Have you not yet realised that the chances are now very high that, at any stage or any moment in life, for a short time or for a long time, for different reasons, you or your loved ones, could experience physical and/or sensory impediments, and fall into the category of “People with disabilities” as defined [...]

Sunday Times 2

Indispensable Accessibility: An essential need to enjoy civil rights


Have you not yet realised that the chances are now very high that, at any stage or any moment in life, for a short time or for a long time, for different reasons, you or your loved ones, could experience physical and/or sensory impediments, and fall into the category of “People with disabilities” as defined by the law?

Not even any railings at entering steps At a restaurant in Dehiwala

You will then realise that the world around you that you once knew to be cheerful and kind, is no more so; and most of your essential needs and activities that were easy are now a burden and you are unwantedly depending on others?

At this very moment, an estimated 20 percent of fellow citizens are in this plight; and you would soon be merely one of the fast increasing number of affected persons.

The design of your home, office, places of recreation, shops, banks and restaurants, stairs, toilets, doorways and ramps, ATMs, the web or phones can no longer be easily used.

The world around would marginalise you and discriminate against you beyond expectations, perhaps for your lifetime.

As fate is no respecter of persons and positions, tomorrow will be too late for you and your loved ones.  That is why you cannot wait ineptly but must fight NOW for equality of treatment to enjoy your civil rights and bring constant pressure on decision makers.

Impediments in
real world

Any person, who, as a result of any deficiency in his physical or sensory or mental capabilities, if unable by himself to ensure for himself, wholly or partly, the necessities of daily life, is recognised by law, as a Person with dis-Ability or a dis-Abled – (Differently Able is a false injurious terminology).

The affected include senior citizens (heading towards 18 percent), those felled by accidents and numerous debilitating medical conditions and the convalescent, and even the pregnant experiencing restricted movements.

Public buildings and public facilities mean any buildings or facilities, owned either by the State or Private Sector that the public needs to use in daily life, as categorised and listed under the existing laws.

Legislations gathering cobwebs

Sri Lanka enacted the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act No: 28 of 1996. Clause 23(2) of this Act stipulates:

“No person on the ground of disability, be subjected to any liability or restriction 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”.

What meaningful progress have we made in this regard after 22 long years?

Under Clause 23(2) of this Act, by Gazette No: 1,4657/15 dated October 17, 2006, the Ministry of Social Services promulgated a comprehensive detailed set of regulations clearly stipulating design and space requirements and safety measures to be adopted in the construction of new buildings that are listed.

These regulations were then approved unanimously by our Parliament on March 20, 2007.

Despite three extensions of the deadline by the Social Services Ministry and a comprehensive circular dated October 04, 2012 under reference MSSS/7/8/ACC to all ministries by the Secretary to the Ministry of Social Services, compliance with these regulations has still not been achieved even after 12 years.

A large number of buildings, facilities and places, especially in the Megapolis area, are being completed either NEW or after major renovations.

Yet, key parts and facilities, especially toilets and wash facilities, steps and railings, Signage, ramps and entrances, fail to comply with specifications and requirements stipulated by law.

The buildings and places recognised by the existing laws — and are concerned  here — include hospitals, hotels and restaurants, places of education and higher education, supermarkets and shopping complexes, ATMs, sports stadia, including international venues, and a large number of office buildings including those belonging to the central and provincial authorities.

It’s now or never!!

In recognising the resulting colossal losses that affect a wide range of people, this writer invoked the fundamental rights jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in 2009.

The order given by this apex court on April 27, 2011 indicates: compliance with it is mandatory for ALL buildings and parts as identified by the Accessibility Regulations, and constructed new, requiring the authorities to issue a Certificate of Conformity.

Yet the regulatory authorities since 2011 April have continuously failed to ensure compliance before issuing a Certificate of Conformity.

Construction companies obtain Certificates of Conformity in the absence of due compliance.

Compliance with design specifications that take into consideration human safety is a low cost and feasible, indispensable investment bringing rich dividends to everyone in society.

The colossal waste and the threat to safety and human life caused by the failure to comply with regulations and court orders is huge compared to the money needed.

Safely accessible and useable built environments are essential for the dis-Abled people to integrate into the community and advocate their rights.

It is crucial to arrest soon this vicious circle of non-compliance – it is NOW or NEVER!  If not, what is sure to result?

Poor access to buildings that are essential in daily life, to education, to social and recreational facilities, no access to public transportation, poor access to job facilities, loss of earning chances causing increasing unwanted dependency, poverty and segregation will also continue rampantly.

The Government has embarked on an ambitious plan of development, specifically within the Western Province, which would result in a significant number of new buildings and places – the types that are indicated in regulations – the public will need to access and use in daily life, being constructed at rapid pace.

These long-term projects are inextricably entwined with the future of the next several generations of Sri Lankans.

With such an adverse trend prolonging, we reasonably fear that if such mega-development projects are not regulated adequately without further delay the next generation of persons suffering from inevitable mobility impediments — the numbers of whom will be much larger than at present — will be prevented from freely accessing and using the facilities therein at a wide range of new buildings and enjoying this next phase of development of Sri Lanka.

Back-pedalling of the UN Convention (CRPD)

Based on the Social Services Minster’s proposal, which was unanimously approved by the Cabinet of Ministers, on February 08, 2016 the Government ratified the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Promises were then given of State recognition to the ability and contributions made by the dis-Abled people (Article 8), meaningful realisation of Article 12.1 of our own Constitution for Citizens with Disabilities – Right to Equality.

Thirty months have passed but nothing yet has resulted — even to meaningfully explore ways and means of expediting implementation!

UNCRPD is a legally binding agreement with comprehensive protection of the rights of persons with disabilities, which requires a commitment by each ratifying State for its implementation.

UNCRPD states clearly, the ratifying states should not discriminate against persons with disabilities and sets out with greater clarity the obligations on States indicating the STEPS that MUST be taken, to promote, protect and ensure that they enjoy their rights, especially enabling environments so that dis-Abled persons start enjoying meaningful real equality in society.

For example, the Convention requires States to take measures to ensure accessibility to the physical environment and information and communications technology, prohibit discrimination and achieve equality for all.

The international community, and the UN in particular, which is much concerned about several other rights in this part of the world, in their actions, regretably, appear to have overlooked the world’s largest minority – the people with dis-Abilities – and allow countries such as Sri Lanka to remain stuck at CRPD’s birth itself for as long as 30 months, without promoting actively to start them even crawling in the right direction.

We wonder for how long the custodians of CRPD, the United Nations, would allow a State after its ratification, to keep prolonging implementation, even without making a genuine start with easy-to-implement clauses that do not require any new legislation or added costs, such as Articles 8 and 9.

Prolonging will set a bad example to other nations.

A committed deadline for full enforcement, enabling the dis-Abled to start enjoying their enshrined rights, – the ultimate long awaited end-result – is a prerequisite.

If there is a commitment that is sincere to ensure that Sri Lanka’s largest minority will enjoy the desired results — as some nations have done to expedite matters and deliver the results without further delay — why cannot we  present the CRPD as it is to Parliament and get its approval, and thereby enable implementation to be legally binding?

Remember, a genuine effort here with a vision to move ahead on fast track, would also afford a low cost feasible fine opportunity to enhance Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Image.

(The writer, a paraplegic since 1992, qualified academically and professionally, has gained national recognition and won international admiration in both cricket and chemistry. Personal adversity has turned this former Senior Manager in Industry into a pioneer Accessibility Rights activist and a competent advisor on Accessibility. See: goo.gl/tZZsmz)

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