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