To ‘Leave no one behind’ : Can Sri Lanka achieve this? | Sunday Observer

To ‘Leave no one behind’ : Can Sri Lanka achieve this?

7 April, 2019
Nuffield Collage students
Nuffield Collage students

Recently Sri Lanka was rated the second most affected country by climate change by The Long Term Climate Risk Index of Germany. When facing climate change, people who are differently-abled face immense hardship and are at the risk of losing their lives the most. Are the differently abled in our country equipped and ready to face climate change? The Sunday Observer explores.

Donating blankets, pillows, food items and similar things has been the trendy version of assisting differently abled persons in Sri Lanka for decades. However, the Sri Lanka Water Partnership‒ an independent non-profit association with a goal of promoting Integrated Water Resources Management‒ conducted an educational program on ‘climate change’ for the benefit of hearing impaired children last month at Kaithady Nuffield College, Jaffna. The program which attracted more than 250 hearing impaired students, was a prolific, inter active session and turned out to be a workshop rather than a traditional seminar with one-way communication.

Displaying the true value of dissemination of knowledge rather than objects, children who were inspired by fresh ideas brought to them by resource persons, delivered their learning in different channels including drama and paintings.

“I think no one has done a program for the differently abled on climate change. Even for us it was a novel experience. What we tried to do was to give them information, so they can understand what is happening by themselves” said Senior Adviser, Sri Lanka Water Partnership, Kusum Athukorala.

Vulnerable Sri Lanka

The Long-Term Climate Risk Index, published by German Watch, listed Sri Lanka as the second most affected country in the world by climate change in 2019. The index which made the Indian Ocean island, second only to Puerto Rico is a part of the Global Climate Risk Index 2019 – which was released at the annual climate summit in Poland in December 2018.

In such a context, where everyone is responsible and at the same time are victims of the climate change and its consequences, differently abled persons are globally considered as the most vulnerable group of the climate change.

The President of Disability Organisations Joint Front (DOJF), Sugath Wasantha De Silva told the Sunday Observer that, climate change and persons with disabilities is a topic very rarely heard of but which of course, has an influential importance. “For instance, in a flood situation people communicate the message just by shouting. But a deaf person cannot get information on what is happening around and threats to his life just because of his/ her disability. Therefore, persons with disabilities are the most vulnerable section of the community. Special attention should be focused on such people who live alone, without anyone else’s support,” he said .

It is also vital to point out that the Sustainable Development Goals stresses the importance of ‘leaving no one behind’ which compels us to think about an inclusive society of which persons with disabilities are also a part. However, cultural and religious stigma, stereotypes and discrimination have marginalised them in an evil way where they are easily forgotten at decisive levels.

Communication failure?

The twenty first century is named as the ‘century of information’. This is no wonder as information has been key to development and power of individuals at the micro level and of countries at the macro level, when looking at the past two decades.

According to the most recent census (2012), Sri Lanka is home to more than 1.6 million persons with disabilities such as deafness, blindness, speech disability and missing limbs. This is 8.7 per cent of the total workforce of the country.

However, Sri Lanka has a history of dedicated education for those with disabilities which dates back to 1912, when the first school for the deaf and blind was started.

Extending that, the Ministry of Education took steps to ensure education to children with disabilities in a more integrative manner in the 1970’s.

The website of the Department of Social Services reveals that in Sri Lanka, the medium of communication for the provision of educational, social, cultural services as well as medical, health and legal facilities to hearing-impaired persons is the sign language.

It also states, “the Cabinet of Ministers took a policy decision to accept the sign language as a language on September 05, 2010. Currently, there are six sign language interpreters in the Department to provide sign language interpretation services. Public sector institutions can procure the services of these interpreters when necessary to communicate with the hearing impaired. Eg:- Police stations, courts, hospitals and other public sector institutions. The services of our sign language interpreters are made available during the main news bulletin on Rupavahini telecast at 8.00 p.m.

However, inaccessible materials, incompatibility with assistive devices, and inadequate sign language vocabulary related to climate change adaptation, risks, impacts, and warnings are some of the challenges faced by persons with disabilities. In contrast, access to media is another issue faced by persons with disabilities.

“Media channels are not disabled friendly. Currently only one television channel broadcasts news with sign language. But no channel delivers any breaking news with the sign language” said Sugath.

Mapping the spread of differently abled persons is a suggestion made by the DOJF stressing easy accessibility to such persons at any disaster situation.

“Soon after the tsunami, Sri Lanka adopted a disaster management mechanism.

However, it is more important to take precautionary measures under such a mechanism rather than taking action after something has happened.

Mapping locations of differently abled persons in each Divisional Secretariat would be one such initiative” said Sugath.

He said refugee camps established after natural disasters such as floods and landslides are another main issue faced by differently abled persons. “At refugee camps we heard of instances where differently abled women got abused. But they are not willing to speak out in public,” he said.

However, according to the Deputy Director – Media of the Disaster Management Centre, Pradeep Kodippili, Sri Lanka is at a good level compared to other countries in the region when it comes to disaster management and differently abled persons.

“There has been no death reported with regards to differently abled persons in recent natural disasters. I think we have a culture of supporting them and it is the reason behind such progress” said Pradeep.

“When we receive information about differently abled persons at refugee camps, we provide those camps with all essential provisions. We have trained members to support such persons” he added.

However, Kusum Athukorala doesn’t accept the existence of such good practices in Sri Lanka. “India has better facilities for differently abled persons compared to our country.

Even most of our star class hotels do not have toilets which are differently abled friendly. It is such a sad situation. In that context how can we even think of disaster camps being differently abled friendly?” she said.

“We cannot mitigate disasters. We can only adapt. When it comes to differently abled persons, they already suffer from a disability and disasters and impact of climate change are an additional burden to them. That is one focal point” said Kusum Athukorala.