Sri Lanka has a long tradition of sharing with our disabled citizens the state’s largesse when it comes to welfare. The state provides grants for medical expenses and self-employment, assistive devices free of cost, cash transfers to those who have low incomes and provides youth with vocational training in special institutions. The state also subsidizes homes which house children with disabilities and those special schools run only for them by NGOs and the private sector. These unfortunately reach limited numbers because budgets have of necessity to be restricted. Within our society, on our birthdays and in remembrance of our relatives who have passed on, we follow a tradition of giving alms as meals to people in residential homes and donate gifts to individuals. The state and society both see them as in need of “social services” synonymous with “charity” This has been the situation in Sri Lanka for many decades. People with disabilities are beneficiaries of goodwill and charity.
And yet this article puts forward the viewpoint that Sri Lanka neglects our citizens with disabilities. The context for this statement is that the World of Disability has moved on, has changed, and Sri Lanka has not kept up with those changes. Global Society has moved away from seeing people with disability as mere objects of charity isolated from the mainstream of society. No more is it enough for people with disabilities to be just beneficiaries of special state allocations and segregated services. Neither is it enough for them to be just receivers of other people’s largesse. People with disabilities are citizens with equal rights and responsibilities. Both as individuals and as a group they are of equal worth as any other. They are entitled to an equitable share of the country’s resources. They have the right to participate in whatever other citizens participate in –whether it be the same schools, the same workplaces, the same social institutions. These institutions need to change to accommodate and include people with disabilities. This is far from the reality in Sri Lanka – we still do not see people with disabilities as human beings in their own right with hopes and aspirations, dreams and desires like our own.
Changes in Disability
Global changes in disability came about as a result of a deeper understanding of disability and its causes. First came the acceptance that the situation of disability is largely caused by stigma and societal attitudes – we perceive them as being different as human beings with different needs. Because they cannot see, or hear or speak or behave or learn or move like we do they are not seen as “human beings just like us”. And so the resulting discrimination, the inequalities, the separate services, the name calling. They cannot attend our weddings and our social celebrations. They cannot use our public transportation. It is time for us to change and catch up with the World. We must aim at removing those barriers that keep people with disabilities out of our lives, out of our communities, out of what we do. It is time to stop our neglect of them.
The acceptance of the social cause of disability was followed by a clearer understanding of the functional cause of disability. Disability follows an illness or accident which alters an individual’s health condition. This alteration we call disability. Any human being can have an illness, and so it follows that any human being can have disability. Therefore disability is a part of being human – it is a part of us, a part of the rich diversity of our human race.
UN Convention on Disability
It is this acceptance and understanding that led to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) which was approved by the General Assembly in 2006. This instrument recognizes in International Law that people with disabilities have the same Human Rights as all others. They have the right to equality of opportunity and to equal access to goods and services; the right not to be discriminated against; the right to decide what they will participate in, have access to those and be accepted and included; and most of all they have a right to live their lives in dignity and independence with the freedom to make their own choices.
We need to thank Hon. S.B.Dissanayake Minster of Social Empowerment and Welfare and the Government for having ratified the UN Convention on the 8th of February this year, 9 years after Sri Lanka placed its signature on it in April 2007. That this delay in ratification was an extension of our neglect of people with disabilities is a valid assumption.
And yet during these 9 years some fundamental measures called for to implement the CRPD have been put in place Affordable and Rights-Based National Policies and National Action Plans have been approved by Cabinet. Legislation to enforce implementation of these as well to serve as the local enabling legislation for the CRPD has been drafted but is yet to be enacted. One can justify asking the question of whether these were merely tokens over the years in an attempt to keep a small pressure group quiet?
The assumption of neglect has further grounds because of the absence of action. We need then to ask, how serious are we really about the ratification of the UN Convention? Was it just another token but this time to satisfy the “international community”? We need to take note of the fact that even after we ratified it the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in his closing statement to the Sri Lankan media last month mentioned his concern about the human rights situation of our people with disabilities.
If Sri Lanka is serious about implementing the Convention and improving the lives of our disabled children and adults, we need to take the next step called for in the Convention. We need to establish a body such as a National Disability Commission to see that that the Convention is implemented through the cabinet-approved National Action Plan for Disability. Article 33 of the Convention describes how implementation is to be done within countries and the need for a mechanism within Government. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights elaborates on this further in a special report. This Report in no uncertain terms calls for this body to be placed “at the most senior level of Government close to the heart of Government such as in the Office of the President or Prime Minster .. “. The High Commissioner’s report states clearly that it should best not be under a single ministry such as social welfare, labour or education. Reasons for this are that this Body within the Government responsible for the implementation of the Convention needs to reflect” an understanding of human rights” which is a cross-ministerial issue of immense proportions. It needs to be at a level that can provide oversight and coordination, and hence in the Office of the P.M. or President. The mandate of this Body includes also liaising with a separate independent commission designated with the task of monitoring national implementation.
Hope for the Future
Perhaps the biggest barrier in Sri Lanka to eliminating neglect of disability issues is the lack of interest in people with disabilities on the part of politicians, professionals and administrators – namely those who have the power to change the situation. People with disabilities are among the poorest and most marginalized of our vulnerable groups of citizens. They have no voice. Who will voice concern for their future? Will the National Disability Commission, the enactment of a new Disability Rights Act and the implementation of the UN Convention through the National Plan of Action for Disability become a reality? When they do, we could say that Sri Lanka has stopped neglecting her citizens with disabilities. We can have hope that they will be recognized and accepted as citizens with equal rights, included in the mainstream of Sri Lankan Society.
By: Dr. Padmani Mendis: Advisor, Disability and Rehabilitation