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November 1, 2002

A barrier-free era for the disabled

From: Bangkok Post, Thailand
Nov. 1, 2002


This week in the picturesque Japanese city of Otsu on the shores of tranquil Lake Biwako, high-level government officials from across Asia and the Pacific reached a major milestone, by agreeing to work together to bring to an end the centuries-old practice of discriminating against persons with disabilities.

The importance of this move cannot be understated.

By adopting the Biwako Millennium Framework for Action, the governments have agreed to a new set of guiding principles that will lead persons with disabilities out of the shadows and toward their rightful place as productive members of society _ free from discrimination and stereotypes.

Forty-two countries and territories have now signed the UN ESCAP regional plan of action _ the most recent of them, Afghanistan, where 800,000 people with disabilities struggle to survive in a country ravaged by a generation of war.

Many of their disabilities are direct consequences of that conflict.

During the last decade, governments in this region have made progress towards eliminating the barriers faced by persons with disabilities.

But much more remains to be done.

Around 400 million people in Asia and the Pacific are living with some form of disability.

That makes this massive region home to more than two-thirds of the world's total population of persons with disabilities _ 160 million live below the poverty line.

While life can be difficult for those persons living in developed countries, here in Asia and the Pacific living with a disability often means leading a truly wretched existence.

In developed countries, a wheelchair is considered a near-essential tool for a person who cannot walk.

However, in many countries across Asia and the Pacific, that same individual would be considered fortunate to have such a device.

Many would need to find another way to make their way along the often teeming and pot-holed streets.

For too long, persons with disabilities in Asia and the Pacific have been treated as second-class individuals _ a class of people to be pitied _ and to be shown the occasional act of charity, perhaps in the form of a coin dropped into the cup of a legless beggar at the side of the road.

All too often, families have quite literally kept their disabled relatives hidden from view inside their homes.

In this region, only one child in 10 with a disability receives an education _ an appalling figure.

Women and girls with disabilities fare the worst.

By ignoring the intellectual and often entrepreneurial abilities of people simply because they have a disability denies our societies valuable human resources.

One of the Thai delegates to the meeting, Ms Benja Chonlatanon, from the Rajabhat Institute Suan Dusit, Bangkok, has called for governments to develop and coordinate a standardised sign language and for the collaboration of governments to ensure the success of the new Asia-Pacific Development Centre on Disability being established here in Thailand.

The centre is a joint venture of the Thai and Japanese governments, and an indication that governments in this region are serious about creating a rights-based and barrier-free society for persons with disabilities.

Perhaps the keynote speaker at Otsu, Professor Satoshi Fukushima, summed it up best when he said: ``What we want is neither charity nor handouts but appropriate education, a chance for rehabilitation and a place to work.''

UN Escap and the countries adopting the Biwako Millennium Framework for Action are now in a better position to tackle these challenges head on, by helping to change prevailing attitudes.

In order to keep this issue in the spotlight, we have launched a new Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons from 2003-2012, on the theme, ``Towards an Inclusive Barrier-free and Rights-based Society for Persons with Disabilities''.

I am greatly encouraged that this major step has been taken to sweep away these discriminatory practices. The peoples of Asia and the Pacific, as a whole, will be better off because of it.

uThe United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific meeting titled ``High-Level Inter-governmental Meeting to Conclude the Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons, 1993-2002'' was held in Otsu, near Kyoto, from October 25-28. A total of 325 delegates attended, representing 27 UN ESCAP member governments.

© Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2002