How reliable is SL’s disability data?

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It is said the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members, especially the children, the elderly, and the disabled.

In Sri Lanka, being disabled is an additional challenge, as even the little facilities they enjoy at present were won through years-long battles by the members of the community. So much so, that the country doesn’t even have latest statistics on the disabled.

According to the report which supposedly carries the ‘latest data’ by the Census and Statistics Department, the number of persons living with disabilities in Sri Lanka is 1,617,924. What is more alarming is, these so-called ‘latest statistics’ were compiled at least a decade ago, and thus arises the question as to whether the latest report really reflects the present situation.

It is in this context that the Humanitarian Foundation ‘Break the Barrier of Disability,’in one of its studies focussing on the disabled community of Sri Lanka, has identified several pressing problems that require urgent attention.

One of the main problems that was identified is the need to update information about the disabled community, that has not been updated for ten years. Also, children under 5 years, living with disabilities, have not been considered in the last census conducted in 2012. There are dozens of such children and some step has to be taken for these children, they stressed in the research study. Also, this initiative claims that Sri Lanka still does not have a programme to provide a sustainable solution to improve the quality of life of the disabled community. It further points out that in fact, there are many talented individuals within the disabled community, and they have extremely limited opportunities to improve, showcase, or make use of their talents. 

It added: “Even when it comes to various programmes conducted by the public sector, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) sector, private sector or the media sector targeting the disabled community, we can see that most of these programmes target only a select group of members of the disabled community.Community members who genuinely need support and opportunities are often overlooked. It can be seen that often, many from the disabled community and their families tend to have a dependent mentality.”

“It should also be noted that many members of the disabled community and their families often live with stress, mainly due to the uncertainty surrounding their future. Most of the time, the disabled community faces uncomfortable situations in their day-to-day life in the society, and there are specific issues faced by each person with disabilities and their families. It is crucial to identify these challenges and to provide solutions. In many cases, it can be observed that they are not aware of the special laws relating to the disabled community and their rights. The general society has a huge responsibility with regard to the disabled community. However, the public does not seem to have a clear idea about it.”

“It is necessary to have a sustainable programme that can truly take all these concerns into account, improve the lives of the disabled community, and help them be independent,” it is highlighted.

Introduction to the project

This initiative underscores that most of the members of the disabled community in Sri Lanka live with no proper facilities or opportunities to socialise. In order to change this situation effectively, there is a need for a national level programme that can empower their lives, through looking into the true needs of the disabled community, assisting them to fulfil those needs, and through providing them with proper opportunities and the necessary facilities socially. The project that was introduced to fulfil those needs is ‘Break the Barrier of Disability.’

Objective

The project aims at empowering the lives of the disabled community in a holistic manner by methodically collecting data of all persons (infants, children, youths, and adults) with disabilities living in Sri Lanka, while also identifying their needs through an analysis of that data, and implementing a sustainable programme covering all 25 districts.

Vision

Empowering every person with disabilities living in Sri Lanka as a perfectly improved human being, has been announced as the vision of the project.

Mission

The mission of the project, as per this initiative, is: “To achieve our vision, we work towards improving the socio-environmental and economic conditions affecting persons with disabilities by engaging in all sorts of activities with them, and we see it as a responsibility of ours.”

There are two main parts of the project – namely, collecting data and information of all persons with disabilities living in Sri Lanka in a methodical manner, and launching sustainable programmes based on the analysis of that data and information.

Action plan

The first step of the project is methodically collecting data and information of all members of the disabled community living in Sri Lanka.

When gathering this data and information, for each district, a Divisional Secretariat level Coordinator will be appointed through the District Project Coordinator. To assist that Coordinator, five Assistant Coordinators will be appointed for each Divisional Secretariat area. Through these Assistant Coordinators, the necessary data and information will be methodically gathered at the Grama Niladhari Division level.

“At any stage from birth to death, anyone can become disabled. In some cases, such disabilities may affect the whole life. In addition to collection of information about the disabled community, a hotline will also be introduced to contact us, provide us with the information, and to obtain the necessary assistance.”

The second step is to analyse the data, and carry out sustainable programmes based on the analysis.

Furthermore, activities and programmes based on the collected data and information will be carried out under five categories.

