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Sunday, 9 August 2015





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An enabling vote

12 differently-abled candidates are contesting to protect the rights of those with disabilities:

Let us stop this happening in Sri Lanka

Giving a completely different dimension to the current political fiasco, 12 persons with disabilities have courageously waded into the August 17 Parliamentary Elections battle, pitting themselves against the more seasoned able bodied contenders.

A first in the election history of Sri Lanka, these candidates, who have formed two independent groups, will be contesting from Colombo and Gampaha Districts, to protect the rights of all Sri Lankans living a life with physical, visual, hearing or intellectual disability. Their aim is to bring in independence, security, opportunity and acceptance for persons with disabilities in the present society.

The Colombo District team is lead by W. M.J. Rathnasekara, who has been actively and tirelessly campaigning to protect the rights of visually impaired persons over a long period of time. The Gampaha District is lead by Prasanna Kuruppu, a former officer of the Sri Lanka Air Force, disabled in the 1990s in Palali, and now working as an executive level officer in the private sector.

The contestants are trying to give new impetus to their long standing efforts to protect the rights of those with disabilities by representing them in the country's legislature, says Prasanna Kuruppu, Convener of 'Raising Our Voices for Us', the umbrella organisation spearheading the election campaign for the two independent groups.

1.6 million differently-abled

Bryan Susantha contesting from the Colombo District Manique Gunarathna,
an activist
Anil Jayawardane contesting from Gampaha District
W. M.J. Rathnasekara, Colombo District leader

According to a 2012 survey conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics, persons living with difficulties due to disabilities comprise nearly 8.7% of the Sri Lankan population - which amounts to more than 1.6 million persons.

"They are a special community who hold an unbelievable capacity to serve the country if a conducive platform is created," says Kuruppu, explaining that providing the needed facilities and opportunities for employment will enable the differently abled to independently conduct their day to day living and render service to the country.

The Sri Lanka Constitution accepts all citizens as equals but overlooks the difficulties faced by persons with disabilities. An attempt to rectify the situation was made with Act 28 of 1996, for the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. "However, it was able to protect only our rights in the education sector and employment opportunities. Even the National Policy on Disability established in 2003 cannot be implemented properly due to lack of legal provisions.

Ajith C. Perera (right) and Prasanna Kuruppu

This actually indicates we, the persons with disabilities are kept at a distance from equally enjoying the legal protection given to others in the country," points out Kuruppu.

The National Policy was drafted to 'ensure persons with disabilities will have opportunities for enjoying a full and satisfying life and for contributing their knowledge, experience, particular skills and capabilities to national development as equal citizens of Sri Lanka.' However, the Bill to Protect the Rights of Persons with Disabilities drafted in 2006 did not come into effect, even though it was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers. Kuruppu being a former officer of the Sri Lanka Air Force is also concerned about the rights of the disabled ex-servicemen and has made it part of the campaign "While in service soldiers get considerable attention but when they retire it is difficult for them to get proper medical attention and support," he points out.

Taking into account the medical care required for ex-service men as well as others with disabilities, 'Raising Our Voice For Us' is campaigning to create a better life for the differently abled. Accordingly the organisation's Manifesto pledges, among other things, to establish rehabilitation centres at each Province, give due prominence to sign and Braille languages while issuing public documents and bring in standards to assistive and mobility devices imported or manufactured locally.


Kuruppu says the two independent groups faced numerous obstacles during the initial stages of submitting their nominations, even at the Department of Elections, as many of the government institutes do not facilitate persons with disabilities. "The officials at the Department of Elections faced difficulty as they were not equipped properly to assist us," he points out, explaining that there were no sign language translators and the members faced accessibility problems.

However, Kuruppu sees the public officers accepting that the requirements of persons with disabilities need to be met and making an effort to fulfill these needs, as winning half the battle. In this back drop, efforts by the Commissioner of Elections Mahinda Deshapriya and his staff to properly implement the legal provisions, making every eligible citizen receive an equal opportunity to mark his democratic right, is highly appreciated by persons with disabilities, says Kuruppu

In a recently issued statement the Elections Commissioner stated that 'according to the existing law, any person who is unable to convey him/herself to and from the polling station due to any physical disability, on foot or by any public transport, may under Section 83(4) (d) apply for a vehicle from the Returning Officer of his/her electoral district, by him/herself or by another person other than a candidate.' Persons with disabilities need to forward the application for this facility to the Returning Officer before August 9, 2015.

Assisted vote

A Certificate of Eligibility, issued as per the provisions under the Elections (Special Provisions) Act No. 28 of 2011 will facilitate persons with disabilities who need the assistance of another person to cast his or her vote. In notifies that the assisting person should be above 18 years of age and should not be contesting in the elections and should not be an authorised agent or a polling agent of a political party.

Application forms are available with the Grama Niladhari and all District Election offices. The person assisting the differently abled person should be named when issuing the certificate. It is notified in the Act that any disabled voter who is unable to bring a person to assist can cast his /her vote through the Senior Presiding Officer in the presence of another officer.

Protecting a citizen's right to vote, regardless of disabilities is a positive step in creating inclusion, which is not impossible as long as the institutions and individuals have a sensitivity towards the issue.

People with Disabilities have a lot to campaign for. A photo of differently abled person casting his or her vote would always qualify for the page one in any newspaper, during an election. Yet the difficulty they undergo to reach counter goes unnoticed.

"These benefits we are trying to achieve will be not only for us. It will be equally beneficial for women, youth, children and the elderly when properly implemented. It can serve a majority of the society," adds Kuruppu.


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