Saturday, July 31, 2021
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Leaving no one behind

Empowering SL’s disabled community to become active contributors in achieving the 2030 Agenda
By Chamoda Halambaarachchi

One of the main drawbacks of the previous Millennium Development Agenda, which represented the “commitments of nations to reduce extreme poverty and its many manifestations: Hunger, disease, gender inequality, lack of education and access to basic infrastructure, and environmental degradation”, is the complete absence of addressing the issues and challenges confronting the disabled community.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and complete what they did not achieve, by providing a powerful framework to guide local communities, countries, and the international community towards disability-inclusive development. It also pledges to leave no one behind, including people with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups, and has recognised disability as a cross-cutting issue to be considered in the implementation of the 17 goals.

According to the first-ever World Report on Disability, published in 2011, it was estimated that over a billion people, including children, were living with some form of disability; the disable population was estimated to be around 15% of the world’s population.

As for the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), disability is considered to be an “evolving concept” and persons with disabilities are described as “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.

Disability is considered to be a universal human experience since everyone will experience some physical and mental limitations in functioning at some point in life. Hence, “disability is a matter of degree, because mental and physical impairments range in severity, from minor to severe”.

The ADB Sri Lanka Country Report on Disabled People and Development (2005) identifies malnutrition, accidents, conflict and trauma, diseases, and aging as the main causes of disability in Sri Lanka. As a country that experienced a 26-year-long war, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and being one of the fastest-aging countries in South Asia, it is estimated by the Census of Population and Housing (2012) that around 1.6 million people in Sri Lanka, 87 persons per every 1,000 in the population, are living with some form of disability.

As a developing country constrained by resource limitations, the specific issues of the disabled people in Sri Lanka may not always receive the attention that is required in public spending. Therefore, it is vital to have a reliable disability cost estimation to design and develop effective public programmes and projects to identify and prioritise people who are really in need of support and to directly address their issues.

In 2003, Sri Lanka introduced its own National Policy on Disability and is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Accordingly, several projects and programmes were initiated aiming to strengthen the disabled community under the purview of the Government, and those include providing vocational training, employment, and monthly cash allowances for disabled low-income earners; implementing a community-based rehabilitation programme; assisting in the early childhood development of children with special needs; and providing assistive devices.

Although a significant number of measures have been taken to empower the disabled community in Sri Lanka, there are some existing gaps and issues that need to be addressed in order to ensure effective decision-making and implementation.

Differences in interpretation and classification of disabilities are one such issue. This is due to the reason that more than one public institution is in the process of collecting data and delivering services for the disabled community. These differences lead to problems in comparing and developing unified data. As the Census of Population and Housing of Sri Lanka is conducted once in every 10 years, and being the main data collector on disability in Sri Lanka, there is a formidable challenge with regard to decision-making and developing national policies and programmes based on years-old data.

One of the main barriers for the disabled community in Sri Lanka is the lack of accessibility to public buildings, transport systems, and information. Particularly the lack of access to transport has been identified as a major obstacle in employing disabled persons effectively. According to the conference paper “Disability Access in Public Buildings”, it is noted that in Sri Lanka, “railway and bus services are still not improved for people who have disability, since there is not any bus or train with disability access facilities”.

According to the findings of UNICEF Sri Lanka’s “Learning Disabilities in Sri Lanka” (2016) report, “23.5% of children aged five to 14 with disabilities are excluded from mainstream education (DCS, Statistical Data 2012), and amongst those who do attend mainstream schools, participation in educational activity reduces with age” while “around 55.4% of the disabled population aged 15-19 and 86% of the disabled population aged 20-24 are not engaged in any educational activity or vocational training”. The lack of skilled teachers and appropriate infrastructure in schools, limited scope in curricula, and the overall quality of education are identified as the main reasons for children living with disabilities missing out on the benefits of education. A. Abayasekare, in her article titled “How Disability-inclusive is Education in Sri Lanka? A Preliminary Look”, notes that the supportive infrastructure to accommodate the specific needs of students with disabilities other than visual impairments is not adequate.

When analysing the economic activities, the findings of the Census of Population and Housing (2012) shows that 70.9% of the 1.5 million impaired persons who were considered to have the ability to be economically active were not engaged in any economic activity.

Concerns are raised as the above data provides evidence with regard to the lower educational achievements and lower employment rates of persons with disability, as these hinder the ability to actively participate in national development, thereby adding significant economic and social costs to the country. As disability is fundamentally connected with poverty, people with disability are amongst the poorest and most vulnerable in any community. They are less likely to access healthcare, education, livelihoods, and social opportunities than people without disability, and often face discrimination or are stigmatised, leading to reduced income, poorer health, and social exclusion.

Consequently, it is important to address the existing gaps between policy and practice, as well as prioritise policy interventions in line with existing legislation when designing and implementing programmes and projects. To achieve the 2030 Agenda with the active participation of the disabled community, Sri Lanka should promote disability-inclusive development by gradually lifting the barriers and enabling persons with disabilities to achieve their full potential.

(The writer is a Sustainable Development Officer of the Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka)

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(The Morning)