Differently abled or disability is defined as limitation of a person’s ability to carry out the activities of daily living, to the extent that he or she may need help in doing so. The American Disabilities Act of 1990 defines disability, as ‘physical or a mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of life abilities’.
Such impairment may include physical, sensory and cognitive or intellectual impairment. Mental disorders, such as psychiatric or psychosocial disability or various types of diseases such as TB, HIV, stroke, spinal cord injuries, Arthritis, Alzheimer may be also considered as disabilities.
A disability may occur during a person’s lifetime or exist from birth. The WHO define it as a “restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range of considered normal for a human being” – a functional limitation or activity restriction by an impairment.
Impairment would mean “any loss or abnormality caused of psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function such as loss of limb, organ or other body structure, as well as defects or loss of a mental function. The definition of ‘disabled person’ according to the Declaration on the Rights of the Disabled Persons proclaimed by the United Nations Assembly on December 9, 1975 is: “any person unable to ensure by himself, wholly or partially, the necessities of a normal individual and/or social life, as a result of deficiency, either congenital or not, in his or her physical or mental capabilities.”
The World Health Organization estimates that about 650 million (about 10 per cent of the world population) around the world are differently abled people and of this it estimates, 80 per cent live in developing countries. In a number of countries, people with disabilities are entitled to a range of benefits, such as, attendance and mobility allowances, free medical facilities, concessions in parking and on public transport. Many countries have enacted ‘Equal opportunities legislation’ to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against, in the workplace. According to the Sri Lankan National Census 2002, the number of people disadvantaged due to disability stands at 1,629,000. This may not be a correct figure now, as the ‘civil war’ that ravaged the country, during the last few years had affected many mentally and physically. Number of people, both civilians and fighters, on both sides have been affected physically and psychologically. Many have lost their limbs due to artillery fire and due to bombardment from the air and many have become mentally deranged having witnessed the loss of their kith and kin.
Many of the disadvantaged are hidden from society – they shy away because a large section of the society shuns them. Social exclusion of persons with disabilities lies at the core of the problem often defining the path the people take and treated, to how they are perceived and treated. When people are stymied at every turn by social stigma it is difficult for those to survive in society. Anxiety and hopelessness can cripple them more than their physical and mental limitations and dwindling options. Insulting terminology such as nondiya (lame fellow), pissa (mad fellow) used by people, who are fortunate not to be affected by disabilities, add to their suffering. Depression can set in and the spectre of hunger, makes their lives miserable. Most of them live in deplorable conditions owing to physical and civil barriers, which prevent their integration and full participation in the community. As a result they are segregated and deprived of virtually of their rights and lead a wretched and marginal life.
The treatment meted out to the disabled persons, defines the inner characteristics of a society and highlights the cultural values that sustain it. Surely with the great traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism, the major religions of the country, Sri Lankans should be able to play a more vital role in alleviating the sufferings of the disabled?
Social acceptance of these people will do much to pave the way for such persons to interact in society with great confidence to face their problems. Attitudes and traditions have to change for the ‘differently abled’ people to be accepted by society. Disability related information campaigns and created awareness are important steps towards this end. Today the debate has moved beyond a concern about perceived cost of maintaining dependent people with disabilities, to an effort of finding effective ways to ensure, that people with disabilities can participate in and contribute to society in all spheres of life.
People with disability are also human beings and have the same fundamental rights as other citizens of the country (Article 3 of the UN Declaration) to enjoy the right to a decent life, as normal as possible. They have the same civil and political rights and are entitled to the measures designed to become self reliant as possible.
They have the right according to their capabilities to secure and retain employment or to engage in a useful, productive and remunerative occupation and to join trade unions to promote their interests. According to the UN Declaration the disabled are entitled to have their special needs taken into consideration at all stages of economic and social planning. They have a right to live with their families or with their foster parents and participate in all social, creative or recreational activities. They shall according to the Declaration be protected from ‘exploitation, of all regulations and all treatment of a discriminatory, abusive or degrading nature’.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCPRD) adopted by the assembly in December 2006, and which came into effect in May 2008, draws a lot of attention to the inclusion of people with disabilities in international development cooperation. Article 32 of the Convention stipulates that international development cooperation must include people with disabilities and be accessible to them. In the process, cooperation between the various actors in the civil society and persons with disabilities is decisive. Some donors – including, Australia, Germany and Great Britain – have made disability and development a focal point of their development cooperation. The Australian government recently (Aus AID) presented its strategy for inclusive development. The guidelines in these papers include:
- Human rights orientation,
- Active involvement of persons with disabilities and their organizations,
- Net working based on co-operation and
- Respect for the needs and potential of the disabled as a heterogeneous group.
