By Dr. Padmani Mendis, Adviser on Disability
The long anticipated Cabinet Reshuffle brings a much awaited and rare opportunity for people with disabilities to have their aspirations addressed. The United Nations Convention for Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) was ratified by Sri Lanka on 08th February 2016, but until now the Government has taken no action to demonstrate that it is serious about making it a reality.
Disability has always been the responsibility of Social Services/Welfare as a subject of service provision. This may have been acceptable when action on disability (except in the instances of Health and Education) called for Government only to deliver services to meet the needs of disabled people such as supplying them with technical aids, providing vocational training, granting financial assistance for housing, medical care, education, income generation and so on. But now, with the commitment by Government to implement the UN Convention on Disability, action on Disability calls for two cabinet functions – namely the new subject of "Disability Inclusion" in addition to the subject of "Disability Service Provision". The new subject of "Disability Inclusion" is essential to make ratification of the UN Convention Disability a reality.
Simply put, the new subject is a strategy which includes disabled people in the mainstream of our communities, allowing them to participate in all the country’s development activity wherever they live, seeing them as equal citizens with the same access to all the rights and responsibility available to other citizens of our country. Ratification of the UN Convention must move Government action away from seeing people with disabilities as a special group who need special isolated and segregated services to seeing them equal citizens with equal rights in all things. This includes such programmes as children with disability being detected early and having the early interventions they need through our existing primary health care system; children participating in the same primary and secondary schools which have been adapted and made inclusive including teachers who can meet the varying needs of all children including theirs; young adults attending the same higher education and skills training centres which have again been suitably prepared and adapted to meet their needs alongside those of other young people; and children, youth and adults, both girls and boys, women and men participating in the same workplaces, the same social, sports, recreational, political and cultural activities as their neighbours.
People with disabilities supported by disability workers and activists have been lobbying for this change for well over a decade, ever since changes were visible globally. A radical shift was taking place throughout the world in thought and action related to disability and to the situation of people with disabilities. Sri Lanka responded early, with a Cabinet approved National Policy on Disability in 2003 and a Cabinet approved National Plan of Action on Disability in 2012 focussing on ensuring opportunities for disabled people in our country’s mainstream. Alas these well-intentioned documents were usually unread and unused but were considered to be attractive documents for distribution. They remained in the desks of administrators in the Social Services Sector.
Persistent efforts by disabled people and those who support them to have a dialogue with those responsible in Government have come to no avail. Disability is jealously guarded by the Social Welfare Sector. This is perhaps due to a misunderstanding that is resistant to discussion. It must be made clear to those who have fears that the Ministry of Social Welfare will not have to lose its responsibility for Disability Services. This Ministry will always have an important role to play and continue its mandate from Government to provide the special services required in the field of disability. This needs to be made very clear.
What should be equally clear to those who hesitate is that ratification of the UN Convention calls for an additional role by Government. It calls for another Government Body, to ensure that the Convention is implemented through disability-inclusive policies, legislation, planning and action. To include disabled people in the many dimensions of the country’s development mainstream calls for most, if not all, ministries and sectors to play their part. If this "Disability Inclusion in Development" is to be done effectively and efficiently then this Government Body is also called upon to provide oversight and coordination for the many actions being implemented for inclusion. No one Government Ministry can carry out these functions of oversight and coordination of disability inclusion. These functions must be carried out at the highest level of Government. What could be most effective in our country is a single Body (say a Disability Rights Commission) situated within the Secretariat of the President or Prime Minister and directly responsible to one of them. Only then will multiministerial and multisectoral oversight and coordination be possible in our country.
This is why Government action on Disability must be seen as two entities. One, the continued provision of "Disability Services" by the Ministry of Social Welfare, and two, a single Governmental Body such as a Disability Rights Commission with the mandate for "Disability Inclusion" responsible directly to the President or Prime Minister.
Has the time come for Sri Lanka’s People with Disabilities to be truly recognized as citizens with equal rights and responsibilities? The Opportunity is certainly here with a cabinet reshuffle due very soon. Allocation of subjects is done by the President. It is our experience that once subjects have been allocated, administrators are obstinate about "losing" something that they consider they own. This perhaps is their privilege. So for our people with disabilities this may well be a "Now or Never Moment" in their hope for a better life. Will a National Body such as a Disability Rights Commission be set up within the Secretariat of the President or Prime Minister to ensure that they really do become Sri Lanka’ citizens on an equal level? Or will they be ignored once more and remain as neglected, isolated, segregated and discriminated against second-class citizens?
Dr. Padmani Mendis, Advisor, Disability and Rehabilitation
phone: 011 2587853;
address: 7/1 Prince Alfred Tower, Alfred House Gardens, Colombo 03