Freedom of expression and fundamental rights

December 3rd for People with Disabilities in the COVID Era

Lasantha de Silva

December 3 of each year has been declared the International Day of Persons with Disabilities by the United Nations. This day is celebrated with an emphasis on ensuring that other global citizens and persons with disabilities have equal opportunities in areas such as human rights, sustainable development, peace and security. Ahead of the celebrations on December 3, the United Nations stated that the commitment to protect the rights of people with disabilities is not only a matter of justice but also an investment in a common future. When disabled citizens already face neglect, violence, and persecution within a chaotic society, we can assume that the Covid 19 pandemic has caused a bigger crisis for them. Out of the billions of global citizens, people with disabilities are the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged group in society.

“While women are still considered second class citizens in Sri Lankan society, there is even less attention paid to people like in this pandemic situation. That is the crisis we face”. She emphasizes that women and the disabled are “alike”. Shyamali Dilrukshi is a resident of Siyambalagunaya, a remote village near Wellawaya in the Uva Province. As someone born disabled and unable to walk, it is also a difficult endeavor for her to travel a few kilometers along a difficult forest route in order to make contact with the town of Wellawaya.    She currently works as a member of the non-academic staff at the Siyambalagunaya School. She comments here on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities to be celebrated on December 03. She does so on behalf of the Wellassa Organization for Persons with Disabilities where she bears the office of Secretary. Living in a region where clean drinking water, sanitation, hygiene and food is in short supply, she describes sadly how some of the problems that the citizens she represents have intensified due to the pandemic. “I speak on behalf of women and girls” she says, “Let’s think of mothers who have daughters with intellectual development difficulties, especially at a time like this. We know that these children don’t even know how to maintain hygiene during menstruation. The general public don’t understand the difficulties faced by these mothers when we are living in a time when even getting a sanitary napkin in the midst of a pandemic is difficult. In the same way, someone with a disability like me will have added problems when using public transportation, but it’s not easy for anyone to help me get on the bus”. She also highlights problems faced by women and girls with speech and hearing impairments when communicating through facial expressions. Dilrukshi tells us that should be the responsibility of a civilized society to demand answers on state intervention and accountability for such situations.

Disability, Compassion and Respect

In 1992, the United Nations declared December 3 of each year as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Its aim was to ensure the rights and well-being of people with disabilities in all walks of life and to make them beneficiaries of development. It is to make them realize that they are not equal to other citizens in their political, social, economic and cultural life. The theme of this year is “Building a Better Return to an Accessible and Sustainable Post – Corona World with Disabilities for People with Disabilities,” will be presented for one week from December 3. But more importantly, what is Sri Lanka’s approach in this global discourse?

Duleep Sampath, a disabled person who also serves as the Incentive Officer at the Wellassa Organization for Persons with Disabilities, says that the limited cultural factors in Sri Lankan society have a detrimental effect on our access to the global discourse. “However, in the religious and cultural discourse, people in Sri Lanka see the disabled as perpetrators. So people show compassion for the disabled, not human dignity. They feel sorry for us. Sri Lankans extend a packet of rice or Rs. 20 if they see a disabled person on the road who is not a burden to anyone who works” he said. Duleep’s point is that while sympathy itself is not a sin, it should be developed to a level where human dignity, equal rights and equal treatment are accepted. He says that the reason for the increase in these treatments during the Covid period was the lack of a systematic program to change the traditional attitudes towards the disabled. “There are laws that require all public buildings being constructed in Sri Lanka to have access for the disabled. But the general situation is that people feel they don’t need to think so much about these things. People with disabilities have more complicated issues with interpersonal relationships during Covid as we are more dependent on the other than an average person. In all three basic health practices associated with Covid, people operate without thinking of us. In places where hand washing is facilitated, our feet need to get water. If we have a disability, we cannot use this facility. When masks are used, our facial expressions which we communicate with, are limited. Think of the blind, who cannot walk without someone’s help. It is difficult for them to maintain social distancing” he said. According to Duleep, people think that it is not easy to solve these problems, but there is an opportunity to do so with the use of technology. “We can do things like raising the sensors of taps or encouraging online relationships without physical involvement” he says.  “If society can collectively think about these things instead of offering sympathy – as I said, respect and equal opportunities can be given. Instead of feeling sorry, what needs to be done is to prevent people like us from being further alienated. We need to improve facilities in all major places”.

Decentralization of Services as a Solution

Duleep says that in some cases, officials should appreciate opportunities such as reaching out to people with disabilities and providing services. Tikiri Kumara Jayawardena, who sees the need to bring a better life to the community during the Covid pandemic, agrees with Duleep. Tikiri, who is also the Chairman of the Wellassa Organization for the Disabled and serves on the Election Commission, said that people with disabilities should be seen not as people with disabilities but as people with differences in social diversity and that these differences are their specialty. Tikiri, who is also the Chairman of the Wellassa Organization for the Disabled and serves on the Election Commission, said that people with disabilities should be seen not as people with disabilities but as people with differences in social diversity and that these differences are their specialty. “I am a full-time professional in a wheelchair. But I do not want to be complacent because I have the privilege of working in an office”. Tikiri says the world needs to be sensitive enough to provide the disabled with the facilities they need for a better life in the midst of the Covid pandemic. Tikiri’s focus is on food, nutrition and hygiene. “According to the World Health Organization, people with disabilities make up at least 15% of the global population. In economically impoverished countries, the nutrition and health of the disabled are rarely looked into. The situation in a district like Monaragala is worse. A family with a member who is disabled has a higher cost of living than a family with a non-disabled person” he said. As he rightly points out, even the transportation costs of such a family are relatively higher. “Covid comes into such a context here. However, when relief was provided during Covid, no special allowances were made for such families. Problems have now increased with the use of catheters for children with spinal cord injuries where price has doubled due to Corona. Mothers with girls with intellectual disabilities worry about their hygiene” says Tikiri. He is shocked that even the government pays no special attention to the nearly two million disabled people in Sri Lanka.

Jeevan Kodithuwakku of the Nucleus Foundation is a social activist. He says it is significant that December 3rd, which talks about people with disabilities, dawns in a unique social context. “There was a bill passed by the Parliament of Sri Lanka to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. It clearly defines people with disabilities. We have also signed the UN Convention in this regard. But our attitudes do not give them balance. We can see this happening during the pandemic as well” says Jeevan Kodithuwakku pointing out that the real deficiency is not in people with disabilities but in other people. “Therefore, what should happen is not to distribute crutches and food packets to the disabled during these celebrations. It is about formulating policies for ease of access and equal opportunities. This can be done by taking steps to provide a sustainable future in social, economic, political and cultural life based on the needs of clean water, nutrition, sanitation and hygiene during the Covid period” he said.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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