Photo Courtesy of Humanity & Inclusion

To mark International Day for Persons with Disabilities, Groundviews interviewed Dharini de Mel, a friend and philanthropist for persons with disabilities.

Dharini’s introduction to supporting the disabled came quite by chance. Although she had no formal training in the sector, Dharini has decades of experience helping and supporting differently-abled persons. She has learnt along the way that they need to be respected and treated equally, and require emotional support as well as resources that could help them live a better and more meaningful life.

While often those she has worked with come from poor and marginalised families, they do not expect handouts. They want to improve themselves and be independent. They have visions and dreams for their future, they are open to advice and guidance and they respond to love and genuine concern.

The areas of support change according to the challenges they face. Sometimes they simply need a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear and at other times they need Dharini to scan through her networks to find someone who can help them access training or job opportunities. Generally, those who are physically challenged but mentally sound are able to move forward in life better than those who have no sight or speech and hearing issues.

Below are excerpts of an email interview with Dharini.

You have years of experience working with and supporting differently-abled persons, how did you enter this field?

My entry into the field was quite by chance. When I was in my mid-thirties a colleague approached me and asked if I would volunteer to teach English to a few physically disabled children in a home for the disabled (Sahanaya) run by the Gangaramaya temple in Colombo 2. I agreed, and there began my journey to help disabled people that came my way. This was way back in the 1980s. I was greatly encouraged by their enthusiasm to learn and later when the home was moved to Sri Jayewardenepura, I used to get them to my home and continue to teach them and be their ‘Auntie’ to this day!

In the late 1980s I would visit my dear departed friend Kumarini Wickramasuriya in Tangalle and accompany her on her home visits to support disabled children in the community and I understood a whole lot more about how communities coped with children with disabilities. The effects of stigma and shame attached to having a disabled child were many. Some were totally neglected. Kumi, as she was fondly known, started this great humanitarian programme from her home and it expanded into the Navajeevana Rehabilitation Centre, Tangalle. Some years later, after I had retired from my employment and had time on my hands, Kumi invited me to join the Navajeevana Board and I contributed to the administration of that organisation.

In 2007 I was asked to be a part of a church group that started a monthly programme for the differently bled and here I met Patricia with her two children who were both deaf and dumb from birth.  Although I left this church group three years later, my connection with Patricia and Mallika, who has been blind from birth, has continued.

What kind of support is most lacking for people with disabilities?

What is most lacking is an organisation that they can go to for information and advice, counselling, job training and job placement support. A place that can help them get a possible scholarship for training would be appreciated so much.

Had there been some advice available to parents with disabled children, they would have made better choices in terms of accessing opportunities for their children from a young age. For example, Patricia with both her children who are deaf and dumb, didn’t put them to a school where they would learn sign language. She sent them to a nearby school for a short while and when that didn’t work, she just kept them at home. When I met them the boy, Gayan, was 10 and the girl, Salome, was 8. I got them into a privately run deaf and dumb school in Moratuwa affiliated to Sarvodaya where they were until they turned 18. But not knowing sign language was a big draw back in terms of their education and is now affecting their employability.

Disabled-friendly public transport would be of great value to those coming from poor or marginalised backgrounds.

Can you share one story that has made a deep impact on you?

When I first met Mallika she was in her late twenties, living in a blind colony at Katubedde and looking for employment. She had passed her O/levels at the Deaf and Blind school. Her family are from a remote place in Matara. Four of the six children in their family are blind from birth. However, she is the only one out of the four who came to Colombo, put herself through school and became independent.

Her menial employment of packing salt brought her to live in a room in Negombo. Here she faced much harassment both from her landlady and the public in the vicinity. One day her rent money was stolen from her room and as she couldn’t afford to pay her rent so she was asked to leave with just a few days notice.

In the meantime, I did a CV for her and circulated it by email (this is before we had smart phones and WhatsApp) to my friends explaining her plight and asking for some job opportunity for her. The very week that she was homeless and jobless, I get a call from MAS in Hanwella to say that they are starting a programme to include the disabled to their factory cadre and could help Mallika. Up to then MAS had only employed speech and hearing impared, so taking on a totally blind person like Mallika was a challenge for them.

Mallika hired a van for her belongings and went from Negombo to Hanwella where MAS, had with the greatest difficulty, found a boarding house for her. That was nine years ago. Since then she has had to move several times because of harassment by those in the boarding houses. She has even had money and jewellery stolen from her room. Finally, she now seems to be in a place where she is safe and not exploited.

Up until Covid-19 related restrictions, she travelled from Hanwella to Colombo on Saturday and Sunday to learn English and computer skills in a Korean Institute in Colombo where they taught the disabled free of charge.

Mallika is now in her 40s and she is always striving to improve herself. She supports her ageing mother and the three other visually impaired siblings. She has been in the blind association Choir for many years and enjoys signing carols at hotels during the Christmas season.

I admire how she handles life and all the challenges she faces because of her visual impediment. Her zeal to persevere hasn’t dimmed. I hope that her dream of owning her own place one day will somehow come to pass when her working life comes to an end.

What has inspired you to continue working in this field?

I am moved by the plight faced by the disabled. I admire their tenacity and courage against many odds they face. Their achievements have brought me great joy.

How can others support people with disabilities, what is your advice?

Be supportive not condescending. Respect them and befriend them and help them to feel a part of humanity. Their lives are a tremendous example to us who have so much more going for us – even just the fact that we are not facing the challenges that disability brings. Just a phone call to ask how they are and offering a word of encouragement will go a long way. There is a lot of untapped potential in those with disabilities, who only need the right guidance and opportunities to make a better contribution to society.

Below are excerpts of interviews with three remarkable individuals whom Dharini has worked with and supported along the way. Click on the image to see full post.