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Sunday, 2 December 2012

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Differently-abled, no second to any other

The rally -to remove barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all

"We need no compassion but equity," they say. Those who had voices shouted 'look at our abilities and not our inabilities'. Another held a placard 'Our skills are not disabled'. They were representatives of a community who shows a courageous heart is the mightiest strength of the world. In their efforts to remove barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all, the differently-abled people of Sri Lanka walked a peaceful march from Bambalapitiya to Kollupitiya and demanded acta non verba - actions not words.

Dr. Martin Luther King once said "We shall have to repent in this generation, not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people, but for the appalling silence of the good people." Thus, this special community in their efforts to succeed raised their voice requesting space in the society to be fruitful citizens giving a valuable service. Disability is nothing unique to one particular community. Any living being will face disability at some point of their life - be it a result of an injury or old age. With a social structure with rough edges the only option most of the time is to be confined to one place wasting valuable human strength and time. For a fully fledged community it is essential to incorporate efforts of each and every citizen for the betterment of the country. Have we been fair in our efforts in development?

"We want to create among the public about the barriers we, the people with disabilities, have," said Founder of the Association of persons with Spinal Injuries Priyantha Pieris. Today he is also the treasurer of the National Para Olympics Committee. Joining the walk, Pieris said that we should use some advocacy and lobby on behalf of people with disabilities in the country and we need to create awareness among the public.

A few years ago while he went to study International Relations in Russia, the building that he was staying caught fire and Priyantha had to jump from the fifth storey and that resulted in a broken spine. "Before I got my injury I did many sports like athletics, rugby, karate, etc. Right now I'm the wheel chair basketball promoter in Sri Lanka," said Pieris.

We need to create a lobby on promoting accessibility. This includes accessibility to buildings as well as many other services such as education, health, etc. "I personally faced several problems due to this lack of accessibility for people like us. Few occasions I tried to visit some places where there was no access suitable to me. Such instances faced by many of us lead to the fight over gaining accessibility," he said. "In Sri Lanka the Government had to force the public and owners of public buildings to enforce this. Dr. Ajith Perera appeared on behalf of people with disabilities in front of the Supreme Court and won a case on accessibility and it became mandatory for all buildings to have universal accessibility," he added.

Priyantha Peiris

Menique Guneratne

Mekhala Gamage

Pahala Gedara Jayathilake

This is actually not a right but a basic need of any human being, he said.

General Secretary of Sri Lanka Federation of the Visually Handicapped Menique Gunaratne, representing the walk said, "It is very important for us to work as a team. For the past twelve years I have been actively representing people with visual disabilities. And I observed that it is crucial for us to work as a pressure group and work for our demands and rights".

The Sri Lanka Federation of the Visually Handicapped participated at the event with around 50 people at the walk. "Actually attitude should change from sympathy to empathy, dependence to independence, hidden to open, segregation to integration with dignity and justice for all through a disable friendly environment," said Menique. She firmly believes that in order to change the world we must change ourselves.

"Actually, the society should change from the charity based model to right based models when it comes to persons with disabilities. We need to live in the society with dignity and not through sympathy," she added. She works at the employer's Federation of Ceylon where there is an employer's network on disabilities. "We do ICT training for visually impaired persons. We have now started training centres in the north and east also to cater to visually impaired persons living in those areas," she said.

There were hundreds of differently-abled persons at the walk and among the others in the recent past we hear many stories of courageous differently-abled persons who succeeded with their talents, highlighting their physical disabilities.

Among them we heard, about a year ago, another success story of academic excellence from a differently-abled Sri Lankan who today studies for his doctorate in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore on a scholarship.

This talented youth hailing from Kurunegala, Pahala Gedara Jayathilake, was a victim of an error that happened during vaccination. He was born fully abled. Outstanding among his peers today he is reaching high in the wide world of science. "Probably, the biggest challenge I had to face throughout my journey was that people's negative attitudes towards disabled people," Jayathilake said.

As he added, negative attitudes make non-disabled people to think that people with disabilities are Damaged Goods. "It is obvious that these negative attitudes reduce potential opportunities and ultimately decrease chances at successful integration into the community for individuals with disabilities. Always I believe for the success of anyone (disabled or non-disabled), personnel, social and structural factors should be supportive for the one," said Jayathilake referring to his own experience and observations. "Although individuals with disabilities may have personnel motivation and ability, the social and structural factors such as attitudes, accessibility, transport etc. are not supportive enough for them in Sri Lanka.

