Monday, December 23, 2013

Don’t Dis Their Ability!

Originally published on the Nation Newspaper

Being politically correct is ardous! We call them ‘disabled’, ‘differently-abled’, ‘special’, ‘handicapped’, ‘physically challenged’ and even ‘handicapable’ ! But what do people with disabilities prefer to be called? This question was thrown at the panellists at ‘Kuppiya’- the 2nd panel discussion hosted by the Rotaract Club of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Colombo.

Kuppiya is a Sinhala slang that exists within the Sri Lankan university vernacular, which, more often than not, is only used (and understood) by university students and the alumni. The word which, in its literal sense translates directly to ‘small bottle’ or a ‘small lamp’, is used to refer to an informal self-help group, where one or several students who are better informed of a certain subject area teach the same to the others in the group free of charge. Earlier this month, on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, another edition of the Kuppiya was hosted surrounding the theme- ‘the disability label.’

Ishan Jalil was born blind. But today he is a Champion of Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ishan thinks that the term ‘differently –abled’ is just sugar-coating reality. ‘If you really think about it, aren’t we all differently-abled? He asked the audience. Some of us can sing, others can dance or play cricket- we’re all differently abled! We aren’t any different. The term ‘differently-abled, suggests exactly the opposite- it suggests that we’re different, or alien. People with disabilities are not socially disabled. What is important to understand is that disability is simply a part of human diversity and society should learn to accept us for who we are’.
Ishan has almost completed in Bachelor of Arts Degree in International Relations at the Faculty of Arts. He is the President of Young Voices- Sri Lanka an organization advocating for rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) supported by Leonard Cheshire Disability. Ishan is also a Senator in the Sri Lanka Youth Parliament a youth activist and a Rotaractor. Many also found out at the Kuppiya- that Ishan is the world’s first born blind oarsman!

The term 'differently abled' was first proposed (in the 1980s) as an alternative to terms such as 'disabled', handicapped, etc. on the grounds that it gave a more positive message and thus avoided discrimination towards people with disabilities. Since then, the term has gained little currency and has been criticized as both euphemistic and condescending. Ishan says that the phrase was introduced due to the influence of faith-based organizations as a good faith label but is actually counterproductive and its implications are misleading.

Samitha Samanmali is a practicing doctor at the National Hospital of Sri Lanka who is a wheelchair user. Unlike Ishan, she wasn’t born with her disability. On the 15th of February 2008- Samitha: then, a 24 year old 4th year undergraduate of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Colombo met with an accident while preparing for the Dayata Kirula Exhibition at the BMICH.  She rushed into a temporary steel tent away from the pouring rain when the structure unexpectedly collapsed above her. Samitha was trapped between the iron rods and one pole hit her head causing severe damage to her spinal cord. Her lower body was paralyzed for life. But three years later she has now successfully completed her MBBS degree and assumed duties as a doctor.

Dr. Samitha thinks that terminology is not important. It’s up to people to decide what they prefer to be called. She thinks that what is actually important is to ensure that people with disabilities are included in all aspects of society. She reiterated that if one is determined to do something they could do anything despite any disability.

Finally, Commissioner of Human Rights Dr. Prathibha Mahanamahewa spoke about the various steps taken by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to guarantee the rights of persons with disabilities. However, he highlighted that, even though the de jure law exists, there are many loopholes in terms of implementation.  He pointed out that although the rights of persons with disabilities have been guaranteed by law, these rights are often neglected. ‘We should take steps to demolish all buildings that do not follow the necessary steps to make them accessible to persons with disabilities!’ he said.

People with disabilities include senior citizens, (soon a fifth of our population), pregnant mothers, those recovering after surgery or illnesses and injured war heroes. Groups such as women with disabilities, or a PWD belonging to an ethnic minority maybe doubly discriminated. However, even though Sri Lanka has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities but hasn’t ratified it because of the absence of the local law to give effect to it.

In India, following historic court ruling, PWDs were guaranteed the right to vote- which is perhaps the most fundamental of all political rights. This meant that ramps were installed in polling stations, braille numbers were in place at polling booths, and members of the electoral staff were trained. Sri Lanka, however, is far behind. All important publications- including the Constitution the country should be available in braille and sign language interpretation should be made available at all national events.

People with disabilities are not passive recipients of services – they are an integral component of the workforce. 
Our panel at Kuppiya which featured some amazing speakers bore witness to this very fact.

1 comment:

Jani Bee said...

:Awesome Senel :-D wanted to read this for quite a sometime and now only found time to read :-D nicely summed up :)