04 August 2012

‘Access denied’ is a handicap the nation cannot afford

I remembered being told about a demonstration outside the Port Authority building in New York City, sometime in 1989, where a bunch of people on crutches and wheelchairs chanted ‘Access is a human right’.  It is.

The issue of access has not received the kind of attention it deserves in the discourse on ‘rights’ and if there is some talk of it today, it is largely due to the fact that the debilitating 3-decade long war resulted in over 15,000 combatants losing their limbs.  There have been very few ‘disabled’ persons among captured LTTE cadres or surrendees. It is surmised not without reason that the reason for this is that the LTTE (during the last stages of the war) shot dead such combatants so that they would not compromise the ‘mobility requirements’ of the organization.

It is not just those who lost legs to jonny-battas, though.  Last night, a friend wrote to me urging me to write about these issues. She pointed out that there is very little awareness among the general public and even among families who have to deal with such conditions on a daily basis.

She has a child who suffers from a condition called Charcot Marie Tooth Disease (Hereditary Motor Sensory Neuropathy).  He was diagnosed as a ‘late developer’ and the parents were not alerted to the importance of an architecture that took into consideration the matter of access.  They built a two-storey house.  The staircase turned the boy into a prisoner in his own house.

I was alerted a few months ago to dimensions pertaining to ‘access’ by Dr. Ajith Perera of ‘Idiriya’, an indefatigable campaigner for the rights of people with disabilities.  He pointed out that a lot of times we don’t have the eyes to see impaired ability.  We do see ‘disability’ when it appears attendant with wheelchair, crutch or walker, but there are those who are not counted in official statistics: those who suffer from non-visible debilitating conditions such as heart disease. We do realize the difficulties of the elderly, whose physical frailties are clearly apparent, but we are for the most part blind to shortness of breath, arthritis, neuropathy, impaired vision or hearing, middle-ear imbalances, epilepsy, allergies, phobias, vertigo, urinary incontinence etc, aren’t we?

Most pertinently, isn’t it true that all of us suffer from temporary physical disabilities at some point or the other in our lives? Does this not mean that at any given time, there is a certain percentage of the population suffering from such temporary difficulties over and above those who have permanent disabilities?  The most important question is: what are we doing about this, as a nation? 

A few days ago I visited the Vijaya Kumaratunga Memorial Hospital in Seeduwa to see a patient who was due to have eye surgery.  The patient was on the second floor of the complex.  An attended gave me directions.  The route he pointed to me led me to a wide ramp, not a staircase or an elevator.  ‘For those who need to be moved around in wheels,’ I thought to myself.  Sadly, though, such sensitivity is not apparent in the architecture of most public institutions or in the mental make-up of most people, myself included I should add. 

It is said that relevant legislation exists but the enforcing component has been weak. As a result, measures to correct existing structures to enhance access have mostly depended on the sensitivity and good-heartedness of individuals.  ‘Access’ is not in our minds and suppressed or absent in the relevant regulations.

Only 2% of all buildings, private or public have access for the mobility-impaired.  That’s a horrendous statistic.  If a significant number (to my mind, ‘1’ is a significant number) of people cannot access public buildings which provide services and facilities, cannot go to concerts or plays or lectures, cannot enter cinemas, hotels and sports facilities, then we have failed as a nation. 

We have to understand also, as Dr. Perera has pointed out, that this is by no means something akin to tossing a coin to a beggar.  We are all disabled one way or another and this means that we are all able too. One way or another.  Most of us have abilities that can be employed for the benefit of self and community.  This nation, as it emerges from a disabling war, needs to harness all available human resources.  It is not a case of offering a lift to a soldier who has lost a leg in the process of ensuring that others can stand tall and walk straight to the destinations of their dreams, but realizing that we cannot go anywhere if anyone is left behind or if we deliberately dismiss the support of a large segment of the population.  That’s not nation-building. That would be nation-crippling.  

If we shut our minds to the issue of access or treat is as a minor concern, we would be essentially slamming the door on ourselves.  Tomorrow I may lose a leg in an accident. The day after tomorrow I might pick up some unheard of disease that dissolves my bones. Two weeks from now I might get acid thrown in my face and lose my eyesight forever.  A couple of decades from now (if I am still alive) I might be suffering from Arthritis or some heart ailment that exhausts me quickly.  If I am lucky (or unlucky, as the case may be) a decade later I would probably start having incontinence issues. 

I don’t want to be ‘left behind’.  No one does, right?  Well, we better start acquiring the eyes to see that some people are being left behind and find the tongue and minds and strength to correct the wrongs that our people suffer from. 

This nation said ‘no’ to terrorism.  This nation is justifiably proud.  This nation cannot ignore the fact that it is yet to get rid of the invisible but pervasive sign on most doors: ‘ACCESS DENIED’.   It is a sign we have been too lazy or ignorant to notice. It is a road block, I believe.  I think we should do something about it.



Shaik Ahamath said...

There is also another equally debilitating plight visited upon the disabled. It is not surprising that potential employers would rather choose the perfectly formed over the disabled even if the job did not require such a person. Consequently we are also wasting a valuable resource of thousands of able but disabled people left idling in their homes. We should be emulating Europe after the last war when millions returned disabled. They legislated for their welfare, from access to offices to a quota in employment unless excused.

Anonymous said...

This is a bouquet for the Janet Salon hairdressers. I visit two. Both have employed young women with speech difficulties; and they are well-trained and quite expert in their jobs. Congratulations, Janet.