The Sunday TimesPlus

7th April 1996




Give them equal rights

By Hiranthi Fernando

Integration into society and the opportunity to lead a reasonably independent life is what most disabled people yearn for. They do not wish for sympathy or charity but rather some assistance to live their lives and participate in the activities of their societies.

Through a misfortune at birth, injury or other causes, a large number of people suffer from various disabilities. These may be physical, mental, visual auditory or a combination of several. They show restrictions or lack of ability to perform activities in the manner considered normal for human beings. It has been found that disabled people were excluded from the normal life of the community as a result of physical, social or psychological barriers erected or accepted by society. They were categorised as incapable because people paid more heed to their limitations than their potential. However, people with disabilities are entitled to fundamental rights just as any other citizen. They need to be provided with certain facilities to enable them to exercise their rights.

Within the last 20 years, the handicaps faced by disabled people were brought more into focus. Many organisations for the disabled sprang to life. A new approach to rehabilitation for the disabled, the Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) was introduced. CBR is designed to enable developing countries to offer essential services to as many disabled as possible, at low cost and at a convenient time. For this to be successful it requires a joint effort by the disabled, their families, & the community together with the relevant authorities. The concerted aim is equal rights for disabled people and their full integration into every aspect of human society.

In the world today, the number of people with disabilities have risen considerably due to increased violence and conflict. ILO statistics estimate it to be 10% of the world population. International organizations such as United Nations and The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (ESCAP) endeavoured to improve the conditions for disabled people. The UN issued a document entitled 'Standard Rules for the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities". This document stresses that, it is the responsibility of states to take appropriate action to remove the obstacles preventing persons with disabilities from exercising their rights and freedoms and participating fully in the activities of their societies.

The 22 rules of the document explain what measures governments should take in different fields in order to progress towards the full participation of disabled persons. This document appears to have revitalized action in many countries. Countries such as U.S.A., U. K. and Singapore have introduced legislations and building regulations, with emphasis on integrating into 11 workplaces, public buildings and housing, features which accommodate people with disabilities.

In Sri Lanka, 8% of the population is estimated to be disabled. The war in the North and East and bomb blasts in the city have been the cause of disabling many people. Ms. Yamuna Chitrangani, Deputy Director, Services for the Handicapped of the Social Services Department said that rehabilitation of the disabled is a devolved function, partly handled by the Social Service Ministries of the provinces. She explained that disabled people are identified through representations of family members and Grama Sevakas. They are given the necessary treatment at the Ragama Rehabilitation Hospital and other government hospitals. Aids such as wheelchairs, limbs, spectacles and hearing aids are supplied to those who cannot afford them. Disabled children and youth are given basic schooling as far as possible and vocational training. During the training period, they are paid an allowance of Rs.30 per day. After training, those who wish to set up in self employment projects are provided with equipment up to Rs. 5,000. Some others are helped to find employment. A few were seen to be employed within the Social Services Ministry. Community based Rehabilitation is in practice in 60 divisions of the country. Training programmes are underway for staff and volunteers.

As regards the available facilities, it is uncertain whether they reach the large number of disabled in the country. In the matter of employment for disabled people, the cooperation of the government and private sectors is needed. Community based rehabilitation also requires the cooperation of the community. However, even when these people are ready and capable of being gainfully employed, they are still faced with the problem of travelling to and from the workplaces and using facilities without assistance. Thus they cannot fully participate unless they have access to transport and other facilities.

"The government is preparing legislations to safeguard the rights of persons with disabilities", said Mrs. Jegarasasingham, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Social Services. "An act is being presented to provide for the establishment of 'The National Council for Persons with Disabilities', for the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka". Mrs. Jegarasasingham says that from the recommendations set out in the UN Standard Rules, the Ministry has decided to give priority to Rule No. 5 which deals with Accessibility. "Without accessibility, persons with disabilities cannot achieve anything", commented Mrs. Jegarasasingham. "They must have access to information and access to reach a place and use its facilities".

A workshop on Accessibility was organised by the Ministry in March this year. Architects, Engineers, local government officials involved in construction and provincial secretaries were invited to the workshop. A sub committee has been appointed to follow up with the preparation of necessary building codes and standard. The aim is to provide a barrier free environment for people with disabilities.

V.N.C. Gunasekera represented the Sri Lanka Architects Association at the workshop. "We all felt that providing accessibility for persons with disabilities is a very important issue", he said. "It is commendable that the Ministry of Social Services has taken the initiative to do this. We have suggested that the Ministry, together with the Urban Development Authority, prepare a document and adopt it so that it becomes law. The measures to allow access to disabled persons will then be embodied in building designs."

According to Mr. Gunasekera, a few buildings such as the Public Library and the Sri Jayewardenepura University Library have ramps constructed to enable wheelchairs to be taken up. These are necessary in all public buildings such as schools, hospitals, banks, libraries and so on. Wide entrances, lifts and such facilities are necessary to allow access to disabled persons. As for special toilets, there has been so far no consideration given to this aspect. The only special toilet available is at the Air port. In some countries these facilities are provided by law in public places. "Our streets also should be made accessible for disabled persons, with proper signboards, good pavements and wheelchair crossings. At pedestrian crossings, there should be a sloped dropping for a wheelchair. It would also be helpful for visually handicapped persons if sound indicators are fixed to traffic lights. In countries like Japan and Germany, international symbols are used on signboards for easy recognition. As regards public transport too, some facilities should be made available. In India for instance, special section is reserved for disabled persons", said Mr. Gunasekera.

