Features

"Chance not Charity" make the disabled productive citizens

by Dr. Ajith C. S. Perera
The gateway to make people truly productive and full fledged citizens, is to provide "opportunities rather than charity", to unlock the wealth of experience, knowledge and potential they posses. This cannot happen until and unless everyone enjoy their legitimate fundamental right for the "Freedom of Access" to goods, services and facilities at key places in the country such as Banks, Restaurants, Shops and Markets, Business Establishments, Star-class Hotels, Recreation Centres, Cricket and Sports Stadia, (at least up-coming) Housing Complexes, Auditoriums and Conference Centres, etc.

‘Freedom of Access at built environments’, is also the essential and the most crucial single need towards "self-independence", i.e. opportunities to attend as much as possible on your own to all daily living needs and activities, such as Gainful-employment, Marketing and Shopping, Banking, Recreation and Travel. Longer the denial of this basic essential human right to every sector in the country, greater will be the number of more and more dependents it produces, which in return creates unnecessary added huge burden on society, financially and socially both. ‘Freedom of Access’ is also the one and only way for improving one’s quality of life economically, socially, physically and mentally. It is the only effective answer to avert the uprising vicious social problem that encompasses ‘social exclusion from mainstream, marginalisation and poverty’. It is also the remedy to diffuse unwanted unrest and agitation in society resulting from denial of this fundamental freedom.

REAL BARRIER TO SELF-INDEPENDENCE.

Incorrect perceptions and false believes leads to destructive attitudes, amongst own fellow citizens. This is the root-cause for the denial of "barrier-free environments" and then of "self- independence". These happen easily in pessimist societies, mostly through ignorance and due to absence of any deliberately planned on-going awareness programs through (TV) media. A change in attitudes and a true sense of urgency by each and everyone in the driving seat are essential pre- requisites. Let me illustrate this first.

How many of us have a proper understanding of what really is "Disability" and how or what causes that? `Disability’ is still falsely understood, wrongly interpreted and incorrectly believed in Sri Lanka as a medical problem that resides in the individual. Naturally it leads to the injurious thinking that "Disability is a condition some people have within themselves". As no two people are ever identical, every one of us to varying degree has limitations, physically, sensorily or intellectually. For example see the number using spectacles with varying lens powers. We Sri Lankans rush to ‘tag them injuriously’ into groups calling them "People with Disabilities" or ‘The Handicapped People’ or since lately as the fashion goes as ‘Differently Able’. In fact we all think and do things differently from birth at all times!

In the true sense, ‘Disability’ is the state to which people are dragged into by our own ‘Structural and Attitudinal Barriers’ in outside environments of the society, disregarding and ignoring the physical and sensory (and intellectual) limitations people have, thereby causing denial or restriction of activity. For example, a narrow doorway prevents someone in going through that but a minor change making that opening wider, permits his/her passing through. Now, who is to be blamed, the person or that inappropriate external physical structure, for the denial of access? Hence, "Disability" is a social problem and also a human rights issue that can easily be corrected, concerning and focusing with environmental variables (such as social, institutional and policy factors).

OVER TWO MILLION HERE ADVERSLY AFFECTED!

In Sri Lanka we have today over 10% of our population which is over 1.5 million, who are physically and / or sensorily (mainly vision and hearing) or even intellectually impaired. The frightening fact is that the chances of any one of us becoming impaired at tremendous costs to human life, are now alarmingly high here (in spite of the stoppage of the war). The three main reasons for that are; (a) A total lack of ‘Road Discipline, (b). No action on ‘Road Safety issues,, (example; wayside trees still crash often even in the business capital of the Country!) and (c). Increase in debilitating illnesses striking at younger ages. Remember, as fate is no respecter of persons and positions, tomorrow it could be you or your loved ones!

In addition, the number of ‘Senior Citizens’ are at least another good 15% and as revealed by the HELP AGE we are also a rapidly ageing population.

One crucial thing common to almost each and every one of them in this 25% of our population is that they have been thrusted upon with restricted mobility and other impairments, often for lifetime’ Remember, at least good 70% of them were not born with these impairments, of this 25% of population, at least 50% which means over a two million, are still with much more productive lifestyles ahead of them. They are our own fellow citizens in the same neighbourhood and town, being denied of opportunities to unlock their potential or even go and watch any of the on-going Test Matches at any of ‘our international match venues here’, as the living environments are not friendly towards their mobility and mixing, even in using Wheelchairs!