The first category of activities includes providing the necessary infrastructure for school education, secondary education, and tertiary education of children and youth with disabilities.

Setting up ‘Disabled Community Empowerment Centres’ at Divisional Secretariat level, and through that, providing facilities for adult education, providing facilities to teach children with severe disabilities using special methods (via specially trained teachers), establishing training centres to provide information technology knowledge and training for children and adults, conducting trilingual training programmes for children and adults, conducting special training for persons with disabilities with special interest in technology, and conducting specially designed leadership training for persons with disabilities.

In addition, persons with disabilities will be updated on education, technology, and training related activities through the website and YouTube channel, and training will be conducted via Zoom.

The second category of activities includes providing necessary health related infrastructure for the disabled community, conducting medical camps once a year, providing counselling services and motivational programmes for sustainable mental well-being of the disabled community, providing infrastructure facilities and launching emergency relief programmes (as required) for low-income families with members with disabilities, conducting various programmes to help stabilise the mental health of persons with disabilities and to provide entertainment for them,and setting up treatment centres with all the necessary facilities and providing all sorts of treatment for persons with disabilities in low-income families.

(The above activities will be implemented through the Disabled Community Empowerment Centres).

Under the third category of activities, it is aimed to reduce various difficulties faced by people with disabilities in the general society, and to hold social cohesion programmes (with participation of both persons with disabilities and those who are not identified so). In addition, awareness-raising programmes will be conducted for both the general society and for the disabled community with a focus on social equality the disabled community should be entitled to, and various programmes will be conducted with the aim of making the lives of people with disabilities easier.

The fourth category of activities includes conducting awareness raising programmes on legal and human rights related matters pertaining to the disabled community and actively taking steps regarding such matters.

The fifth set of activities includes, identifying and developing the unique talents of persons with disabilities and facilitating to convert such talents into sources of income, raising awareness on employment opportunities that can be done even with disabilities and providing such employment opportunities (creating an exclusive job bank for persons with disabilities), conducting vocational guidance programmes for those in need, and conducting entrepreneurship training and development programmes for persons with disabilities and their families (this programme will specially focus on families with persons with severe disabilities).

This national project pertains to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations (UN).Through this, they expect to assist the Sri Lankan Government to achieve SDG related aims and indicators.

Much needed changes

Meanwhile, Deputy Project Manager of Humanitarian Foundation ‘Break the Barrier of Disability,’ Muditha Bandara,claimed that the statistics issued by the Government in regard to the disabled community are not quite accurate, as it has been nine years since the last update,and that the manner in which the members of this community have been categorised is not helpful when dealing with them. This, he emphasised, is the main challenge that needs to be overcome.

“We did not want to be just another ordinary non-governmental organisation (NGO) that merely implements some random projects and distribute some random goods and leave. We want to connect with each individual of the disabled community, identify their needs, and offer a helping hand. The help they need varies from individual to individual,” he added.

In addition, they expect the involvement of the Social Services Department for the said mission, which he said can be immensely beneficial.

Bandara explained: “Each and every District and Divisional Secretariat has collected information about each individual in their respective areas. The Social Services Officer of these Secretariats is aware of the approximate number of and details of disabled individuals in those areas. We need administrative level support in order to approach the disabled community in each area. We want the public sector to be the bridge that connects us and the disabled community.”

Moreover, he said they have approached the Census and Statistics Department, Social Services Department, and the Office of the Chief Secretary with regard to the said project to seek the support they need.

“We have found a link between disability and poverty. Taking that into account, we have planned to launch emergency relief projects in Galle, Kilinochchi, and Kegalle, similar to our activities in Kolonnawa. We will be starting to compile the necessary statistics from Kolonnawa and Baddegama. In the next three months, we will start providing the necessary assistance for these groups without waiting until we finish data collection activities islandwide. We will continue this project for another 10-15 years,” he added.

A community that needs a helping hand and special consideration to stand on their own has been left behind for a long time and treated less than human. For decades, their education, health, talents, and many other necessary developments have been ignored. What is more, for a decade, the country has remained unaware of how many Paralympic medal winners such as Pradeep Sanjaya and also other talented individuals that can make Sri Lanka shine at the international level, it missed.

By Nabiya Vaffoor