As October 1 draws near, the world looks forward to a day that paradoxically, celebrates both children and elders. Ceremonies will be held, cakes will be cut and smiles will be shared, yet there will also be a significant segment of these very people for whom the daily struggle of living will not abate. They [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka still unfriendly towards the handicapped

When designing buildings, employ the services of an accessibility advisor or auditor, says activist Dr. Ajith Perera

As October 1 draws near, the world looks forward to a day that paradoxically, celebrates both children and elders. Ceremonies will be held, cakes will be cut and smiles will be shared, yet there will also be a significant segment of these very people for whom the daily struggle of living will not abate. They are those with reduced physical capabilities, and for them October 1 will be another day of struggle – climbing the stairs, making a transaction or even something as basic as going to the washroom is an ordeal.

Sri Lanka is unfriendly to the disabled, says Dr. Ajith C.S. Perera, a prominent rights activist for the cause. “It’s not just the disabled in the strictest sense of the word,” he points out. “Children and the older population are often incapacitated in some way; children because they’re so prone to minor accidents and the elders due to age.” With a rapidly aging population – official statistics reveal that 2,468,000 of Sri Lanka’s population was over the age of 60 years as of 2012 – it is high time that the country began to more seriously implement its regulations with regard to infrastructure that provides access to all, says Dr. Perera.

Section 23 of the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (No 28 of 1996) provides provisions for the protection and advancement of persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka. Here, it clearly states that ‘(2) No person with a disability shall, on the ground of such disability, be subject to any liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to, or use of, any building or place which any other member of the public has access to or is entitled to use, whether on the payment of any fee or not.’

But, only 2-3% of buildings in Sri Lanka are said to be accessible to the disabled. Reports suggest that a lack of law enforcement might be the cause. Despite more recent legislation that includes a Gazette on Standards for Accessibility of Public Buildings for both the state and private sector in 2006, unanimous Parliamentary approval in 2007, and orders from the Supreme Court in 2011 and 2013, certain buildings that are still being constructed or renovated fail to comply with the standards specified, says Dr. Perera.

It is also the entrepreneurial private sector that stands to lose, he points out. “Who is more likely to spend on a holiday, or at a shopping mall? The older crowd. The more you continue building shopping malls and theatres that cannot provide access to someone who cannot navigate a flight of stairs with ease, the more you alienate them.” The elderly are more likely to take more holidays as well, and the majority of hotels in the country fail t

Dr. Ajith Perera

o provide the minimum standards of accessibility for them, he says. “But we keep giving these hotels five stars.”

Accessibility is not just a physical issue, but a social one. By designing buildings that cannot accommodate the disabled, you inadvertently discount their existence. “It’s a deeply psychological thing,” points out Dr. Perera. “When society seems unable to make way for your needs, it’s very discouraging.”

Dr. Perera knows first-hand the daily struggles of life on a wheelchair. A Chartered Chemist by profession, he was seriously injured when a tree crashed on his car in Colombo in 1992, killing his chauffeur and leaving him a paraplegic for the rest of his life. Over the past two decades, Dr. Perera’s voice has been among the most foremost for the rights of the disabled. He also founded the Idiriya organisation as a manifestation of his efforts.

Access for All is his primary cause at present; as a former senior manager in the pharmaceutical industry, trained to comply with standards, he knows the procedures involved with such a task. “Same principle,” he quips. Dr. Perera has also trained to assess structures for their accessibility and safety whilst at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK.

Hospitals and educational institutes are the vital structures whose design must be revisited, he stresses. A survey he conducted recently revealed that many private hospitals fail to include fully accessible toilets even in orthopaedic wards. “These are things that can, and absolutely must be rectified,” he points out. “Educational institutes must also take the first steps in making its halls and classrooms accessible for all students. I find that a lot of children who can’t move as freely as others fall into deep depression when they’re not able to do the same things as their friends-simply because of a major oversight in the building’s design.”

A study conducted by the Ministry of Social Services also revealed that out of 6010 children in 76 Divisional Secretary divisions, over half (3015 children, or 50.1% of the whole) did not attend school.

What is the solution? It’s really quite simple – when designing or renovating a building, employ the services of an accessibility advisor or auditor, says Dr. Perera. “Just like a modern-day doctor cannot advise a patient on everything like diet and therapy, an architect or engineer cannot assess a building’s every need. A specialist must be brought in-in this case, someone with knowledge and experience on accessibility for everyone.”

In 2012, a seminar on Access for All was organised by Navajeevana, along with Mitrajyoti and Samrtyam from India. At the seminar, attended by many with diverse physical capabilities, a simple question was asked-what does access mean to you? The answers, while varied, echoed the same sentiments; independence, security, opportunity and acceptance.

“The degree of one’s mobility must never become a disadvantage,” says Dr. Perera. The statistics agree. An estimated 20% of Sri Lanka’s population live with reduced capability in some form or another according to him. “All these people have the right and deserve to live with the same justice and dignity as others,” stresses the activist. “This is an appeal to those capable of making structural decisions. Please ensure that you make way for everyone.”

Box:What is ‘Access for all?’

The concept of ‘access for all’ is used to describe a universal design. This refers to a spectrum of broad ideas that are used to make buildings, products and environments that are immediately accessible to both people with and without disabilities. The phrase was coined to describe the designing of environments accessible to anyone despite age, gender, ability or status in life. The ideal example is the sidewalk ramp often found in supermarkets and hospitals-they are accessible by both the physically able and the disabled. Buses that ‘kneel’ (bring their front end to ground level to eliminate gap) are another example.

Other examples for universal design include; smooth ground level entrances without stairs, lever handles for opening doors rather than twisting doorknobs, light switches with large flat panels rather than small toggle switches, buttons and other controls distinguishable by touch, ramp access in swimming pools, closed captioning on television networks, web pages that provide alternative text to describe images and museums that allow visitors to choose to listen to or read descriptions.

Universal design functions on some basic principles; flexibility, simplicity, intuitiveness, perception, tolerance for error, low physical effort in use, size and space for approach and use. Barrier-free design refers to a building modification that modifies buildings or facilities so that they could be used by the physically disadvantaged or disabled. A good example for such buildings are supermarkets in Sri Lanka, which have ramp access as well as steps. The police headquarters are also accessible to the disabled. An unfortunate example for an important structure without access are most ATM’s in the country, which are a step up from ground level. The disabled seem to be denied entrance to leisure as well, with many of the island’s movie theatres, amusement parks and malls inaccessible to them.

If you travel along Galle Road, especially the stretch from Bambalapitiya to Colpetty, you would have noted the bright yellow line in the middle of the pavement. This allows the blind to navigate their way through the pavement by tapping their cane against the slightly raised bump of the yellow line. However, the cause is lost, as many vehicle parks allow their customers to park vehicles in such a way that the line is covered-a blind man would suddenly find his way obstructed.

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