Real economic growth requires inclusivity. Sri Lanka has an estimated 2 million differently abled people but few mechanisms for empowering them.
This may be a topic that does not seem relevant in the present context, for in most instances differently abled people are only remembered on days that are dedicated to them. World White Cane Day, which falls on 15 October, is more than a month away but it is time to create events rather than wait for them.
Sri Lanka does not maintain proper statistics on its differently abled population, but it is estimated that there are more than 60, 000 blind people, 70, 000 deaf people and untold numbers of others suffering from a variety of disabilities. Not least among these are the brave men and women who lost limbs or were otherwise injured in Sri Lanka’s three decade conflict. The army alone is reported to have over 10, 000 disabled soldiers.
Even though Sri Lanka legalised a comprehensive equal rights law as far back as 1996 there are significant lapses in implementation. This is largely due to lack of resources but it has heavy consequences. Education, for example, is one of the main areas where improvement is needed.
Text books for blind students are released ages after their “normal” counterparts get it. There have been instances when the delay has stretched to years. On the bright side the Education Ministry is now formulating braille books and it is hoped that these are consistently supplied to students.
There are over 300 blind graduates in Sri Lanka, but the numbers that make it to university are very few. At present there are only around 60 visually handicapped students at undergraduate level and they are often deprived of IT and other resources that would keep them at the same standards as their colleagues. The situation becomes even bleaker once they leave university with almost no one going abroad to pursue their postgraduate studies.
Livelihood training is also another challenge. State institutions have not yet introduced a countrywide curriculum or course for differently abled people and while these are in the pipeline it is also important to remember that scholarships and other assistance is also necessary for wider access to empowerment.
Sri Lankans are by no means uncaring but the fact that their feelings do not go beyond sympathy is a problem. While the stigma is a daily burden for these people so is the lack of empowerment that would help them achieve their full potential.
For years the government has stated that a quota of 3% will be allocated to differently abled people in State sponsored employment programme. But this has remained limited to words on paper and so far has not been legalised through an Act in parliament. It is also disheartening to note that when 10% of the population is estimated to be differently abled that only 3% of jobs are being allocated to them.
Not only should the quota system be implemented as soon as possible it should also include the private sector. There are many activists that believe the private sector as the larger supplier of jobs should employ as many differently abled people as they can. If they are for some reason unable to do so they can take the value of those salaries and use them to assist differently abled people through corporate social responsibility programmes or other activities.
Differently abled people are a part of Sri Lanka. They need to be given a chance to be fully fledged citizens.