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Designing to add years to life

by Ranga Chandrarathne

Participants at the awareness programme.

"Do you know that a wide range of people making more than half of Sri Lanka's population, at any given time, are with reduced ability to move freely and YOU or any of your loved ones could be the next victim? This could happen to any of us equally at any time, as this drop in our ability due to many reasons is inevitable.

In fact, we all live with reduced ability at some time in life. However, once caught, you will realise that you are trapped in a vicious cycle of exclusion and is like a Wounded Horse, at the mercy of everyone! As the majority of them are still able and productive, nobody should be disadvantaged or socially excluded through man-made public buildings and places".

"What is most encouraging is that we have a realistic, achievable and an effective solution to extenuate a series of grievous social problems you will otherwise face as consequences. Designing our living environments to include everyone and common to all is an investment. A ramp and a wide doorway will not achieve this goal. It is an art with a science, taking into consideration many a factor.

But once done, they offer a world of opportunity and bring some benefits to everyone! 'Enabling Environments' certainly sets out a big way forward. It makes good business sense and certainly it is a 'Winning Way' to the individual, immediate family, businesses, society and at the end the country", explained Dr Ajith C.S.Perera,the programme coordinator of IDIRIYA.

DR. Ajith C. S. Perera

The programme was organised with much foresight by IDIRIYA, under the leadership and the guidance of Dr.Ajith C. S. Perera.

"A nation's greatness will not be judged by the treatment of its highest citizens, but by the lowest and the weaker segments of the society", said South African Leader Nelson Mandela. It is a universal statement, valid and applicable to any society and it is obvious that society's degree of economic and social development cannot be measured by impressive high-rises or apartment blocks or emerging great cities, but, by how the society treats its citizens, and to what extent the facilities and opportunities are made available for all citizens without any discrimination,"he said.

In a civilised society one's social status is not determined by the sheer strength of physical might, unlike among barbarians where the driving force of the society is the physical strength or in other words "Survival of the Fittest" - the rule of the jungle.

Therefore, it is the duty and the responsibility of each and every member of the society, and that includes the business sector and the Government, to make living environments truly accessible and useable, so as to provide all citizens equal opportunities to realise their innate potentials, and thereby enhance self-reliance, enabling them to attend independently to all daily living activities, such as shopping, banking, recreation, travel and gainful employment.

However, when we stop the rat race for a while, and ponder whether the society we live in, is one that enables all its citizens to realise their true potentials, or one which still imposes restrictions on its citizens with reduced abilities by way of man-made hindrances which are often taken for granted.

Citizens with reduced abilities,are popularly labelled these days as 'differently abled (all of us are differently abled in one aspect or another), some of them by birth, while others are due to various inevitable reasons including accidents, man-made disasters (like the on-going conflict) and medical misadventure.

As birth rates go up, we have increased the number of pregnant mothers and this means restrained mobility and balance during pregnancy and higher number of small children.

In fact, over half of Sri Lanka's population is made up of a wide range of diverse sector of people all moving slowly.

Once imposed with reduced mobility and diminished sight, the way we are continuing to design our living environments prevents them from being productive and making the optimum use of their potential for the betterment of the society.

The prevalent perception of considering people with reduced mobility as more or less an added burden, rather than people with innate potentials and talents, and are equal or on par with any other person in terms of productivity, prevents society from tapping the vast reservoir of talents dormant in them, most of the time, on account of hostile unsafe physical environments that further restrict their mobility.

An invaluable investment

These facts were revealed recently by a panel of eight eminent speakers at Hotel Taj Samudra in Colombo to a packed audience made up of Chief Executives and Senior Managers of key business organizations and some relevant professional bodies in the building, designing and construction industry.

It was an awareness programme with a difference, applaudable and commendable, to open the minds of everyone present to make them see and give them vision to realise the ABILITY of a wide range of people, most of us have missed. For everyone present, it was certainly an evening three hours spent as an investment.

Enabling tourism for all

"We have our hotels which we tend to believe are upto the international standards, but they do not provide even the basic facilities to this diverse and wide range of slow movers, often causing embarrassments and mental pain.

People who are with restricted mobility, and especially for wheel chair users, they do not have even the basic essential facilities - denial of a crucial human right. One exception is Hotel Taj Samudra, one should be commended for the initiative taken to provide two toilets and also a room with basic facilities for independent wheelchair users.

