It was an evening to remember at the Taj Samudra Hotel on May 28th when a representative gathering of invitees met for the launch of a remarkable book focusing on the imperative need for an environment that meets the needs of all people – including those with reduced mobility for whatever reason - was launched and then distributed (free) to all who were present.
A distinguished group of speakers had been assembled by the indefatigable and persuasive Dr. Ajith C.S. Perera, Secretary-General and founder of the organization known as IDIRYA which bears the slogan, "Enabling the disabled". Every one of them emphasized some aspect of why accessibility for all members of the community to public buildings which provide goods and services and facilities, as well as to concert halls and auditoriums, to hotels, cinemas and sports stadiums, is an essential requirement today.
Among the speakers were Mrs. V. Jegarajasingam, Secretary, Ministry of Social Services, and Guest of Honour, Mr Oscar Braganza, M.D. & CEO of CEAT Sri Lanka and Chief Guest, Mr. Palitha Fernando, Deputy Solicitor-General, Prof. Carlo Fonseka, Dr. Tissa Wickramasuriya of the Asiri Group of Hospitals, Mr. Pravir Samarasinghe of Richard Pieris & Co., Mr. Saurab Rata of Taj Samudra Hotel and Mr. S Skandakumar, founder-member of IDIRIYA and formerly Group Chairman, George Steuart & Co. Ltd. It was Dr. Ajith Perera’s brilliant power point presentation, however, that made the greatest impact on the audience. As Prof. Carlo Fonseka observed, "He said it all – with style and distinction, emotion and conviction."
The book itself is exceedingly well put together, with an array of articles from a number of eminent people with experience in this area of making the environment an inclusive one for all segments of society.
The point that Dr. Perera emphasizes in this book is that we’ve got it all wrong if we assume that the "disabled" constitute only a small percentage of the population and comprise only those who are visibly and permanently handicapped. Not so, he asserts with justification. There is a far greater number than the statistics show, for surveys too often take into account only those visible disabilities evidenced by the use of wheelchairs, crutches, walkers and other aids that clearly indicate the users’ lack of mobility.
But hundreds – even thousands – of people suffer from many debilitating conditions that cannot be identified at a glance. The examples he cites include heart disease, shortness of breath, arthritis, neuropathy and retinopathy, impaired vision or hearing, middle-ear imbalances, epilepsy, cervical spondylosis, carpal tunnel syndrome, allergies, certain phobias like agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), and acrophobia (fear of heights), vertigo, urinary incontinence, chronic pain of some kind.
Besides, we have an ageing population whose members have difficulty in negotiating even a couple of steps that have no railings.
"As a result of these non-visible but debilitating conditions, the silent sufferers are engaged in a constant, rather agonizing process of shuttling their attention between the needs and demands of daily life and social and environmental constraints.
Deciding whether to accept an apparently simple invitation to a function can turn into a fretful dilemma packed with ambivalence and apprehension. Any impairment that debilitates (or disables) you even temporarily, IS A DISABILITY!"`
Deputy Solicitor-General, Mr. Palitha Fernando, observed that domestic legislation has to be passed in order to give effect to the signing of an international convention and that the amended draft legislation re an inclusive environment, is now with his department which is going very carefully into every aspect of it. Progressive implementation will follow once this Act becomes law.
Secretary to the Ministry of Social Services, Mrs. V. Jegarajasingam, referred to the Act of 2006 and the Regulations passed along with that, making it mandatory for all public buildings to be fully accessible to the disabled, as a means of integrating the disabled into general society.
"Each and everyone of us must contribute to making this a reality and the Press has an important role to play,"she concluded.
This book makes it very clear how and why an inclusive and enabling environment would be advantageous to all citizens. Age inexorably takes it toll at some time and accidents or sickness can befall anyone at any time.