By Nadia Fazlulhaq   Sixteen years after the signing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), Sri Lanka still lags behind on rights and facilities. groups representing these citizens complain. They say the contribution of the state has been limited to an allowance and all the hype in November and [...]


Sri Lankans with disabilities waiting decades for rights recognition


By Nadia Fazlulhaq  

Sixteen years after the signing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), Sri Lanka still lags behind on rights and facilities. groups representing these citizens complain.

They say the contribution of the state has been limited to an allowance and all the hype in November and the first week of December, when the International Day of Persons with Disabilities approaches.

Sri Lanka has 1.6 million people with disabilities (PWDs). This means close to 10% of the population has some kind of disability. However, these numbers are based on the last census in 2012.

The Council of the Blind Secretary, R.M.H.P. Gunaratne, said the Ministry of Public Administration had issued a circular instructing all state departments and corporations to fill 3% of the vacancies with persons with disabilities.

“Only the Education Department is currently following it. As it is just a circular and not a law, state institutions have a lethargic approach towards empowering persons with disabilities,” he said, insisting that the local legislation, Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act No. 28 of 1996, needs to be updated.

“The 1996 legislation covers mainly the right to education, access to public places, and the right to employment. The bill has been taking shape since 2004. Globally, PWDs have over 30 rights that empower them. The increasing elderly population means more people suffer from disabilities as they age. Road accidents are leaving young people disabled for life,” Mr. Gunaratne said.

He said that before focusing on disability access in tourism, state institutions need to improve accessibility for disabled citizens.

“Recently, I visited a court complex in the suburbs. There was no lift, and people had to walk several floors. This was the same for the area’s legal aid office. This is the situation in many government offices. How can a person using a wheelchair or crutch enter these buildings?” asks Mr. Guneratne, who has his share of struggles using a white cane.

He urged authorities to make it compulsory for all state and private buildings to make them accessible for PWDs.

According to Mr. Guneratne, there is a severe shortage of about 48 pieces of equipment used by PWDs. Among them are braille writing devices, including slates used by students, braille wristwatches, white canes, hearing aids, wheelchairs, and so on.

“Schools for the deaf and blind are making requests from the council. Unfortunately, a lack of funds and a shortage of equipment are our obstacles. We requested the government make them tax-free as the costs were unbearable,” he added.

The Sri Lanka Central Federation of the Deaf said about 500,000 hearing-impaired people face difficulties due to a lack of sign language interpreters.

“For deaf people, access means sign language. State and private institutions should have even a few employees trained in sign language. Since 2010, the federation has been urging governments to recognise sign language,” said an official of the federation via an interpreter.

The Sunday Times learns that even the Ranaviru Seva Authority is short of medical equipment for about 25,000 disabled veterans.

“Sri Lankans overseas are welcome to contribute to empowering and supporting disabled veterans by donating equipment,” said Brigadier Chandra Abeykoon, director of the Ranaviru Seva Authority.

Earlier this year, the authority requested Sri Lankans overseas to support their projects by providing 500 electric wheelchairs for disabled servicemen and scholarships for children of veterans.

According to the 2021 annual report of the authority, 3,232 disabled veterans have asked for crutches, while 1,033 have sought artificial limbs. Over 1,000 disabled servicemen have requested wheelchairs, while 538 have asked for spectacles. The same year, 125 disabled veterans requested canes, 189 wanted commode chairs, 189 asked for gel socks, 50 asked for electrical cycles, 70 wanted artificial hands, another 73 asked for ancillary crutches, and 82 asked for surgical shoes.

“About 70% of people with disabilities can be empowered. The government has increased the disabled persons allowance by Rs. 2,500 from the budget, but along with charity, empowerment should take place,” said disabled rights activist Kasunjith Satanarachchi.

Mr. Satanarachchi, a disability inclusion analyst attached to a UN agency office, said ‘disability inclusive tourism’ will attract disabled and elderly tourists.

He suggested the government re-invest the income generated by promoting disability-inclusive tourism among high-end tourists to empower and provide jobs for PWDs here.

“From running souvenir shops to making ornaments, issuing tickets, and employment in hotels, there are plenty of tourism-related jobs for persons with disabilities. All PWDs do not need to be a burden to the state,” he said.

Pasquel promises railway will be accessible to less-abled

Anupa Pasquel, minister of social empowerment, told the Sunday Times that President Ranil Wickremesinghe instructed officials to draft the disability rights bill.

“The bill is in the draft stage and will be presented to Parliament in January 2024. This process has been dragging on for two decades,” he said.

‘Accessible Sri Lanka’ will be this year’s theme on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

“All major tourist destinations and even main railway stations will be made disabled and elderly-friendly for both locals and foreign tourists. Next year will be dedicated to enhancing accessibility for the elderly population and PWDs,” he said.


Job skills for youth with special needs

The state and private sectors should proactively empower the youth with special needs, said Dr. Manel Goonesekera, chief executive officer of Chitra Lane School for Special Children.

“We launched a paper recycling course and a baker’s course for youth with disabilities. These are for youth between the ages of 18 and 21. Once completed, they can find employment or engage in self-employment,” she said.

The Chitra Lane Academy is also receiving a large number of applicants to the NVQ Level course on childcare therapy assistants (special needs).

“This is a positive sign that the public is showing interest in this field. There are applicants from Thalawakelle, Polonnaruwa, and Pitigala. They are willing to come to Colombo to follow this course and open centres for special needs children, or to be teachers of special needs,” she said.

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