Guarantee rights of the disabled - DOJF | Sunday Observer

Guarantee rights of the disabled - DOJF

The United Nations Charter for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was signed in 2007, to facilitate persons with disabilities. Although Sri Lanka also signed it, committing to implement universal provisions, there is no progress to date.                                                            Pix: Lake House Media Library
The United Nations Charter for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was signed in 2007, to facilitate persons with disabilities. Although Sri Lanka also signed it, committing to implement universal provisions, there is no progress to date. Pix: Lake House Media Library

Many people look at persons with disabilities, with compassion. All they really want is just their rights. However, the Disabled People’s Organisations Joint Front (DOJF) is in a battle with successive governments (for nearly two decades), to create a society where the rights of persons with disabilities are guaranteed.

While the entire world is celebrating and organising awareness activities targeting International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the Chairperson of DOJF, Rasanjali Pathirage in an interview with the Sunday Observer talked about much needed changes for the community she represents.

A common voice

Over the past 70 years, Sri Lanka has experienced many disasters, including war, riots and bomb blasts. These resulted in an increase of disabled persons apart from the huge number of people born with a permanent disability. According to the 2011 census, the country has about 1.8 million people living with disabilities (which is eight percent of the population). DOJF was formed in 2001 as an umbrella organisation for 30 other organisations that represent persons with disabilities. Which means that DOJF represents each and every person in Sri Lanka with any kind of disability.

“Before we started our organisation, others with disabilities had stood for their own individual rights. DOJF was created to raise a common voice,” she said.

By Parliament Act No. 28 of 1996, Sri Lanka ensured the protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which was never fully put into practice. For example, Section 5 of the Act emphasizes that disabled people should not have a problem when entering a building. A special gazette in 2006 outlined how all government buildings should be made accessible to disabled people. In the absence of its implementation, in 2019 Dr. Ajith C. Perera a pioneering activist in rights of the people with disabilities, obtained a verdict from the Supreme Court for the betterment of thousands of persons with disabilities.

“The first case was filed against the Ministry of Justice. It has not yet complied with the court order,” Pathirage said.

Rights limited to documents

The United Nations Charter for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was signed in 2007, to facilitate persons with disabilities comprising about 15 percent of the world’s population. Although Sri Lanka has also signed it, committing to implement universal provisions, there is no progress to date, Pathirage believes.

“For 12 years now, we have failed to pass the domestic legislation on the UN Charter. Every government made plans. It’s all in the documents. They were never implemented on the ground.”

Sri Lanka has always been known for planning and making reports, rather than implementing. Plans made to ensure the rights of persons with disabilities fall into that category. In addition to the 1996 Act, there is a gazette notification that came into effect in 2006, followed by a Supreme Court ruling in 2019.

Further, Sri Lanka has a National Action Plan on Disability prepared by the Ministry of Social Services in 2014.

Despite this, the rights of persons with disabilities have been presented under the National Plan for Human Rights Promotion, which was introduced in 2017 on the intervention of the then President.

However, India is far ahead of Sri Lanka in this regard. “I was born as a person with a disability. When on the stairs of a train, I can never lift one leg and then the other. So I could never go on a train. But India has passed its local legislation and has implemented same including the accessibility to trains,” Pathirage said.

In 2017, members of DOJF, headed to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva and eventually gained a new opportunity to fight for their rights.Thus, during the budget debate of 2018, there was a discussion about people with disabilities and Pathirage and others met the COPE Committee and the Public Accounts Committee.

The two committees investigated government expenditure on persons with disabilities.

“When we went to Geneva, we had conversations with many parties. Officials and Ministers of the Ministry of External Affairs of Sri Lanka spoke with us in a very friendly manner. But after coming back to Sri Lanka, nothing of what was promised was implemented,” Pathirage said.

Need for a joint mechanism

Following the announcement of the 2019 presidential election, various organisations, including DOJF, demanded all main candidates to include a chapter on the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities, in their policy statements.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa presented a detailed program, so did the two other main candidates, MP Sajith Premadasa and MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake. President Gotabaya promised the full implementation of the United Nations Charter in Sri Lanka and to develop a mobile app for the communication needs of the disabled. People with disabilities now want to see the implementation of these election promises.

“It was Gotabaya Rajapaksa who first started using ‘tactile’ on the roads in view of the visually handicapped. We have great faith in him.We asked the President to create a mechanism to connect all ministries and government institutions to facilitate persons with disabilities. The President agreed to create a program with our representation,” Pathirage said.

Communication channels

During the Easter blasts in April, a curfew was imposed for several days across the country. While the public received information about the curfew through various media platforms, the hearing impaired did not get the message.

Communication for people with hearing impairment is entirely based on sign language. They have difficulty reading or writing and understanding what someone else says. Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation is the only media institution in Sri Lanka that currently uses sign language. Their major news broadcasts features news in sign language.

“There are about 400,000 hearing impaired people in Sri Lanka. But we do not have even 10 sign-language teachers. Also there is no Act or Law on the use of sign language, yet. So hiring sign language training personnel is also a challenge,” Pathirage said.

The Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations represent an inclusive journey in development. Hence, if a country is to be considered as developed in this century, it is imperative that development benefits must flow to everybody. Whether Sri Lanka is ready for such a broad program, is still a big issue.

According to Pathirage, even the ministries which directly deal with people with disabilities simply ignore their empowerment.

“There is very little involvement of people with disabilities in Health Ministry programs. Particularly, in education programs on sexuality. People with disabilities do need to know of such things.”

Pathirage also pointed out that despite the high incidence of abuse of women with disabilities, none of the political parties have paid any attention to it. “There are over 900,000 disabled women.

Even if they are abused there is no legal solution they could take. People with hearing impairment/ intellectual disabilities are abused a lot. They don’t even know about the injustice they face.”