Landmark SC ruling, a fillip for accessibility rights of disabled

The right of the disabled to have unhindered access to public buildings received a substantial boost when the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka ruled on Oct. 14, that, among other things, all new public buildings in the country should conform fully to already enacted disability access laws and regulations. Buildings in the commercial, recreational, social, educational, residential and industrial categories are expected to come under the purview of these laws, which were included in the statute book some years ago, but which have come to be seen as not fully and energetically implemented.

‘In terms of the SC order, made in respect of case no. SC (FR) 221/2009, these categories of buildings should render their facilities accessible to the disabled, including toilets’, said Dr, Ajit C. Perera, the disability rights activist, who personally represented matters for the disabled before the SC, subsequent to him petitioning the Court on the need to have the laws fully enforced and implemented. He said that in addition to toilets, the following ‘key parts’ of buildings should be constructed in accordance with ‘design requirements’ set out in the law: entrances, floor surfaces, pathways and corridors, doors, steps and stairs, hand rails, grab bars, ramps, lifts, car parks and signage.

The SC order further states that all authorities who are empowered to approve building plans or issue any ‘Certificates of Conformity’ for public buildings, should refrain from doing so in respect of any buildings which violate these orders. ‘Any violations of the court order would incur punitive repercussions and would be seen as Contempt of Court’, Perera explained.

‘Because of this court order, anyone has the liberty to file a motion in case a party acts in violation of these accessibility laws’, he further said. Outlining some of the positive effects of the order, he explained that from now on, building planners, architects, builders and local authorities would be required to adhere to the legal requirements in regard to accessibility. Besides preventing safety hazards, productive opportunities in life would be enhanced for the disabled, it was pointed out.

Laws requiring public buildings and facilities to be accessible equally by disabled persons were passed in 1996 and further strengthened by the introduction of accessibility regulations under these laws in 2005. These instruments met with the unanimous approval of Parliament

‘However, a lethargic bureaucracy even after 13 long years has failed to establish a formal mechanism to implement the legislation to any meaningful degree at buildings providing essential services to the public in their day-to-day life and thereby failed to prevent discrimination against and marginalization of the disabled. Hence, the laws were made defunct and badly needed to be resurrected’, Perera pointed out by way of providing the rationale for his court action.

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