In the United Nations calendar of special days designated to focus attention on particular groups and issues, yesterday, December 3, marked one of particular significance. Formerly known as the International Day of Disabled Persons, and observed as such from 1992, it was in 2007 changed to the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This was indicative of the growing shift to make the larger population aware of disability issues and focus on the need for full and equal participation by those with disabilities.
Article 25 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights states that each person has "the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control". There is also Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol that requires that State Parties take steps to safeguard and promote that realization of the right to an adequate standard of living and social protection, including ensuring "access by persons with disabilities and their families living in situations of poverty to assistance from the State with disability-related expenses, including adequate training, counselling, financial assistance and respite care".
If we could have turned a Nelsonian eye to these people with disabilities among us years ago, we can no longer do so. It is one of the legacies of the thirty-year conflict that there are amongst us, a large segment of Sri Lankans who carry some disability, both soldiers and civilians. To these young people who were the victims of a secessionist movement or made the enormous sacrifice for the unity of this nation, there lies a huge responsibility by the State and by the people to ensure that they can lead gainful lives again and take their place in society, in dignity, not languish on the fringes of society for the rest of their lives.
Sri Lanka has another growing reality to face -- its fast ageing population. Soon almost 17 per cent of our population will be over the age of 65. Advancing age brings with it many woes, not the least of it impaired mobility, a fact that few care to think about until it hits them.
Recent estimates point to around 15 per cent of the world's population, living with disabilities and also a quarter of the global population being directly affected by this, as care-givers or family members.
As reflected in the UN policies, world views on what it means to be a disabled person have thankfully undergone a sea change. What was earlier based on an outdated medical model of disability has now changed vastly and for the better, to enhance the quality of life of all.
The social model of disability that has emerged is based on human rights issues requiring adequate opportunity and equal enjoyment of human rights, on the principles of dignity and justice for all. There is finally recognition that in the blink of an eye any one of us can go from able to disabled. It could be due to a fall, sudden injury, accident or illness, numerous other medical conditions, even pregnancy. That means the recognition that we are all only 'temporarily able' to a varying degree. With that has come the widely accepted terminology 'Persons with restricted ability' as opposed to the stigmatizing 'disabled'.
In this country, there has been little focus and even less enthusiasm in ensuring the fundamental human rights of those with restricted ability. The barriers they encounter every day are enormous. Basic rights such as the right to participate in political and public life, even the opportunity to cast their vote, in our all too frequent polls, are not ensured. Many people with disabilities are even left in institutions, by their families because they have neither the means nor the ability to care for them, underlining the strong link between disability and poverty.
UNESCO statistics reveal that 90 per cent of children with disabilities in developing countries did not attend school. Moreover, that 80 per cent to 90 per cent of people with disabilities of working age were unemployed. These are statistics that could be changed, no doubt, but it requires greater commitment by the Government and society at large, even by private companies to employ those with some form of physical disability but who can still make a sound contribution through their skills. For persons with restricted mobility, there is one crucial factor that affects their wellbeing and that is access. It is the lack of it in the day-to-day stream of life that results in people being marginalized and feeling excluded and useless. If you cannot go to your pharmacy, bank, supermarket or office because the buildings in which these institutions are housed are not geared for wheelchairs, the injustice of it will make your blood boil. Yet, this is the situation that thousands of disabled people face every day.
Basic facilities such as toilet and washroom facilities, surprisingly even at five-star hotels are lacking and the design of entrances and doorways, steps and stairways at restaurants, cinemas, police stations, university lecture halls, sports stadiums, pharmacies, ministry offices, government offices, parks, are not geared to allow access for a disabled person… the list is endless. Compliance with design standards and regulations is mandatory by law but we still come across, new buildings that do not conform, despite a ruling by the Supreme Court, no less. This we can trace to the rampant corruption that plagues local bodies. A well-oiled palm is all that is needed to get a certificate of conformity and even the most modern building comes up sans these basic requirements.
A strict insistence on compliance with the Supreme Court order of April 27, 2009 is required. The onus is on architects, building professionals and indeed on ordinary people to demand that this takes place if we are to pay more than lip service to the rights of those with disabilities.
68,000 voters are cheated
Yet another crossover of an MP from the Opposition took place this week; and hardly could one say that the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forebear to cheer. One man's decision trampled upon the decision of over 68,000 citizens who voted for his party first, and then for him less than two years ago. They vent their feelings of being cheated and called him a "turncoat".
This is not only something patently unfair by the voters, but it also goes into the root of the franchise (the vote) and the sovereignty of the people. Can one individual's right override those of thousands of other fellow citizens?
There have been crossovers in the past, no doubt. Some did it with a conscience, some were mere opportunists. Some made it a habit and there was one who was nicknamed 'The Boatman' for the number of times he crossed from one side to the other. Of late, however, the crossings have been in hordes; the floodgates being opened by the judiciary that permitted the largely one-way journeys to bolster the numbers in the Government. It is a telling statistic that as many as 98 local government councillors elected from the UNP were voting with the Government by the time the last term of local councils was dissolved in March this year.
And there's nothing more nauseating than when we are told that the jump was for the sake of the country. When Dr. Samuel Johnson said 'patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel' he must have had the Sri Lankan MP in mind.
If anyone has problems with the party leadership he or she must battle it out internally or stay at home minding their businesses without cheating those who voted for them. The voters of the country cannot be so simply sacrificed on the altar of political opportunism of a solitary individual, surely.