25th November 2001

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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." 

More jobs needed for the disabled. Pic by Gemunu WellageMore 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 surveyed. 

"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 December. 

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 dearly. 

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 we live.

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. 

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