Differently abled people have always been a marginalised section of the society, in most instances being sympathised with rather than given a hand. This is similar in the case of the ageing population as well.
Programmes were carried out at schools
But these two groups of people also have their own rights and freedom of life, hence, neither their disabilities nor age should be considered as obstacles to keep them from moving forward.
Sri Lanka too has a considerable percentage of people that fall in to both these categories. In order to break the stereotypical perspective revolving around these two sections, the ‘Disabled and Aged Friendly City’ concept was introduced in the Monaragala District.
The initiative was taken by Senarath Attanayake - a role model to everybody else who thinks that physical challenges are barriers in life. Senarath has had many firsts, thus displaying his capabilities that make a positive change in society. He became the first wheel-chair bound individual to be called to the Bar as an Attorney-at-Law, the first wheel-chair bound individual to enter the political arena and to be elected to Provincial Council and the first differently abled person to hold a Ministerial portfolio. His efforts to transform Wellawaya and the entire Monaragala District in to a ‘Disabled and Age Friendly City’ have been tremendously successful and the project has come a long way from when it started.
“Monaragala, despite being the second largest district in the country is also one of the poorest,” says Attanayake during a recent interview with the Daily Mirror. “Through this project I’m trying to address the children’s rights for education. Therefore I’m in the process of identifying schools having physically challenged children to improve accessibility facilities. Hence, the classroom, library and toilets are the main places which we are trying to implement facilities like ramps etc. In addition to that we will be giving wheelchairs and other devices. There are some parents who can’t afford to fund the education and other medical needs of their children. So we are going to give them a hand though self-employment projects as well. Another important aspect of this project is that we are going to highlight the voting rights of the ageing population as well as that of the differently abled. What we see is that during an election the politicians provide transport for the differently abled to go to the polling station and cast their votes. Otherwise they don’t have a way to cast their votes with dignity and nobody talks about it either. So we will be including ramps in every polling station in the district with tactile paving for the visually impaired. We are also in the process of implementing a tactile ballot paper for the visually impaired by 2019 or 2020 elections,”Attanayake said.
We are in the process of implementing a tactile ballot paper for the visually impaired
Differently abled observers were placed at the monitoring process in the Monaragala District
We are also giving a wheelchair to every committee with elderly people
Speaking further about the initiative, he added that the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) - an initiative to improve election management in countries around the world- is partnering them in this programme along with the Elections Commission. “During the last elections we placed differently abled observers in the monitoring process in the Monaragala District. We have also conducted workshops and awareness programmes for these groups. I believe that if there are more physically challenged individuals in the political set-up it will be easier for us to meet our objectives. Therefore I’m also planning on encouraging such individuals to produce their nominations as well. We also have to speak about the religious rights of the ageing population and that of the differently abled.
His efforts to transform Wellawaya and the entire Monaragala District in to a ‘Disabled and Age Friendly City’ have been tremendously successful
Healthcare access is another issue that we need to address and highlight. Certain healthcare centres don’t have the facilities for differently abled people to visit them. Public places too should be constructed in such a manner, so that differently abled people too could have access to them. One community centre in every district will have access for differently abled individuals thereby promoting an inclusive environment for everybody. According to WHO reports, the differently abled population is at 15%. According to a survey done in 2012, the ageing population is at 12.5%. But they believe that by 2021 the numbers will increase up to 16.5%,”he said. Stressing on the fact of inclusiveness, Attanayake further spoke about how rural areas need to be improved first. “There is a global programme called the Urban Inclusive Cities Network and I too work with them. We firstly have to improve rural cities and then move to urban areas especially in a country like ours. Sri Lanka is one of the countries with a minimum urbanization rate. Also the poorest of the poor are differently abled and they remain in the rural areas. So we have to introduce accessibility facilities to rural schools, community centres, places of worship and polling centres before coming to the city. Once they are implemented in the rural sector, the urban cities will naturally introduce these concepts. The Monaragala Dstrict has close to 11 divisions where we have established accessibility facilities in over 100 polling centres, eight schools, 18 temples and almost all public places. We also have to focus on their financial independence and we are in the process of identifying their skills. Recently we have started to encourage the aged and the differently abled individuals to be involved in the cultivation of bees’ honey. So far we have identified 50 families and have provided them with the necessary amenities and an educational programme is underway. We are also trying to join hands with the private sector and implement the bottling process and distribute the products at a better price. I’m trying to extend this project to another 1500 families,”he said. It’s quite evident that these projects will encourage parents to send their physically-challenged children to school or motivate the ageing population to be involved in a self-employment project. According to Senarath, it’s only through their provincial council that potential individuals in these two groups have been identified to be employed. Speaking further, Senarath said that they are glad that they have been able to address some important issues that have been highlighted in the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). “In addition to these projects we are also giving a wheelchair to every committee with elderly people. Through this, anybody who wants to use a wheelchair could use it. And during an election we will also be sending a wheelchair to every polling centre. The President himself has shown interest to implement this project at a national level. Another project is to educate a group of ten individuals on beauty culture. This group comprises of five differently abled individuals who will be working in a salon eventually. We will provide them with salon equipment to start their own business. By doing this we are promoting inclusiveness and other people will interact with the differently abled individuals and they will start to accept them,”he explained.
Wheelchairs were givin to committees with elderly people
When asked about the challenges he faced while executing his plan, Senarath said that one of the main challenges that he has faced is dealing with the attitudes of people. “Although some people pretend to support me when I discuss these plans, in reality there are only a handful of people to support us. I believe that implementing accessibility facilities in a classroom is far more urgent than doing it elsewhere. Discrimination takes place in every form, but I see that it’s changing at a slow pace,” he said.
So far we have identified 50 families and have provided them with the necessary amenities
In his concluding remarks Senarath said, “The message I like to give the general public is that I would like to request them to look at differentl abled people in a rights-based model. Don’t look at them in a charitable way. If you have a differently abled person in your family, do accept him or her. Anybody could have a physically impaired condition. But that’s not the end of their lives. Send them out in to society, educate them in a school and get them employed. I wonder where I would have been if my parents didn’t accept me. So make them a part of this society.