Even as we have long recognised their importance in our society, we have not invested adequately in disabled-friendly infrastructure and facilities. In fact, we have not at all invested in improving convenience for the country’s differently-abled population.
This fact does not sit well in a Gross National Happiness or welfare society like ours. Our development plans and policies may hinge on and are geared towards meeting the needs of all sections of the society, including those that are marginalised or vulnerable, but we do not even have a law to safeguard the interests and the welfare of people who are differently-abled.
The Constitution requires that as a nation we pursue inclusive development. Article 7 (Fundamental Rights) Section 15 of the Constitution reads thusly: “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status.” And it is the State’s responsibility to provide security in the event of sickness and disability or lack of adequate means of livelihood for reasons beyond a person’s control.
However, certain sections of our society still cannot access and enjoy the benefits of development.
As differently-abled people on wheelchairs raced on Doebum Lam in Thimphu on December 3, International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we were reminded once again about our failure to create and nurture conditions to make our society inclusive and caring. When the lack of disabled-friendly infrastructure and facilities in the country limit the movement of certain sections of our people, we risk creating social exclusion.
We have a National Policy for Persons with Disabilities with the Gross National Happiness Commission . The policy seeks to improve the lives of people with disability by empowering them to enjoy their rights so that they can fully and equally participate as members of the society, promote inclusive development through mainstreaming disability initiatives in plans, policies and programmes, improve access to opportunities and services for people with disability, improve the socio-economic condition of people with disability and their family, and change attitude and behaviour of society towards people with disability.
It is not enough that we carry out accessibility audit from time to time to identify the barriers. Acting swiftly and earnestly to improve accessibility for people with disabilities is critically important. For instance, except for some schools that have special programme for differently-abled people, have we thought about making all our educational institutions friendly to the people with disability? What about our transport infrastructure? Without a universally accessible transport system, we risk excluding or marginalising people living with disabilities.
We cannot be indifferent to the needs of the disabled. Failing to attend to these urgent needs is a slap on the face of our hallowed development philosophy of Gross National Happiness.