressed that pre-school education must be provided
for children with disabilities to prepare them for mainstream education.
Navajeevana has been successful in getting several children with disabilities
into mainstream schools and many of them are performing well.
Members of the NGO have been actively pursuing the campaign by meeting
and writing to political candidates in the area. An attempt to conduct
a forum with the candidates of the different parties was unfortunately
unsuccessful. However, they hope to continue their efforts with the elected
representatives after the election as well in order to have the urgent
needs of the disabled addressed by the authorities.
Cry of the disabled
Action to help the disabled is long overdue, writes author Ajith
C.S. Perera, himself confined to a wheelchair.
As another general election approaches, we are
told that 'December 5 will be a crucial day for making decisions for a
brighter future'. The 'International Day of the Disabled' also falls in
But all political parties and candidates, in their manifestos, incredibly
say absolutely nothing about the disabled, neither do they propose to offer
them anything significant. Politicians continue to talk of equal rights
and equal opportunities for every one, but their short-sighted attitudes
reflect their disinclination to provide and protect even the essential
basic facilities and rights of the disabled in this country. Connected
legislation, no wonder, will continue just to be only on paper.
A large percentage of the disabled are young people - the life force
of any country.
Disability occurs not only because of the on-going war but due to many
other reasons, including violation of basic road rules. Many of the disabled
have functional limitations of varying degrees. But life never stops when
a person is impaired, it undergoes a drastic change. Fate is no respecter
of persons or positions, but politicians have not realised that this could
happen to any one, at any time.
All one could and should do then, is find alternative ways and means
to lessen one's burdens, and still cherish ambitions and aims, to live
as fruitful citizens, without being an added burden to society. But the
negative attitudes of politicians and decision-makers are the 'true obstacles'
that prevent the disabled from mixing with society and serving it again.
The first step in the right direction was taken way back in October
1996, when Act No. 28 was passed in Parliament and a 21-member National
Council was established to speedily implement the necessary action. However,
since then, nothing significant has been achieved.
Worst affected and totally neglected among the disabled are those totally
confined to wheelchairs. Access and mobility are two factors that are vital
in the life of a disabled person. Statistics reveal that more than 95 percent
of those confined to wheelchairs, despite any greater background merit
they possess, remain 'unemployed with no steady income'. They are denied
this essential basic human right.
Hardly any state or private sector organisation opportunities and assistance,
fearing falsely, that the required minor structural changes will cost them
Although impaired, either physically and/or sensorily, every one of
us is still experienced and competent in many things. However, the indolent
negative attitudes of society are the real stumbling blocks, denying us
opportunities of making worthwhile contributions to the society in which
None of the key buildings now being constructed are even designed to
overcome the physical access barriers that the disabled face. The problems
thus mount, as opportunities for recreation, periodic updating of knowledge,
welfare and socialising, etc., are denied.
Confined to wheelchairs, telephones become the only means of external
communication. Once again, local telephone call-rates are likely to go
up. Although effective concessions have been promised for disabled professionals,
no action has been taken.
It is not too late for politicians to even now take the initiative to
implement and expedite action plans for the disabled.