ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 08, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 06
Financial Times  

Commercial and public places to be more disabled friendly

By Dilshani Samaraweera

Public places in Sri Lanka, including commercial establishments like shops and offices are to be made more disabled friendly within the next 3 years.

The disabled in Sri Lanka are hoping that changes for the better are on the way. A new set of regulations were approved by parliament this year to make Sri Lankan society more inclusive by making public buildings and public places more disabled friendly.
“Under the new Disabled Person’s (Accessibility) regulations all existing public buildings and public places, where common services are available, must be made accessible to the disabled within the next three years.

This includes all places other than private houses,” said Cyril Siriwardane, President of the Disability Organisations’ Joint Front, speaking at a forum organised by the Disability Network of the Employers Federation of Ceylon.

Since the classification of public places includes private commercial establishments, the disabled are calling on the country’s private sector to make the adjustments as soon as possible, as part of its corporate social responsibility.

Cut off from basic rights
As much as 10% of the Sri Lankan population is estimated to be disabled and the numbers are increasing due to the war. But thousands of disabled people are cut off from mainstream society because public buildings and places are not disabled friendly. Most public places do not provide even simple disability aids like railings to hold onto, or ramps to drive up wheelchairs, let alone braille and sign language services.

Mobility of disabled people is seriously affected because of the poor quality of public transport.

“To start with physically disabled people can’t even get about because of lack of transport facilities that are disabled friendly. A person in a wheelchair can’t travel by bus because the doorways are not wide enough for the wheelchair and the level of the bus footboard is too high. At the train station they have to physically be lifted and put into the train. Even a person using crutches find it difficult to use buses and trains,” says Siriwardane.

As public transport is noted for being highly unfriendly even to the perfectly able population of the country, the disabled are forced to spend on private transport. But once transport is sorted out, the disabled are forced to jump more hurdles to get their work done.

“Even if we were able to get where we want in a private vehicle, because public transport is so disabled unfriendly, in most cases the buildings are not accessible,” points out Siriwardane.

“Most buildings don’t have doorways wide enough to allow a wheelchair in, and all of them have steps. Most buildings, even the government buildings, don’t have ramps. The lifts are also often not disabled friendly and they are inside the buildings. So if we can’t climb the steps we can’t get to the lift. So we have to ask the person to come down or we have to send someone up to meet them,” says Siriwardane.

The disabled also do not have access to other basic facilities.“Toilet facilities are a major problem. In most buildings, even hospitals, the toilets are not disabled friendly and not built to accommodate a wheelchair,” says Siriwardane.

The lack of basic disabled friendly facilities makes it harder for the disabled to integrate into mainstream society and keeps them permanently in a state of dependency.

As a result the disabled are among the poorest of the poor in Sri Lankan society and among the most helpless. However, the disabled are hoping things would change with the new disability regulations coming into operation.

Accepting the disabled
Under the new Disabled Person’s (Accessibility) regulations all public buildings and places should be made accessible to the disabled within the next 3-years.

Any new buildings that come within the ‘public’ classification, must be constructed incorporating the needs of the disabled, starting from this year.

Public buildings include not just government departments but also private commercial establishments like office buildings, hotels, motels, supermarkets, restaurants, shops, cinemas and car parks. Industrial buildings like factories, work shops and warehouses are also included. This means making existing buildings more disabled friendly. The regulation specifies that adequate space should be provided for persons using mobility devices such as wheelchairs, crutches and walkers, in any public building, public place or place where common services are available.

“Making basic adjustments will not cost very much. Of course it depends on the building. At a basic level they may just need to build a ramp, widen the doorways and in some cases make toilets disabled friendly,” says Siriwardane. However, the disabled will continue to face travel and transport difficulties.

“Nothing can be done about the existing busses and trains. But with all new public buses 10% have to be disabled friendly according to the regulation. In trains, one compartment has to be disabled friendly. This means wider doorways and floor level steps to drive in a wheelchair. In trains they must also provide parking space for a wheelchair in one compartment,” says Siriwardane.

Making public systems more disabled friendly is expected to have larger overall benefits to Sri Lankan society.

“It will make it easier for sick people, older people and even pregnant mothers to get about. So the benefits of making public places accessible to the disabled will help other sectors of our community as well,” says Siriwardane.


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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.