Implementing Accessibility Laws Is Imperative
The International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), since 1992, has been annually observed around the world on December 3.
The theme for this year’s IDPD focuses on the Empowering Persons with dis-Abilities for inclusiveness, equal opportunity and equality in daily life.
Life is all about accessing with equal opportunity and safety to what you need and what you desire day-to-day.
Hence, accessibility with SAFETY to all parts of Buildings and Services (includes Transport) the public needs to access and use in daily life, is not only an inherent right but an essential prerequisite.
The right to enjoy meaningful participation in the economic and social life as FULLY FLEDGED CITIZENS involves easy and safe access to key parts of buildings (steps and railings, toilets, entrances, floors, etc.) used for commercial (hotels, restaurants, banks and ATMs, etc.), educational, health (hospitals), recreational (shopping complexes, sports stadia, etc.), social (places of religious worship, etc.) and travel (railways, buses) purposes.
Therefore the degree to which you could meaningfully enjoy the RIGHT TO ACCESS with Safety shall determine the quality of one’s life.
It is thus the single most indispensable right on which meaningful enjoyment of several of these other rights depend heavily.
It is also the right to empower the widest range of people to unlock their varying abilities and enjoy the optimum use of gainful opportunities afforded by development programmes and thereby live life to its fullest.
It shall also benefit wider sectors including pregnant mothers, persons carrying small children or heavy luggage and those convalescing after surgery or illnesses.
Consequences of denial of meaningful enjoyment of this indispensable right include: marginalisation, unwanted dependency, push towards poverty, loss of productive opportunities and thereby potentially CRIPPLING precious human life, economically, socially and mentally.
Real world you live
An estimated 20% of Sri Lanka population – i.e. 4 million people – for different reasons, experience restrictions and limitations to physical mobility, stability and dexterity, even to eye sight.
This includes our fastest ageing population (over 65 years are almost a sixth of our population), a wide range of people inclusive of those convalescing, living with numerous debilitating medical conditions (that often go unnoticed), using wheelchairs and sticks and even the pregnant.
With a blink of an eye, ABILITY could change to varying degrees. Every one of us, for different reasons, is certain to spend some of our time living with limitations in ability – physical, sensory and intellectual.
In day-to-day life in Sri Lanka, STILL, tens of thousands of people with restricted abilities often remain largely marginalised in the man-made environment. They are forced to fight an uphill battle, even at NEW public buildings.
Have you yet not realised that the chances are now very high that, at any stage or any moment in life, for a short time or for a long time, for different reasons, YOU or your loved ones, could experience physical and/or sensory limitations?
With continual infringement of your inherent right to Access you will soon be amongst a most vulnerable and fast increasing, VOICELESS, UNDERPRIVILEGED and marginalised group of nearly 4 million people who are unable properly to access even NEW Buildings.
You will then realise that the world around once you knew to be cheerful and kind, is NO MORE so; and most of your essential needs that were easy doing, are now a burden and you are unwantedly depending on others.
The world around would marginalise you and discriminate against you beyond expectations, perhaps for lifetime.
Poor implementation of Access Laws
Sri Lanka enacted the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act No: 28 of 1996. Clause 23(2) of this Act stipulates:
“No person on the ground of Disability, be subjected to any Liability or Restriction with regard to access to or use of ANY BUILDING or Place which any other Member of the Public has Access to or is entitled to use”.
Under Clause 23(2) of this ACT, by Gazette No: 1,4657/15 dated October 17, 2006, the Ministry of Social Services promulgated a very comprehensive detailed set of Regulations clearly stipulating: Design and Space Requirements and Safety Measures to be adopted in NEW Constructions.
These Regulations were then approved unanimously by our Parliament on March 20, 2007.
Despite three extensions of the deadline by the Social Services Ministry and valiant renewed endeavours, compliance with these Regulations remain poor, except for bits and pieces, here and there, even after 12 years.
Worst offenders include many 5 and 4 star hotels and upper-class restaurants, numerous places of higher education institutes and universities, private sector hospitals, high-end shopping complexes, supermarkets and all forms of transport.
The parts affected most are toilets, steps and railings, signage and ramps at entrances. Even the design of tables and desks at receptions and in restaurants continue to pose inaccessibility.
The regulatory authorities have continuously failed to ensure compliance BEFORE issuing Certificate-of Conformity.
Construction companies obtain Certificates-of Conformity in the absence of due compliance well.
Compliance with design specifications that take into consideration human safety is a low cost and feasible indispensable investment bringing rich dividends to everyone in society.
The colossal waste and the threat to safety of human life caused by the failure to comply with the Laws, is huge compared to the money needed.
The long term mega-development projects are inextricably entwined with the future of the next several generations of Sri Lankans. With this on-going adverse trend there is imminent national disaster, as the next generation of persons suffering from inevitable mobility impediments – numbers of whom will be much larger than at present – will also be prevented from freely accessing and using the facilities there in at a wide range of numerous NEW buildings and enjoying this next phase of development of Sri Lanka.
Back-peddling of the UN Convention (CRPD)
Based on a proposal made by the Social Services Minster, on February 8, 2016 the Government of Sri Lanka ratified the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
Near three years have passed but nothing yet has resulted – even to make a start to implement such a legally binding agreement!
Article 9 together with Articles 6 and 7 concerns Accessibility and easy measures to start implementing the CRPD.
The International Community, the UN in particular, who are much concerned about several other rights in this part of the world, in their actions, regretfully, appears to have overlooked the world’s largest minority – the people with dis-Abilities – and allow countries such as Sri Lanka to remain stuck at CRPD’s birth itself for so…..long – as near three years – without even starting to crawl in the right direction.
Root causes and remedial action
Although comprehensive sets of Regulations are there since 2006, continual absence of a rightly identified and clearly stated set of steps enabling effective implementation, remains the stumbling block.
As the first step to arrest this trend, in 2009 I appeared in person on a wheelchair at the Supreme Courts and successfully pursued a public interest litigation fundamental rights application under SCFR 221/2009. With continual close observations over the last seven years (2012 – 2018), on the enforcement of the Accessibility Laws and a Court Order dated April 27, 2011, a set of 23 professionals of us possessing the widest practical knowledge on this subject, have not only identified the root causes for continual failures and significant lapses but formulated a technically sound set of 10 remedial measures – with each proposed action focusing to arrest and solve a specific major problem.
On this International Day it must be encouraging news for the 4 million Sri Lankans with limited mobility – the largest minority of people of Sri Lanka – that I have already moved the Court to re-activate invocation under SCFR 273/2018 to seek redress in this regard.
We are positive that the APEX Court, in the larger national interest, shall soon incorporate all these measures in full to the anticipated comprehensive judgement and thereby enable us to start implementing more focused measures WITHOUT FURTHER DELAY, towards achieving realistically our long felt dream, “Accessible Sri Lanka for All”.