Brimming possibilities in the disabled
By Lynn Ockersz

‘Businesses in Sri Lanka should aim at attracting a greater diversity of customers, including the nearly 30 percent of the population who are disabled for various reasons, for the purpose of not only building commercial prosperity but for also making Sri Lanka a more caring society,’ Dr. Ajith Perera, a fervent advocate of better built environments and facilities for the country’s disabled said.

The key concept in this context is ‘design for inclusion,’ he explained in an interview with the ‘Sunday Island.’ Public and other buildings should be designed or constructed in such a manner that they facilitate the movements of not only the able but the disabled too and it should be remembered that disability takes myriad forms. There are the obvious forms of disability, such as immobility of limbs, paralysis, blindness, deafness and dumbness and these are only the more visible forms of disability. However, it is also important to take cognizance of a range of debilitating conditions, such as aging, rheumatism, arthritis, dizziness, impaired vision, old age and even pregnancy which hamper our movements and all such limiting factors should be considered as disabling. These conditions account for the high 30 percent of the disabled among us and building designs should facilitate the movements of these persons and accommodate all of them. Business establishments, for example, should strongly consider modifying their buildings to facilitate the movement of the disabled because – among other things – this will bring in more customers.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: You are the founder of ‘Idiriya’, an organization committed to the cause of helping the disabled. What progress has been made by ‘Idiriya’ over the past two years since its founding?

A: One of the focuses of ‘Idiriya’ has been helping in the establishment of suitable built environments which would benefit the disabled of this country. Accordingly, ‘design for inclusion’ has been one of our guiding principles. ‘Idiriya’ was established by me along with a few professionals and we have been advocating building designs and their implementation which would be inclusive of the disabled and facilitate their mobility. This is the essence of ‘design for inclusion’. Our advocacy has had three emphases: First, we have tried to impress on the business community in particular the need to not only modify their present built environments to facilitate the disabled, but to also invest more money on establishing public facilities for the disabled. Secondly, we have tried to bring about attitudinal changes among the public to facilitate these ends. Thirdly, we have tried to make the business community to see that ‘design for inclusion’ is a winning way to generating more business.

Over the past 10 months our advocacy has shown some success. For example, organizations such as, Hotel Taj Samudra, Airport Gardens Hotel, Seeduwa, HSBC Premium Center, Flower Rd., Glaxo, Ratmalana, HNB Wattala, Arpico Super Centre, Hyde Park Corner, Dehiwela and Mt. Lavinia post offices, Dehiwela Municipal Council, Astron Ltd, the Superior Courts Complex, Hulftsdorp and the British Council, Colombo have modified their buildings to facilitate the disabled. HSBC Premium Centre has not only made the necessary modifications to its buildings but made a series of internal changes to help the disabled. All this has been achieved in just 10 months. Through these changes brought about under the ‘design for inclusion’ project, the relevant sections of the business world are helping to eliminate a range of grievous social problems. They are also generating better business by attracting a diversity of people including, of course, the disabled, who would be comfortable in these new surroundings.

Q: These public facilities which you have helped establish, are they accessible to all sections of the disabled?

A: In our thinking we embrace what is called the social model. We do not go by the outdated medical model. According to the social model, in caring for the disabled, the first category of persons we need to be concerned about is the aging population who are 15 percent of our population and are rising. Those coming under the second category show no visible signs of disability. For example, those suffering from rheumatism, arthritis, back problems, knee problems, vertigo, vision impairment and diabetes. All these persons have mobility problems. The third category consists of pregnant mothers and those mothers who carry children. The fourth category are made-up, obviously, of accident victims. All these sections of the disabled make-up 30 percent of the population at any given time. According to the social model these persons suffer from some form of impairment but they are dragged to the ranks of the disabled on account of negative public attitudes. For instance, a wheel-chair user cannot pass through a narrow doorway. Doorways are usually designed for only fully mobile persons. However, sensitivity to the needs of the disabled will help to introduce disable-friendly doorways. What is important is to devise facilities which will enable the disabled to achieve what they want.

So, changes to the living environment, brought about even gradually, would help all categories of our disabled to see to their needs and thereby improve the quality of their lives. A lesser number of people would be dependents and they would be able to optimize their potential.

At a time when we are speaking of economic growth, poverty alleviation etc. we need to use the capabilities of everyone. A person may be in crutches but would prove very productive if the opportunities and facilities are provided for such persons to be up and about, contributing towards national development. Idiriya has been endeavoring to do this.

Q: Are you satisfied with the public sector’s response to Idiriya’s programmes?

A: Personally yes, but as a country no. The Ministry of Social Services is following the state regulations regarding disable -friendly built environments but no other ministry has provided the support and modified their environments. For example, the two state banks which come under the President himself. The Social Services Ministry occupies the fifth floor of a building. So many other ministries which occupy other floors in the same building, have done nothing to make their buildings disable-friendly. The regulation concerned was passed by all parties in Parliament but except for the Social Services Ministry no other ministry has moved a finger to implement it.

However, the Tourism Ministry and hotels, which are in lucrative businesses, are not doing anything about the regulation. Hotels welcome a range of customers including disabled persons. If the facilities are installed in hotels we could generate more foreign exchange.

People need to realize the benefits that such disable-friendly facilities bring to all sections of society. We constantly need to raise awareness on these issues and when those with the means bring about even small changes, the cumulative result could be substantial. However, the weapon of persuasion should be constantly used.


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