LABYRINTH TO SELF-INDEPENDENCE

For too long has discrimination for opportunities and equality of treatment for wheelchair users in particular (i.e. those with the greatest mobility impairment) through denial of the freedom of Access to built environments, have taken place in Sri Lanka and still happening in 2003! In spite of these non-violent very peaceful moves without any rebel, our grievance has never been addressed effectively. Even our own constitution tragically overlooks us as ‘Functional Limitations’ are still not valid grounds in Sri Lanka, to win basic human rights. Although their Total Number in all four categories run into at least four million, these minority groups have no representations in the parliament to win their justified demands. None invite them for any fruitful discussions or for any negotiated settlements! Even all Sri Lanka Television Channels deny opportunities they warmly extended to others in same society, for our equal participation in an ongoing basis at all discussion forums. Provide us "Chance than Charity", to interact equally as much as possible with others in the same society, to move ahead, please.

EVEN HEROIC SOLDIERS AFFECTED

Everyone talks about the heroic "Ranaviru" soldiers who have got into states of sever physical and sensory impairments, fighting on behalf of the country. It is the bounden duty of the SL Government and also the Society to look after these patriotic sons once they leave the caring hands of Brigadier Warusavithana at Ranaviru Sevena. Like all the other members of the civil society in similar position, "self-independence" is still only a dream for them too. They too regret their inability to integrate with the society once again due to same old demon, ‘Barriers to Access Built Environments’.

LACKADAISICAL ATTITUDES:

The Architects and Designers are the custodians of the ‘Built-Environments’. Even after long years of time, words and thoughts even by responsible professionals in our country, have failed to deliver the goods.

"Chance not Charity"

Federations and Organisations responsible for employment opportunities have struggled and have failed to find suitable employment even for 1% of the Wheelchair users, in spite of the merit and talent they possess! Except for a handful, those in this field claiming to serve the ‘Disabled’, enjoy a lucrative business with hidden agendas. As Sir Arthur C. Clarke very appropriately suggested last July, we request all these personnel to spend just one-day on a wheelchair, going about with their daily living activities. That is the only way to make them realise what a struggle wheelchair users and those with mobility limitations face day after day, due to their ‘Nelsonian eye and the Deaf ear’.

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WE MUST MOVE AHEAD FAST

The international community through ongoing efforts of the United Nations have repeatedly stressed that the rights of the ‘Disabled’ require much more comprehend treatment than in the context of community based rehabilitation and social welfare, (which we have only been doing so far) and must include the full range human rights. Certainly it’s debateable whether any worthwhile effort has been made seriously so far, to make "user-friendly barrier-free conducive physical environments for wheelchair users and all others with impaired mobility", even at any key building or vital place of this country. This along with equalisation of treatment and equalisation of opportunities, form the essential three prerequisites, if we truly are to move ahead.

PROPOSED ACTION PLANS

As we need not wait ineptly and waste more time until things become mandatory by law, urgent attention should be focused on the following truly worthwhile causes. .These are indeed areas where collective, cohesive and truly sincere efforts are essential.

(1) Creation of Barrier-free environments, both physical (at identified key places in the country) and attitudinal, that are conducive to our active participation and equal mixing with others. In this regard, proper advice preferably from a Wheelchair user, is essential to make certain that the basics are right and appropriate.

(2) Institutions such as BANKS;, SUPERMARKETS, HOTELS, PLACES OF EDUCATION, etc., considerably fall short in providing their services "equally to those with physical and sensory limitations." As such they no more are truly customer caring organisations. For survival and growth of any business, customer care is of critical importance. Actions speak louder and far effectively than words and thoughts. Design and implement short-term results-oriented programs to make your own business environments "Barrier-free and friendly for all users" (which hardly costs you anything!) and provide equal treatment you are giving all the other customers. In this way, you will also earn a new sector of customers.

"Attitudes and choices made today, build the house we live in tomorrow."

For too long has discrimination for opportunities and equality of treatment for the Disabled, wheelchair users in particular (i.e. those with the greatest mobility impairment) through denial of the freedom of "Access to Built Environments", have taken place in Sri Lanka and still happening in 2003! Even our own constitution tragically overlooks them They need "Chance than Charity", to interact equally with others in the same society, to move ahead.


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