Transforming Wellawaya : One man striving to make a difference

Published : 9:55 am  June 8, 2015 | No comments so far |  | 


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Disability and aging are biological conditions that are beyond our control. Most people in both these categories are reluctant to face society due to stigmatisation. But very rarely do we come across disabled people, who would strive to make a difference.  Senarath Attanayake, is one such person, who is in the process of making a difference starting from his own hometown.

While being the first wheelchair bound person to be called to the Bar as an Attorney-at-law, he is also the first person with a disability in Sri Lanka to enter politics. He is also acknowledged as the first disabled person in Sri Lanka to be elected to a constitutional body, which is the Provincial Council (PC) and the first citizen with a disability to hold a Ministerial Portfolio as well as the first differently abled Acting Chief Minister.  In order to speak out to both these categories, he formulated a concept of a Disabled and Age Friendly City for Sri Lanka and implemented the project in Wellawaya in the Moneragala District.  Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Mr. Attanayake shared his ideas about the project and how he wished to improve it further. Excerpts:


Q : Can you briefly describe this project?
Basically this project aims to build a Disabled and Age Friendly City. The concept was first presented at the World Assembly of Disabled People’s International (DPI) in Durban in 2011. The guidelines of the disabled and age friendly city project combines the principles as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and the age-friendly city guidelines developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The main pillars of a city of this nature comprises of outdoor spaces and buildings, roads and transportation, education and lifelong education and many other avenues.wheel3

Q : How is the progress of the project so far?
We have come to a stage where we are trying to ask for a quota and to get voting rights for disabled people. We had a press conference recently too. So, we are in the process of making all polling stations accessible to the disabled by building ramps and other facilities. In addition to that we are also trying to initiate the concept of inclusive education in 30 schools by again improving accessibility. The same also applies for religious places where we are focusing more on the elderly population. Up to now we have been able to introduce a social centre in every Grama Niladhari (GN) division and the Road Development Authority (RDA) is also helping us by building user-friendly pavements and a survey has also been done on Road safety injuries by a group of academics from the University of New Zealand and Sri Lanka.

Q : Did you face any political drama when you first proposed this at the local level?
I am very happy to mention that irrespective of party or colour, everybody has helped me to improve this project further. Now, my Provincial Council has taken this up as one of its projects and allocated Rs. 15 million for its developmental purposes.

Q : Why did you start with Wellawaya?
I was chosen to the PC in 1999 and ever since then I have been a PC member. So, the people who voted for me had had a lot of trust in me. Also I am quite amazed at the fact that the people of Moneragala didn’t see my disability as a lack of ability. I also served as an acting Chief Minister (CM). So, this shows that people have identified the political leadership in me and therefore I thought I would start off from the Moneragala district.

Q : The concept of inclusion is quite new in Sri Lanka. Do you think that the aging and disabled communities have a future?
I believe that the Rs. 3000 they get is just nothing. I have heard of cases, where people intentionally make their family people or children disabled just to collect this amount of money every month. So, we are trying to improve these conditions by introducing accessibility facilities and vocational training centres in the district. So, 50 of the disabled people were given equipment and now we are trying to involve them in developmental work.

Firstly we look at the requirements of the elderly and then the education and vocational training programmes for the youth. This concept was initialised by our PC and also we are recruiting them for various jobs and in that sense our PC stands out from others.

Q : There was an incident recently where a disabled child and her parents had to fight for their rights due to a request made to shift her classroom to the ground floor in a renowned school. Shouldn’t the people concerned be more responsible in these type of situations?
The moment we got to know about this incident our Secretary announced a meeting to all schools in the district to arrange a classroom close to the main gate in schools, where there were disabled children. In this type  of situations our people are also quite sensitive and they always try to get involved in our work.

Q : Who funds these projects?
The W.H.O. is involved and the rest is from the government. The Ambassador of China also called for a meeting to discuss the project with the CM. I will also be attending the New York State Party Conference and again I will be promoting this project and also a team from Korea has also got involved in its funding process.

Q : Several women’s organisations and other communities have requested quotas in Parliament. Don’t you think that the disabled community should also be given a chance?
The community comprising differently abled people represents 15 per cent of the population in Sri Lanka and this is more compared to the sum of all minority groups. So, it is the responsibility of the State to give them their necessary credits.
In fact we have requested both major parties to nominate disabled people from the National List and there is a consideration.

Q : Another problem that disabled people face is the issue of ‘tokenism’. Companies use them for their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) projects and are being made a brand much to their disadvantage. How do you address this problem?
Everybody has this issue. Tokenism has put many people I know at risk. Companies want to promote their name and they know very little about how the disabled people feel. So, we should be very careful with this kind of people. But if you are independent you will never face these issues and this is why I have been able to survive all these years. My siblings, friends and family never despised my disability and that is one of my biggest strengths.

Q : What is the message you have for all disabled and aging communities in Sri Lanka?
I want them to understand that we are there for them and to make them realise that very soon they will be included in a friendly environment. I want them to believe that there is somebody for them. The 15% I told before keeps expanding and therefore we will do our best to keep them active.


Pics by Kithsiri De Mel