ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 42

Abling society to include the disabled

Diriya 2007 aims at opening up more opportunities for the differently abled

By Esther Williams

The disabled are among the poorest of the poor. The ongoing conflict, natural disasters and an aging population have added to the numbers, although disabilities at birth have shown a decrease. Full participation and equality of persons with disability (PWD) in society is therefore vital.

Over 350 researchers, practitioners and experts of the development and disability sector met at Diriya 2007, a conference on Mainstreaming Disability into Development at the BMICH on March 6 and 7. What emerged was a declaration with proposals to create room and opportunities for all categories of PWDs – facilitating their inclusion into society.

There are more opportunities in western societies for differently-abled people to become useful citizens

“Our environment is disabled to accommodate people with disabilities to the mainstream development process,” said Secretary to the Ministry of Social Services, Mrs. V. Jegarajasingham, addressing the conference.

Diriya 2007 was a forum to share disability-mainstreaming experiences, especially those from the South Asia region. It was co-organised by the Ministry of Social Services and Social Welfare of Sri Lanka, Disaster Relief Monitoring Unit (DRMU) of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, Practical Action (ITDG) and Development with Disabled Network.

Millennium Development Goals Senior Advisor (UNDP), Ms. Alessandra Casazza stated that although Sri Lanka has achieved satisfactory growth of 96.4% in primary education, only 12,000 out of the 59,000 disabled student population benefited from the available services.

Discussions revealed that development programmes have failed to recognize the direct link between disability and poverty. “Poverty does cause disability and disability exacerbates poverty,” participants pointed out. Moreover people with disability are socially, politically and culturally marginalized with very little access to services such as education, health, skills development, etc. This has resulted in them having little or no resources to contribute to society.

Current initiatives being slow or limited, they say need to be built upon and accelerated to enhance the participation of PWDs in all spheres of life.

That there are people with disabilities in every village and city is evident. However to mainstream disability into development there should be programmes carried out at the village level across the country.

If existing programmes such as Samurdhi, Gami Diriya, Gama Neguma, Jathika Saviya, Maga Neguma and others integrate disability sensitivity into their approach, it will create opportunities for those with disability to participate actively in the programmes, not just as beneficiaries.

Building a barrier-free Environment

A regulation ensuring access for the disabled to public buildings, places and services, as gazetted (No. 1467/15) on October 17, 2006 will be presented to Parliament for approval on March 20. It is thereafter expected that all Ministries and Ministers will provide active support to make it a reality.

“It is not merely the responsibility of the Ministry of Social Welfare but of all other Ministries as well to contribute to a barrier free environment,” states Chartered Chemist and former cricket umpire, Dr. Ajith C.S. Perera.

To ensure that people with disabilities are not prisoners within their own homes, buildings without barriers (homes and offices) should be seen as an investment rather than an expense, the activist remarks. “All we need are little changes to our living environment – in supermarkets, theatres, banks, post offices, crematoriums, courts, that will enhance our quality of life and make us less dependent on others and thereby more employable, productive and confident,” Dr. Perera says, stressing, “every customer should be considered a business proposition.”

He points out that the regulation when implemented would benefit not just the estimated 10% of disabled but also the aging, sick, pregnant, accident victims (natural or man made) and others with debilitating medical conditions such as arthritis, back problems and diminishing eyesight that together constitute a 30% of the population.

“Disability can happen to anyone as fate has no respect for position, possessions, time, age or gender,” Dr. Perera says. A good case of unforeseen circumstances that can be crippling is Dr. Perera himself who during the prime of his life while driving at the Thummulla junction in November 1992 was struck by a falling tree.

Now operating from a wheelchair, he energetically campaigns for access for all.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.