As such, individuals with disabilities should have exceptional personnel motivation and ability to be successful in their lives because the social and structural factors are not accommodating enough for them," he said. "I believe that the personnel determination was the key in my life. Until I was a university student, I had neither shoes for my feet or crutches for walking. But I used to walk in my own way by holding the disabled leg with the help of one hand. During my A/L time, I had to walk from school to the bus stand daily on the mid-day burning sand without shoes, and my feet got blisters sometimes. But I did it because my goal was to be an engineer," said Jayathilake.

Today Jayathilake lives in a society where the environment is totally different. Mentioning his experience in Singapore Jayathilake said that as an individual with disability, the social and structural factors such as attitudes, accessibility, transport, assistive devices etc are far beyond those of Sri Lanka. "A basic example, most of the buses, trains and buildings are wheelchair-accessible. The bus drivers have been well trained to assist to persons in wheelchairs to board and alight from the buses. As such, wheelchair users are able to go to office, shopping, cinema or any other place without depending on others.

A recent survey showed that more Singaporeans accept people with disabilities as part of the community and everyday life. For example, only less than nine percent people think that people with disabilities are unable to perform as well as non-disabled people at work; more than 80 percent of the people are willing to hire people with physical disabilities," he explained.

"At present, the education systems in the world are moving towards inclusion of students with disabilities in the regular classrooms. I also agree with that," he said. Depending on the degree of the disability, some students may need special education as some disabilities cannot cope with mainstream school curriculum. "But others should include in the mainstream classrooms with some support such as wheelchair accessibility because the inclusive education has many benefits like it would help those students with disabilities to increase their self confidence and social interaction.

At the same time, the attitudes of the normal students towards disability would improve. I have this firsthand experience because I studied in the normal classrooms with non-disabled students. In addition, teachers' attitudes towards inclusion of students with disabilities in regular classrooms should be improved. Otherwise the effort on the inclusive education would not be successful because it is possible for the students with disabilities to be marginalised by the untrained teachers," Jayathilake said with his experience.

Mekhala Gamage, the courageous girl from Matara with a beautiful voice today sings a song that captures the heart of any human. She successfully won recognition in the society not by making a noise but through her beautiful songs. The youngest of the family with four elder siblings Mekhala was fortunate as her parents put her to a special school in Tangalle when she was four and a half, as her studies needed special care.

From Advanced Level Examination, she was selected to the Sri Jayawardanapura University. The main problem she faced was finding study material made for blind people. "I had to ask my friends to read books to me and I record the reading on a cassette. Based on that we handle assignments. This is a very cumbersome method that we had to follow because we rarely found books written in Braille in the University libraries and other study material suitable for blind persons. "Basically a visually impaired student has to do a single work three times making our studies slow," she added.

"At present a system has come up, where books related to our studies were read and recorded in CDs. One book was on one CD and it had recorded very valuable books for our studies. That became a great support to the visually impaired student," Mekhala said.

As Mekhala further said, in the University where she studied a translator is there to convert writings they do in Braille letters to sighted letters.

"We see that day by day there are more and more options coming up for a differently-abled person to sharpen their talents. We should keep our eyes open to detect those and educate ourselves to use them," she added. "The problem is that many students and their families don't have enough income to adopt these methods.

Mekhala, with her unending courage continued her music and her academic studies, especially with the help of her mother and siblings. Today she has become a talented singer being involved in a milestone in Sri Lankan music industry. "Self motivation is the best weapon to succeed. But there are two sides.

The family also has a big responsibility to encourage their differently-abled family member. The family should very well understand that person's talents and support. At least a teacher in a school where they study should understand this," she said. "In today's world there is technology coming up every day making our lives easier.

The only thing is we need to be aware of those and to know where such facilities are available," she said. According to Mekhala the first step for success is to develop self confidence in one's self about their talent and future success. "And most importantly one would need a great degree of care and protection from the family," she said. As she further stated, the family must take their differently-abled member to attend public events to the best of their ability even to the simple 'pinkama' at the village temple or to special events organised specially for differently-abled persons. "By making these people more sociable, boosts the morale of that person," she said. "It is not the physical disability that lowers the confidence of a differently-abled person but isolation from the family and society," she said. "If we get involved in some work for the betterment of the society and that we can serve the society in a better way, that would be our ultimate happiness," she said.

 

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