Lal Balasuriya, President of the Sri Lanka Architects Association says that providing access for disabled people has so far been neglected in Sri Lanka. "Many other countries are concentrating on providing facilities for persons with disabilities. It is time we paid attention to this matter and seriously addressed the problem", commented Prof. Balasuriya. "Many of our streets are in a bad state with no pavements to walk on. Old people and those with poor sight find it hazardous. Designing of roads should include the adjoining facilities. For instance, old buildings like the Cargills Building in the Fort were designed so that people were kept away from the road and under cover. The new buildings today, do not have such facilities."

Prasanna Silva, a Director of the Urban Development Authority is also a member of the follow up sub-committee on Accessibility appointed by the Ministry. "Legislations on accessibility are in implementation in most of the countries in the region", said Mr. Silva. "It is time for us also to implement such legislations for the benefit of disabled persons which would in turn serve the community as a whole. Now that the Ministry of Social Services has taken the initiative, we would like to assist. Once the regulations are drawn up together with ICTAD which handles specifications and building codes, we can implement them through the UDA which is a regulatory authority. There are three criteria involved. They are planning and design, legal implementation and public awareness. It is very important to have an effective public awareness programme through the media."

Several organizations in Sri Lanka work with various categories of disabled persons. Many of them render a great humanitarian service in providing facilities for specialized education, vocational training and rehabilitation to many persons with disabilities. They are cared for in day care or residential centres, and helped to achieve a degree of independence. However, when they are ready to leave the security of these institutions, many would have difficulties to cope with life. To help them to integrate and participate in the life of the community, they need to be able to transport themselves to workplaces, have easy access to public buildings and the use of facilities without assistance. Ramps, lifts, wide entrances, non slip floors, special toilets, reserved seats on public transport, well maintained roads with pavements and signboards are some facilities that would assist the disabled persons to participate in the normal activities of the community.

Dr. Lalith Wijayaratne is the Physician in charge of the Rehabilitation Hospital at Ragama. This 22 bed institute is the only hospital in the country for rehabilitation of civilians.

Dr. Wijayaratne says that 85% of the patients at the hospital are between 20 - 45 years of age. Most of them have been injured in accidents and are sent for rehabilitation after initial treatment at the Accident Service. In rehabilitation, we try to make them as independent as possible, so that they could handle at least their daily activities such as washing, dressing, feeding, unaided", said Dr. Wijayaratne. "The thinking today is to give a disabled person equal rights and opportunities".

He explained that four types of rehabilitation are undertaken at the hospital. Educational rehabilitation for children, vocational rehabilitation for young people, medical rehabilitation and social rehabilitation. According to him, social rehabilitation is the most difficult. "Society has to play a major role in this aspect of rehabilitation", he said. "Some of these people are cleverer and much more talented than any of us. A sudden accident has left them incapacitated. They are shattered by it. They cannot understand why they are discarded. They need to be accepted by society as individuals. Three factors influence the degree of handicap of a disabled person; the resources available to him, physical environment and social attitudes."

A large number of the patients at the hospital have spinal injuries and are paraplegics. They have to be gradually trained to be mobile on a wheelchair. They are taught to do their own work while being wheelchair bound. "Many of these young patients are breadwinners", said Dr. Wijayaratne. "We try to enable them to go back and earn a living. However, they often face difficulties when they are back at home due to barriers of environment. For instance some of them have to cross a paddy field to their homes, on a bund not wide enough for a wheelchair. The doorways of their homes are not wide enough. Toilets are away from the house."

Dr. Wijayaratne says that rehabilitation requires team work. Although the hospital is not equipped with the best of facilities, the staff are committed to their work. Being the only rehabilitation hospital, they have a serious problem in not having sufficient beds to release for new patients. A patient who starts rehabilitation within three months has a better chance of recovery. However, beds are often not available when needed, since patients already being rehabilitated are also not ready to fend for themselves.

The Friend-In-Need Society is responsible for the Jaipur Foot Project in Sri Lanka. The workshop turns out limbs. The amputees are provided with board and lodging until they are fitted with limbs and gait trained.

"These amputees are quite normal mentally. For integration, employment is very important", says Mrs. Kalyani Ranasinghe, President of the Society. "The problems are to find employment, find places to stay if their homes are far away, and transport to the workplaces. If the Mercantile Sector could consider giving employment to some disabled persons, it would be a great service. Also, on public transport, if at least one seat in front could be reserved for a disabled person, it would be a start. Awareness programmes for the community and school children are very important in order to help the integration of disabled people into society".

(The Girl Guide Association in Sri Lanka run guide companies for disabled guides in several institutions for disabled children. The Girl Guide Handbook has been adapted to suit each category of handicap. "What these children need most is the recognition from normal schools. We get them to mix at sports meets and such activities and they enjoy it. They like to feel a part of the mainstream. Acceptance and not sympathy is what they want", said the Commissioner of the Branch for handicapped Guides.

The Educational, Social & Cultural Organization (ESCO) is a national body to promote Arts and Sports for the disabled, with a view to integrate them into the mainstream of society. Director of the organization, Mr. Kurukulanatha says that ESCO has been represented in all the inaugural world Sports and Arts events for the disabled. They have won many awards. "These people get enormous mental satisfaction participating in these events. They believe they could be rehabilitated," said Mr. Kurukulanatha. "Unfortunately, people pay very little attention to the disabled. Society must be given opportunities to appreciate the talents of disabled people."

Sr. Anastacia, Directress of Dayamina, a Day Care Centre for children with learning disabilities, has long experience in this field. "The stress in every part of the world today is on integration and normalisation of people with disabilities", said Sr. Anastacia. "In some countries, a certain percentage of the work force is filled by disabled people. Unfortunately, we have very little facilities yet in Sri Lanka. Awareness of the society and family members is very important. Isolation of the disabled is not at all helpful for them. They must be integrated into society. "

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