The guidelines provide for a twin track approach, which combines advocacy on one hand with specific programmes or the empowerment of persons with disabilities as well as initiatives to include these in other development programmes Article 24 of the Convention emphasizes the right of all children to education within an inclusive system. It is estimated that only three per cent of the children with special needs have access to education worldwide, most of them in special as opposed to inclusive facilities. World vision argues that inclusion of children with special needs is crucial if millennium development goals are to be reached. Article 28 speaks of social protection which would mean protection of the following:
- Access to and social transfers,
- The option of receiving micro loans,
- Social protection programmes such as health coverage,
- The right to social services such as benefits.
Economists estimate that the exclusion of persons with disabilities and their family members from productive labour results in economic losses equal to about seven per cent of the GDP worldwide (World Bank 2008). Disability and development have become a core issue for the World Bank in the sector of social security. Article 27 of the Convention relates to empowerment of the disabled persons and to the requirement of local support structures. Access to capital is one of the most important requirements. Article 12 of the Convention relates to this issue.
Sri Lanka lags behind in the rehabilitation and in the integration of the disadvantaged persons. The government should lay down strong national policies and take active interest in the welfare of the disadvantaged. It should ratify the UN Convention on the ‘Rights of the Persons with Disabilities’ which had been ratified already by more than 88 countries. There exists in Sri Lanka a strong stigma against those disadvantaged by disability. The government should take active steps to change these attitudes and to remove the stigma by educating the public, by awareness campaigns throughout the island. Disability related information campaigns and awareness rising are very necessary to change attitudes.
Persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka are entitled to special grants from the government for projects, to start small-scale businesses, but very few of the disadvantaged are aware that such schemes exist. Awareness campaigns therefore should not only to educate the discriminatory and insulting attitudes of the general public but also educate the disadvantaged on the social welfare measures available to them. The two major religions can also play important role in creating a more congenial atmosphere to the disadvantaged, by reminding the people of the teachings of the Buddha and of the great Hindu philosophers that disable people are also human beings and should be treated like normal people.
Another important step that should be taken is to make public transport or the disabled less cumbersome by providing the disabled, easy access to those vehicles. The provision of reserved seats is just not enough as most of the disabled – the blind and the disabled find getting in and getting out of public transport very difficult. The disabled also find access to public buildings difficult. Regulations on the accessibility of public and private buildings were tabled in Parliament in 2007, but its progress had been slow and to date there is no mechanism to facilitate the enforcement of these regulations. Lack of resources and shortage of physical and rehabilitation services, absence of coordination between Colombo and the provinces are some of the other problems confronting the social integration of the disabled in our country.
To improve the quality of life of the differently able people and their families, there should be projects focusing on their physical rehabilitation and their social integration. Good practices for the economic inclusion of people with disabilities in developing countries, speaks of use of micro credit and start of financing, to promote the independence and entrepreneurship of persons with disabilities. Often self-employment is the only way for the affected to earn their livelihoods. Access to capital is therefore is very crucial (Article 12 of the Convention).
There is some reluctance in our country both by public and private institutions, to give loans to people with disabilities. The government should ensure that equal opportunities to micro credit are given to the disabled. Free financing and subsidized loans should be only an initial step and be reserved for people in extreme poverty. Women and girls face tremendous disadvantages. Article 6 of the Convention, speaks of multiple discriminations of women and girls. Gender based vocational training programmes leads women with disabilities, exposed to poor labour conditions, lower paying jobs, and lack of opportunities for advancement.
The ILO’s Wedge team (Women Entrepreneur Development and Gender Equality) focuses on women with disabilities (ILO count us in – 2008) and should be of assistance. Finally the private sector which is said to be the ‘engine of growth’ together with the government should open their doors for the disabled, with suitable employment and help to erase the prejudice that the disabled are unwanted and should be left to suffer because of their ‘karma’.