"Disability is Not Inability" – Advocating for the Rights of Disabled Sri Lankans in the Aftermath of Civil War

Imagine finding yourself suddenly blind in the prime of your life. Now imagine that you’re not only blind, but displaced from your home by civil war, living in an entirely new place, trying to navigate the world with a daunting new disability.

This is the hand that Vellayan Subramaniam was dealt, when, at 24, he was blinded in an accident in his final year of university. But unlike many, Subramaniam used these setbacks to garner strength, creating a life dedicated to helping others.

Months away from finishing his degree when his vision suddenly went dark, this determined man shifted his focus to Braille study and returned to school to finish his B.A. in Economics and his M.A. in Education. Displaced by war decades later, Subramaniam and his wife—who was also blind—and their two children found themselves in Vavuniya, a small, conflict-ridden town in Northern Sri Lanka.

The couple knew intimately the overwhelming obstacles people with disabilities face in Sri Lanka. Not only are they ostracized and stigmatized, but they are denied their fundamental right to education, shut out of the job market and often viewed as tremendous burdens by their families.

With no organization in Vavuniya advocating for disability rights, Subramaniam founded the Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped (ORHAN) to address the startling inequalities facing the disabled community in Sri Lanka and empower them to become active members of society. Since ORHAN’s inception in 1999, the organization has improved the lives of thousands of people through advocacy, community-based rehabilitation and education.

ORHAN’s community-based rehabilitation program breaks boundaries in Sri Lanka. Its volunteers, trained like social workers, work closely with families to identify children with disabilities—both physical and intellectual—so they can advocate for them within their families and in the greater community. These volunteers create a new space for the disabled in Sri Lanka, one free from disdain and pity and filled with renewed hope for the future.

There are many success stories of Subramaniam’s initiative. Case by case, they represent the breaking down of stigmas and barriers that prevent disabled Sri Lankans from thriving. In 2009, an ORHAN volunteer met a two-year-old girl named Sonaly who could neither walk nor speak. Sonaly’s mother thought her daughter’s physical and mental disabilities were incurable and viewed her as a burden. To her family, Sonaly was a child with no future and she spent her days lying on the floor in family’s house. Sonaly’s father took her to the doctor only one time, believing that any improvements to her condition would come naturally. They never did.

The volunteer began to advocate for the child’s treatment, explaining to the family that Sonaly’s case might not be hopeless. She eventually convinced the girl’s parents to take her for a full medical screening, and the doctor immediately diagnosed Sonaly’s problems and prescribed a detailed physical and speech therapy regimen. Within a month, she could stand with the support of a chair, then a walker, and later, with a walking bar in the family’s backyard. Once mute, the child began to speak. Sonaly’s mother—previously her daughter’s biggest skeptic—has since devoted herself to building her daughter’s future, piece by piece.

Sonaly’s story is one of many successes ORHAN regularly sees as a result of the community-based rehabilitation program. The organization also works to strengthen Sri Lanka’s disabled community and create real opportunity for people living with disabilities through education. In addition to running a school for children with intellectual and physical disabilities, ORHAN advocates for disabled children’s inclusion into government schools and trains local teachers how to teach children with special needs. ORHAN has trained ten special education teachers in everything from sign language and Braille to speech, play, and yoga therapy. In the past two years alone, ORHAN enabled 124 disabled children (who had previously been denied schooling) to attend local public schools.

As Subramaniam learned, the challenges of being disabled are dramatically multiplied in a country like Sri Lanka, where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes and rely on humanitarian aid for survival. ORHAN’s work must go beyond health and education to address the many complex needs faced by people with disabilities in a war zone. After Sri Lanka’s brutal war ended in 2009, ORHAN launched and led an Emergency Disability Forum, bringing together the International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Handicapped International and other local and international NGOs in order to address the needs of Sri Lanka’s disabled displaced people in camps and communities around the country.

As a result of ORHAN’s leadership, the group surveyed displaced communities and created a database of 4,000 people with disabilities, which they then shared with other humanitarian agencies to ensure that disabled individuals were included in relief activities. The forum continues to help international organizations track and coordinate their efforts to meet special needs among Sri Lanka’s displaced population.

At the core of ORHAN’s work is a community-based approach that mobilizes people with disabilities and those who support them to advocate for the realization of disability rights, combat discrimination and stigmatization, and redefine the realm of possibility for the disabled in Sri Lanka.

“Disability is not inability” is Subramaniam’s motto. And thanks to his efforts, many disabled Sri Lankans are—for the first time—seeing truth in his words.

Anne Lieberman is AJWS’s program associate for Asia.