“I was invited to Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation for an interview and after a conversation with the Director General, I was asked to begin training as a presenter. I overheard a conversation between the DG and another staff personnel at SLBC, where the latter commented ‘she can become a teacher at the blind school instead’, to which the DG replied ‘why should she be confined in her opportunities just because she is blind’”, narrates BisoManike Grero, who currently works as a counselor at the low vision unit of the Eye Hospital in Kandy. BisoManike’s experience illustrates the long-standing prejudices about persons with disabilities held by larger society in Sri Lanka. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities identifies that disability is caused by society – in the way infrastructure is organized and built and by the attitudes held by society about persons with disabilities. Therefore, an impairment of an individual would become a ‘disability’ when the impairment meets with social attitudes and built environment.
The population of persons with disabilities in Sri Lanka is reported at an approximate 1.7 million in 2012 according to UNESCAP. However, the probability of the number of persons with disability being higher is strong given Sri Lanka’s protracted war, which leaves in its wake a population experiencing varying types of disabilities including invisible disabilities caused by trauma. Disability must be seen as part of human diversity while within persons with disabilities the types and categories of disability further illustrates the need to understand that disability is multi-faceted and therefore require multiple applications of policy and practice by multiple actors. In a bid to raise awareness of the role and responsibility of local government authorities in facilitating disability inclusive service delivery processes the Asia Foundation’s Sub National Governance Program hosted an exposure visit for council leadership and administrative staff of Matara Municipal Council to visit Sri Lanka’s Blind Council in Rajagiriya. The visit was conceptualized in response to an interest expressed by the Matara Municipal Council to create a braille unit in their main library for those citizens in their constituency who live with low vision and visual impairment. Through the visit it was anticipated that both decision making leadership and administrative staff of the council acquire sensitization on the lived realities of persons with visual impairment and obtain knowledge on the types of assistive technology, apart from braille, that can be used to create reading opportunities for visually impaired readership.
There were two highlights of the visit, a panel discussion comprising leaders in disability rights advocacy and designing assistive technology to facilitate reading opportunities and access to information for those with visual impairment; and a walk-through orientation in the facility of the blind council to understand how to design infrastructure that is accessible for persons living with visual impairment. The panel consisted of Mr. R. M. H. Gunaratne Deputy Chairman of Sri Lanka Blind Council, Ms. Bisomanike Grero of Women’s Development Centre in Kandy, Mr. Asoka Weerawardhana of the University of Colombo’s School of Technology and Mr. Supun Jayawardhana of Verite Research. The panel discussion held several objectives from creating sensitivity to the lived experiences in areas of socio-economic and political spheres to specifically discuss examples and realities of challenges faced when accessing formal education and employment opportunities. And presentation by Mr. Asoka Weerawardhana was particularly instrumental to the audience in creating awareness about how to structure and organize a reading facility in a library for visually impaired. He highlighted the availability of technological devices such as daily human narrated audio books, digital braille, text to speech, video magnifiers and optical character recognition. Mr. Weerawardhana pointed out that conventional braille books and text takes up space, and that maintenance of them require consistent cleaning in climatic conditions such as ours. He also stressed that use of technology is fast becoming popular among the young generation and that conventional braille books can have their limitations as opposed to audio books and text to voice technology. He pointed out that while there are over two million books available for sighted in Sri Lanka’s libraries, only an insignificant number such as 3000 have been digitized into audio illustrations for visually impaired readership. Therefore, the interest expressed by the Municipal Council of Matara to create special readership unit in their library for visually impaired is a key step in generating more readership opportunities and access to information for visually impaired populations. Mr. Supun Jayawardhana expressed that while Sri Lanka’s prevailing disability law is outdated and needs reform, however the existing legal frameworks and action plans give adequate prescriptions that can guide local government authorities to create disability inclusive service delivery processes. He commended the Municipal Council of Matara for engaging in this effort of gaining know-how in creating a reading unit for visually impaired in the main library operated by the council. He also urged the municipal council to set an example in the southern province by visioning beyond the reading unit and create a disability inclusive city where infrastructure is made in adherence to universal accessible standards. Mr. Jayawardhana reminded the municipal council on the responsibility assigned to local government authorities in regulating the accessibility guidelines when approving built infrastructure under the jurisdiction of the council. Reiterating on the legal capacities of local government authorities to enable disability inclusion at the local level Mr. Gunaratne suggested to the Deputy Mayor and Deputy Municipal Commissioner to explore the option of drafting bylaws to facilitate disability inclusive services and development processes within the constituency. The panel discussion engaged participants from the council where many questions and request for clarifications were posed to the eminent speakers. A participant council member stated “this exposure has been an eye opener to us. We now realize that despite the authority and decision making power bestowed on us, we do little to promote the dignity and rights of persons with disability. I will be returning with new ideas and energy to have wider council level discussions on how and what we must do to ensure disability inclusion”. The panel concluded with the understanding that local authorities cannot attempt to create a disability inclusive society as a single actor but must combine resources and capacities with other government and non-governmental stakeholders to promote a disability inclusive social norm. This sentiment was endorsed by the panel speakers who stated that they in their respective capacities and through their institutions advocate and mobilize to facilitate wider stakeholder awareness and commitment to creating an inclusive society that upholds the dignity of people with disabilities. It was understood that disability while being a part of human diversity requires multidisciplinary processes and multi stakeholder engagement to be mainstreamed.