Raising Our Voices for Us

Sri Lankan disability activist Manique Gunaratne has a dream — to unite women with disabilities and “change attitudes from sympathy to empathy, dependence to independence, hidden to open, and exclusion to inclusion.”

Manique believes this can be achieved by empowering women with disabilities through training in technology, hoping that as women get out in the work force and are more visible, other changes may follow. She says that a woman with a disability who has no access to technology is “triple handicapped.”

“With technology, we can fight for our right to life and our right to information,” Manique said at a Women, Tech and Change Social Media Meetup organized by Internews in Colombo in August.

The five women presenters
Five women — Manique Gunaratne, Savindri Talgodapitiya, Tehani Ariyaratne, Iromi Perera and Menike Deshapriya — presented on Women, Tech and Change at an Internews forum.

Manique has been working on her dream since 2001 in her role as Manager of the Specialized Training and Disability Resource Center at the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon where she focuses on using technology to get people with disabilities, particularly women, into meaningful employment.

“Twenty years ago, ICT was a luxury confined to Colombo. Today it’s a necessity which should reach the grass roots level, especially for visually impaired persons to be equally capable as sighted persons,” she says.

While mobile use is high in Sri Lanka (126% in 2017), Internet penetration is still limited (16.4% households had access in 2016, according to the Department of Census and Statistics). Computer literacy is 38.5% for urban populations and 26% for rural. 29% of men and 26% of women are computer literate.

Manique Gunaratne head shot
Manique Gunaratne

Manique started losing her sight in her 20s due to retinitis pigmentosa. Determined to be financially and professionally independent, she mastered Braille and using a white cane and took up the study of information technology both nationally and internationally. This was despite the efforts of her family to “protect” her by keeping her confined at home.

Her family was fairly typical of Sri Lankans’ attitudes toward people with disabilities where, according to Manique, disabled women face a lot of discrimination including lack of access to education, no vocational training and the lowest income level of any other group. People with disabilities in Sri Lanka sometimes face stigma due to religious beliefs that disability is punishment for wrong-doing in a previous life or is an omen of bad luck (DFAT). A 2003 World Bank report found that 39% of disabled Sri Lankans had never attended school and only 33% attended public events with members of their family.

Disability prevalence in Sri Lanka is identified at 12.9% but is probably underreported (the internationally accepted figure is 15%) – three decades of war and the 2004 tsunami resulted in significant rates of physical and psychiatric disability. Despite this, there is not much information in the news media about disabilities, says Manique, and information in general is not available in accessible formats.

Sri Lanka ratified the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on 8 February 2016, which means they are bound to enact “enabling legislation” that will protect the rights of people with disabilities. However, to date Sri Lanka’s disability rights law has been re-drafted five times and is yet to be passed in Parliament.

In 2015, disabled Sri Lankans lambasted all the leading political parties for not recognizing disability rights in their political platforms. “For the past 20 years we have had laws but the implementation process and environment has been very weak. In 2006 a draft bill was introduced to parliament. For 10 years it has been getting postponed because of the insensitivity of politicians. We want to raise our voice in Parliament. We see no other option,” said Gampaha District Group Leader Prasanna Kuruupu. (Daily FT)

As Vice Chairperson of the South Asian Disability Forum, a founding member of the South Asian Women with Disabilities Network, a member of Asia Pacific Women with Disabilities United, and the spearhead of “Raising our voices for us,” a national campaign for women with disabilities, Manique advocates for policy change at the national level as well as inclusive economic development (development programs aimed at women have traditionally excluded women with disabilities).

Manique and two other women in a radio studio
Manique Gunaratne (right) of The Employers’ Federation of Ceylon Network on Disability (EFC) and Sagarika Wickramasekara, President of Internet Society spoke on “Women Internet Governance Forum” on a radio program at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, June 2017. Credit EFC.

Technology has made great strides in getting people with all types of disabilities connected online. Screen readers, speech to text devices and magnification can help blind people access the Internet, eye-tracking can help even a severely physically disabled person navigate a web page or use a smart phone. Captioning gives Deaf people access to audio material. These advances have been a game changer for people with disabilities in terms of participating in civic life.

Training disabled women in technology is not just a way to expand employment opportunities. Disabled women can use the Internet to get information about their human rights as well as use social media to promote rights and conduct advocacy campaigns. They can go online to start a business. It’s a way to take part in social life.

At the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon, ICT Training Centre for Persons with Disabilities, since 2009, Manique has conducted courses in a wide range of areas in the ICT field to persons with all types of disabilities from all over Sri Lanka. The training center also connect trainees online. It is fully equipped with devices and software specially designed for persons with disabilities. In 2014, the center received CISCO Academy status.

To reach those in rural areas and areas outside of Colombo, Manique has set up online training and uses mobile labs to reach remote geographical locations. Some of the students in these areas have “not even seen a computer.” She also trains people with disabilities in these locations as trainers.

Manique says, “So I learned technology but then I thought, ‘me coming forward is not enough – it’s not about me, it’s about we.’”

(Banner photo: The Employers’ Federation of Ceylon trained eight visually impaired persons in Information & Communication skills for 6 months with the support of the International Labour Organisation. Credit EFC)