At a time when the Sri Lanka Tourist Board has the vision to make Sri Lanka gateway to South West Asia and tourism a greater and brighter economic and social benefit to us, the Forum agreed that we should establish 'Star PLUS' grade amongst five and four star hotels providing these essential facilities and encourage them to achieve this goal".

"Our Living Environments the way they are being designed, are DISABLED and it is not people who are disabled. So this is a correctable grave mistake our architects and designers are still making, says Mrs. Viji Jegarasasingam, Secretary Ministry of Social Welfare.

"Every customer in this highly competitive business world is a very important business opportunity. As our business thinking and business physical environments are not being totally focused to welcome all customers alike, we are certainly missing vital business opportunities" Renton de Alwis, Former Chairman - The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce noted.

"At a time when our President through 'Mahinda Chintanaya' has correctly identified the importance of increasing productivity, alleviating poverty and respecting all citizens equally, we cannot allow the vast hidden talent, potential, wealth of experience and knowledge of our precious human potential, such as those of Dr Ajith Perera, to continue to go waste, due to the inappropriate designing of our living environments", says Laal Fonseka, Productivity Consultant.

"Architects and Builders still do a critical mistake in assuming that all people move, see and hear well, at all times. The design stage should be taken as an integral part of the building process, and architects must consider the needs of a wide range of people with reduced Abilities", says Dr. Ajith Perera.

Equal opportunity for all

Print and Television Media in particular, have a great responsibility and a moral duty to provide vital opportunities to project the positive and productive image of those with restricted mobility, especially the wheelchair users. They do not want Charity but only Chance to communicate their yet unseen ability as "equally able" people, to the outside world.

Minister for Social Welfare, Douglas Devananda in a message sent and read at this Programme by his advisor Mrs. Maheswary Velautham, an Attorney-at-Law, commended the efforts IDIRIYA is making, not for any profit, and totally on a voluntary basis in giving support to the work his Ministry has initiated on this theme, and expressed his sincere belief that the Private Sector Organisations in particular and the Professionals in the building construction industry, will lend their unhesitant active support.

We too feel that this should be the moral duty and responsibility of everyone, as their Corporate Social Responsibility to recognise and provide. Assistance to dedicated people like Dr Ajith Perera and devoted set of voluntary people at IDIRIYA to make "Enabling Environments for All" becomes a realistic and effective solution to our grievous problem of National importance, 'Social Exclusion'.


DR. Ajith C. S. Perera:

The beacon of light behind the organisation

A product of the University of Colombo, Dr. Ajith Perera is a Chartered Analytical Chemist by profession, and a Fellow of several reputed international bodies.

He is academically and professionally well qualified in different fields, Chemistry and Cricket in particular, from here and in England. He has been a Senior Manager with two reputed multinational pharmaceutical companies here and posses the working experiences and administration skills acquired over a twelve-year period.

He was also a Senior Test Match Cricket Umpire, and has qualified from England as a professional Training Instructor, Scorer, and an Examiner. It had been a stupendous effort by him to have written and published on his own in 1999 and in 2002, two cricket books, whilst seated in his Wheelchair and fighting silently a daunting battle against Paraplegia and win high international recognition and praise.

Twelve years ago a wayside tree crashed on his moving car in Colombo to partly injure his spinal cord. This instantaneously left him a Paraplegic in his mid life itself. Yet, he is ABLE, mobile and active using a Wheelchair.

Since 1996, he is a pioneer campaigner in Sri Lanka for "Enabling Environments for All" and continues his work as a voluntary disability advocate. The success IDIRIYA has with this programme and the impact it had so far made, which you will soon know, is a great credit to Dr Ajith Perera's tenacity, fierce determination, organising skills, leadership and above all his unshakeable belief in this critically-important cause.


Facts about IDIRIYA

IDIRIYA is a not-for-profit registered humanitarian service organisation comprising a group of voluntary professionals in diversified fields. Their work, based on five core values, is all about designing and conducting educational and awareness programmes that suit different customers, to make a positive difference to the lives of all those living with restricted mobility, but yet are able people.

Although they do not seek to represent them, they support and strive to empower them to lobby individually and collectively for change, to benefit their own lives.

They campaign to design and deliver living environments, which can be equally and safely used commonly by all sectors of the society, with choice and with dignity without any hindrance.

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