Photo courtesy- friendsofnavajeevana.org
While she told the audience gathered at the Shangri-La hotel, that evening of March 8th, that ensuring peace and harmony for all could be achieved only if such values are imparted to children very early in life, she recalled that being a special needs person, she experienced no negativity from her classmates. De Silva had been the first student with disabilities to be admitted to Bishop’s College, College, and the school must be congratulated for the bold step it took more than a decade ago. Though her classmates have never been instructed to help her, she says they would always be at the gate to greet her and take her to class. That certainly demonstrates that unless and until parents or elders speak of differences and act discriminately towards those of other communities or people with mental or physical drawbacks, children will treat everyone as their equals.
The event organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (Sri Lanka) and the cross-party political platform NextGenSL showcased ten women drawn from various fields to share their vision on what they would do, if they ever had the opportunity to lead the country. De Silva, currently a crafts teacher at Bishops and a motivational speaker, was one of the women.
The judiciary, for one said De Silva needs reformation,reminding guests of the trauma faced by a young autistic boy a few years ago. The boy who had been sexually and physically abused at his place of work, was unable to describe to the court the trauma he faced, owing to his disability, raising the question whether officers of the court have received sensitivity training that is so necessary in understanding those with special needs and other vulnerable persons.
Images of a 14 year old autistic boy being man-handled by police officers, ably assisted by at least one member of the public, during the COVID 19 lockdown last year come to mind. Here again, the boy who was riding a bike during curfew hours was seen being brought under control by force and having his hands tied. The police at the time claimed that the officers manning a security post had assumed the child was older. Such behaviour once again poses the question of the training law enforcement officers receive. How capable are they in dealing with the vulnerable? When, at the best of times, those with no obvious disabilities turn nervous when dealing with officers of the law, could one expect the vulnerable not to be apprehensive?
Both in this situation and in the earlier mentioned case, it is apparent that not only the police, but society needs to understand that not everyone is the same, that many deal with hidden disabilities, and that everyone must be treated with respect and sensitivity.
De Silva pointed out that often people with special needs are denied justice simply because they are unable to clearly articulate their situations to a police officer.
The Education system too needs to be reformed she said, so that every child, whether or not they are differently-abled have access to the same facilities and opportunities in life. While some government run schools do have a class for special needs children, the same cannot be said for all privately run educational institutions. This writer is aware of at least one kid,described as a ‘slow learner’ who has been denied admission to a private school. The last this writer heard (a week ago), theparents were going from pillar to post to have their child admitted to school. Then there is the case of two sisters, both with night blindness who were denied the use of a torch to write their exam papers. This too occurred at a private school some years back. Let’s hope things have changed since.
De Silva also suggested that commercial enterprises should work out programmes whereby the differently –abled could learn a trade to either start out on their own or join a business establishment.
After all, as de Silva explains it is imperative that all children have, irrespective of their abilities the same opportunities to education, and skills training so they too are employable and become productive citizens of the country.
In most instances, the vulnerable are cared for by their families, usually the parents. Yet, as we all know, parents tend to protect their differently-abled off spring and hardly ever expose them to the outside world. Such practices, though borne out of love and concern for their children, often leave them lost when theparents are no more. Given our cultures, there is an expectation that such children would be taken care of by siblings on the demise of the parents. Such arrangements and expectations may have been practiced over the years. Yet, while it leaves special needs children completely dependent on their siblings for their upkeep and other necessities, it places a heavy burden on other family members; their earnings may not be sufficient to provide necessary care, or spouses could prove hostile. They may even feel trapped, unable to relocate for work etc. Such arrangements may work for those hailing from wealthy backgrounds, where parents make the necessary financial arrangements and paid care-givers are available. But for a larger section of society, such arrangements are just dreams.
So, as de Silva suggests the onus is on the State to ensure the differently-abled are cared for as they advance in years and parental protection is no more. Perhaps, it would do Sri Lanka well to study programmes in practice in other countries, that ensure the differently abled are cared for, when their parents are dead.
There are many models Sri Lanka could look into. Government and perhaps the private sector could go into partnerships that provide secure and affordable housing for those who are differently abled. Where possible such persons should be encouraged to start living on their own, with regular monitoring by care workers. Indeed, like many western countries Sri Lanka could explore the possibility of giving all such persons some form of financial help.
As de Silva pointed out, Sri Lanka should be earnestly exploring methods of supporting the differently-abled when their parents pass away.
With a good school environment and family support de Silva has come to her own, a confident young woman who is making it possible for other differently-abled folk to dream and dream big. It’s society’s turn now, to understand and treat everyone as equals. And the State must not shirk its duty of introducing policies and reforming the judiciary and the education system to better serve the vulnerable.