We are so used to definitions that we often, in our ignorance, say things that are offensive. Stefan’s mother, Angie, commented on the way pottaya is used for someone who wears glasses. People, especially kids, use words that may not amount to profanity and yet, still hurt. The Sinhala word golu means deaf. This lead to the Borupana Junction in Moratuwa/Ratmalana to be more commonly called Golumadama Junction. It’s a name we give very little thought to. We rarely think that calling someone crazy, dumb or lame can have a negative effect on them.
However, words like moron, lame or dumb have a meaning, a meaning we have turned into an insult. This could be because we try to live in a black and white world where things are normal or abnormal. We are reluctant to accept that there is an in between where people are neither this nor that. People like Stefan, they make that in between land more real, more acceptable.
During a time when many talk about abilities and disabilities and those who are differently-able, a question of who we are comes up. Are any of us perfect? Can we do everything? Some can write, others can swim. We have our own talents, which society may not agree with. For instance, a male hairdresser may be mocked for liking a feminine profession. He may be called an outcast just because he prefers to come up with new hairdos than study the mechanism of a vehicle.
One of the social definitions of abnormality is statistical infrequency. Here it is explained that the behaviors and thinking patterns demonstrated by the majority of the population are considered normal. This obviously means that behaviors and thinking patters demonstrated by the minority are considered abnormal. In most countries worshiping a god is considered normal. Thus atheism could be considered abnormal. In a nation where many have lost their limbs at battle, walking is a behavior of the minority. Does this mean walking is an abnormality?
Normal or not, we all have our limitations and need to accept them. Not everyone can write novels or poems. Not everyone can paint beautiful landscapes. Not everyone can capture those perfect moments. We need to identify our talents and work towards perfecting them. Stephan isn’t someone we should feel sorry for. We shouldn’t feel sorry for the Deane family, in that Sri Lankan way of saying pau or sin.
Born a quadriplegic, Stefan is also visually impaired. Did this make his parents Maliq and Angie Deane give up on their son? Instead of hiding Stefan away from society, as many people do, the Deanes didn’t hesitate to take Stefan to places many of us, who can see, who can walk, haven’t gone. Stefan’s brother, Dimitri, says he never felt he was missing out on anything, and his voice, the manner in which he talks about his brother, shows how much he loves Stefan.
While one cannot doubt how strong the Deane family has been, having faced so many hardships and difficulties, the biggest barrier would be how inaccessible Sri Lanka is. We live in a nation where anyone who isn’t ‘normal’ is hidden away from the world. The reason for this is ignorance. Many are ignorant of the fact that people are no less human just because they can’t walk or speak or see.
Society is such that a child who is differently- able is seen as a shame, deserving of pity and not love.
In fact, Maliq Deane spoke about an instant when a friend commented that there were so many differently -able people in Australia. We assume that just because we don’t see them in Sri Lanka, they don’t exist. This applies to many things, and mainly the differently- able.
Our nation is yet to be disability friendly. Very few organizations have parking space or restroomsfor the handicapped. When pregnant women get into a bus, there are at least a few awkward seconds before someone offers a seat. It’s the same with people who walk with the aid of crutches; that is if the bus driver or conductor lets them enter the bus. People happily ignore those yellow stickers that say a particular seat is meant for the pregnant or disabled.
Yet, while the nation seems to be miles away from being disability friendly, we have taken steps forward. Vehicles with ramps are available in the country, and most stores have ramps. Road crossings, parking, traveling has been made easier and people are more aware of the differently-able. We need to be patient and caring. Yes, you may have to take short steps when walking behind a man with a limp, and yet, it is our duty to be patient. Do not shove them around when walking past them.
I spoke to Ishan Jalil, who was born blind. Today he is a Champion of Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ishan has completed Bachelor of Arts Degree in International Relations at the Faculty of Arts. He is the president of Young Voices- Sri Lanka an organization advocating for rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) supported by Leonard Cheshire Disability. Ishan is also a Senator in the Sri Lanka Youth Parliament, a youth activist and a Rotaractor. Ishan feels that even though there is a long way forward, there have been many improvements that have taken place in the past decade or so in terms of securing rights of persons with disabilities. ‘Sri Lanka has signed the UN Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Even though we haven’t ratified it, the very fact that we have signed this key convention itself is an achievement,’ says Ishan.
Especially in the education sector, there have been many improvements. Students with disabilities now sit alongside their colleagues in classrooms, join extra-curricular activities and more often than not pass exams with top grades. Furthermore, more and more universities and schools are becoming accessible to students with disabilities.
Isuru Saminda is a recent graduate of the Faculty of Science of the University of Colombo. Isuru has hearing impairment. Talking to me in sign language, Isuru explained that even though there have been substantial improvements for wheelchair users and the visually impaired, the deaf community is still highly neglected.
Source : The Nation , 26th Jan 2014