Train of thought on disabled people’s right to accessibility The long weekend in March was a perfect opportunity to get away from noisy, overcrowded and polluted Colombo. My grandfather, 93, along with my mother and I hopped on to a luxury rail service to Kandy (Peradeniya). Glossy photos of the train run by a private [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Letters to the Editor


Train of thought on disabled people’s right to accessibility

The long weekend in March was a perfect opportunity to get away from noisy, overcrowded and polluted Colombo. My grandfather, 93, along with my mother and I hopped on to a luxury rail service to Kandy (Peradeniya).

Glossy photos of the train run by a private firm and the luxurious ride along the picturesque hill country have adorned many magazines and newspapers. The hype created made me seriously think about opting for rail transport instead of travelling by vehicle. While public-private partnerships such as this are beneficial for the revival of the Sri Lankan railway system, the basic needs of the travellers should be a priority.

Accessibility is an important indispensable basic human right. This is important for a country such as ours, since a large numbers of our soldiers and war victims are disabled. Sri Lanka also has one of the largest aging populations in South Asia.

Sri Lanka’s public services including the transport services lack the ability to provide equal access to those with a disability and the elderly. The ‘luxury’ coach we boarded was unable to provide wheelchair assistance to my grandfather. The steps to hop on the train should be within easy reach for those with limited mobility. Let’s not forget the Supreme Court order in this regard.

The ‘Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (No. 28 of 1996) states: “No person should be discriminated on the ground of disability and their mobility restricted in a manner which precludes or impedes them from gaining reasonable physical access to public buildings and facilities provided within such buildings, especially the toilet facilities.”

It is paramount that the key architectural elements of public buildings should be designed to address the diverse mobility needs of the people. This includes floor surfaces, pathways and corridors, doors, entrances, steps, stairs, hand rails, grab bars, ramps, toilets and car parks.

By providing such basic facilities, the productivity of the country can be improved. Those with curtailed mobility will be able to live to their true potential.

Sri Lanka is aggressively marketing itself as one of the hottest tourist destinations. With the increase in tourist arrivals, one would need to give serious thought to the level of service offered in comparison to some of the emerging tourist markets. Vietnam, an emerging market for tourism, is far ahead of us in its attention to people’s basic needs such as offering assistance to those with limited mobility.
We cannot boast about being the “Wonder of Asia” if we overlook the most vulnerable of populations.

Shari Jayawardhana Via email

Ban hate speech; it is against Buddhism

Tolerance and appreciation of equal status for all human beings comprise the basic structure of an independent and pluralistic society. It should be incumbent on people to abstain from giving offence to other groups and cultures. All forms of speech or expressions which extend, provoke, encourage or justify hatred based on extremist religious or racial fanaticism should be banned. ‘Hate speech’ includes words that are likely to arouse annoyance, alarm, or bitterness on the basis of race, religion, caste and other ‘imaginary’ differences that divide humans into sects or groups.

Speakers at Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) meetings instigate the Sinhalese to ‘rise’ (refrain from patronising businesses) against the Muslims, whom they describe using offensive terms not worthy of clergy.

They claim that they are a “non-violent” pressure group, but the anti-Muslim hatred speeches they deliver at their popular gatherings and their writings promote an antagonistic mood among sections that could lead to violence on a major scale. Violence is not merely a physical destruction. It is violence when we use a sharp word, when we make a gesture to brush away a person. These speakers need to be reminded of the Buddha’s teachings on ‘right speech’. Buddhist thinking, philosophy and principles that have survived for 23 centuries in this thrice blessed island are based on peace, harmony and tolerance.

The vast majority of Sinhala Buddhists, both clergy and laity, are unhappy about Bodhu Bala Sena activities and disapprove of them, though, strangely, they remain in a deep slumber. The state of affairs is such that some minorities are living under severe anxiety and tension. Hate speech injures one’s feelings, it has to be condemned; however, introduction of rules or guidelines runs the risk of restricting a person’s right to practise freedom of speech, a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution.

In situations where such clashes arise, consideration should be given to the more important criterion of defending society’s interests over the rights of individual.

In most civilised nations, there are legal restrictions preventing a person from making public utterances of words of racial or ethnic hatred and speeches that are likely to cause the listener to react violently, as happened recently in Pepiliyana. In a plural society in the absence of state enforced controls, there should be self-imposed confines on what we talk or act; but it is unlikely that our extremist groups would ever understand this great ideal.

For effective control of ‘hate speech’, enactment of legislation is a must. It was Umberto Eco, who said, ‘To be tolerant, one must first set the boundaries of the intolerant’.

K K S Perera, Panadura

Questions the public must ask

In the few days following the UNHRC sessions in Geneva, we have witnessed several acts of blatant criminality by mobs on people and property in the greater Colombo area, Kilinochchi and elsewhere. A common factor has been the passivity of the police. They have looked the other way (reminiscent of July 1983) and suppressed video evidence of the culprits responsible for such violence.
The justifiable outrage over groups like Bodu Bala Sena must not distract us from asking fundamental questions such as:

1. Whom do the Police come under, and who has the power to silence them?

2. Who has the power to use the Attorney General to overturn due process and the rule of law?

3. Why does the Bodu Bala Sena only protest about animal slaughter and not about anti-Buddhist practices like casinos and the money-laundering, prostitution and human trafficking that always comes with casinos? Could this be a clue as to who is actually behind them?

The public must keep asking these questions in the independent media, schools and universities, civil society associations, and — above all — in Parliament through their elected representatives.

Petitions to the President to ban BBS and Sinhala Ravaya not only threaten freedom of speech, but they also undermine the institutions such as Parliament and the Judiciary which need to be restored to their proper functioning. All criminal activity, from wherever it stems, has to be summarily punished under due process. That is what the public should be demanding.

The public must also draw the obvious connections between these recent acts of violence and what was debated in Geneva. The rule of law has collapsed in Sri Lanka. So we can never expect any impartial investigation into human rights abuses and war crimes.

Ever since the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials that followed the Second World War, international law has recognised that the plea “I was just following orders” does not protect policemen, civil servants or soldiers from prosecution. They are culpable, along with those politicians and army commanders who issued the orders.

The public must also draw the obvious connections between recent controversial parliamentary resolutions and the rampant lawlessness witnessed today. All those who supported the 18th Amendment, which handed absolute power into the hands of one man, share in the culpable inaction of the Police and will be judged one day for their folly.

Dr. Vinoth Ramachandra, Colombo

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