From Silence to Supported: The Journey of a Sri Lankan Entrepreneur with Hearing Loss
The differently-abled have been consistently marginalised in Sri Lanka and often denied opportunities to participate effectively in public. This denial stems from the idyllic view of the typically abled (UNDP Sri Lanka).
While the state has reportedly taken steps to allocate resources and revamp the existing structure, archaic cultures and attitudes perceive disability as a penance for past sins and a burden. Estimates put about 8.7% of the population above five living with some disability. In addition, nearly 300,000 Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) aged 18 to 60 have some form of disability.
The opposing perspectives further frustrate the accessibility, inclusivity and participation of PWDs in different spheres, including employment.
Encouragingly, Isuru Lakhshan Weerasooriya could be considered an exception to the discrimination as more PWDs are empowered in the troubled country.
Timely Aid to the Rescue
A chance encounter with a stranger during a doctor’s appointment when he was three changed Isuru’s life for the better. He was diagnosed with hearing loss after his mother, Pathma Kumari, noticed anomalies in his behaviour.
Spotted by a staff member of the Women’s Development Centre (WDC) who knew he needed specialised support that the non-profit organisation could provide, Isuru soon became one of its beneficiaries.
WDC empowers women, the young, the differently-abled, and other marginalised groups. The NGO offers therapy, formal sign language classes, and other personalised treatment through its Community Based Rehabilitation programme (CBR).
RYTHM Foundation, the social impact arm of the QI Group, has played a significant role in the CBR’s primary objective of successfully rehabilitating PWDs into society as active contributors versus burdens.
With the Foundation’s assistance, the programme holistically caters to the formative ages, from early childhood development to integrating school-aged children in pre-vocational and vocational training and skills development for future job prospects and overall social inclusion. The programme also educates parents about early intervention.
CBR includes home-based therapeutic interventions through 11 centres in the Kandy district. Under this programme, Isuru, a fast learner, was ready to be integrated into a school for those with hearing loss by age five.
“I joined WDC when I was very young and learned sign language,” Isuru says. “I made new friends. It was a chance for me to develop my social skills.”
Pathma chipped in, “WDC supported and helped us enrol Isuru in a special school where he studied until his O-Level. He then attended a state-run special vocational training school, where he trained in crafting leather products.”
Isuru began making and selling leather products such as drums and key tags. His mother also enrolled them both in a shoe-making workshop led by M.K.G. Saman Leelarathne, a leather product consultant from the Industry and Commerce Ministry.
The training at a WDC rehabilitation centre focused on designing and creating shoes without moulds, a method used by only a few shoe manufacturers in Sri Lanka.
The workshop was another initiative funded by RYTHM as a capacity-building programme for community trainers, teachers, parents, and the differently-abled.
Six months after taking part in the shoe-making workshop, Isuru produced and sold several pairs of footwear. The mother and son are grateful for the opportunities that helped them earn a livelihood.
“I believe my son can live a life with dignity because of RYTHM Foundation and WDC, and we truly appreciate their contribution to my son’s development,” Pathma said.
RYTHM has worked closely with WDC on creating awareness for the rights, early intervention, and rehabilitation of the differently-abled to ensure their opportunities to lead fulfilled lives.