Finding ability within disability                                                                                 

Dr Ajith Perera has aggressively promoted the idea of creating an environment friendly for the disabled through his non-profit humanitarian service organisation, Idiriya

Text and pix by Nabiha Ariff 
In November 1992 a sudden twist in fate could never have been expected by two individuals, chauffer and Dr. Ajith C. S. Perera. A large wayside tree came crashing down onto their moving vehicle, in Colombo. This accident killed the driver instantly and left Dr. Perera disabled and forced to get about on a wheelchair. However, though he certainly was disappointed about what had happened to him, he managed to pluck courage and put the skills he still possessed to good use and get going in his life’s journey. If there is any difference between him and someone else, in the endeavor of serving the nation, he is doing it from a wheelchair. He spoke to The Nation about the importance of having an environment in Sri Lanka that is convenient for each and everyone. Sitting on his wheelchair and smiling throughout the conversation, Dr. Perera seemed more cheerful than a person with no disability. 

The Message

At present a voluntary disability activist and advocate, Dr. Perera along with his non-profit humanitarian service organisation, Idiriya, is trying to spread awareness on making these disabled people a part of the society.

Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Perera, a few public buildings and facilities are giving extra attention to make their infrastructure disabled friendly. He explained that mobility is a temporary asset and as life unfolds, this same mobility can be snatched away without prior warning. However, people need to realize that being physically disabled does not mean that one is mentally disabled. Therefore segregating them would mean bringing in unnecessary barriers. “One way that we could change this mindset and break these barriers is by making obvious changes in the lifestyle first,” he asserted. Life is all about accessibility to the essential. Therefore, without convenient access to most places in these ‘man-made’ constructions, those who are disabled are left out. Here is where Dr. Perera steps in with his expertise. Most architects or owners of some of the most important buildings in Colombo, seek Dr. Perera’s advice in designing buildings in order to make it disable friendly. “When the new British Embassy was being built, the high commissioner sent for me to get a second opinion and considered and worked on the changes I suggested”, he said. It is not only for those who are disabled that people should make a safe environment but they should do so to avoid further accidents. When one builds a house, building or any infrastructure the diverse sections in the public need to be considered in order to let the public be assured that they are given importance. Having an extra bar or a universal slope entrance into the house, would not cost more. After all, prevention is better that cure. Especially the toilets in most of the five star hotels do not have disable friendly washrooms. There have been several accidents, too, where pregnant mothers and elderly people have nearly injured themselves due to lack of facilities in these hotel toilets.  

Moving forward

It literally means ‘moving forward’. Members of the Idiriya team help enable the people who are severely disabled after being victims of accidents, occurred due to poorly built buildings. At, Idiriya, they create awareness, give support and promote the necessity of better built buildings. Some of the organisations that have helped in order to make buildings more disabled friendly are, HSBC, HNB, British Council, British High Commission and UDA.

“What we do is not for personal gain. It is for the nation,” Dr. Perera explained.
Idiriya was not established to make profits. Instead the authorities strictly focus on helping the shattered dreams of people come alive. All efforts channeled towards propping this mission of national importance will help create a safe environment for both the able and disabled.  

Man of courage

Dr. Perera is an individual experienced in diverse fields. He has won himself national recognition in several fields. He completed his post graduate studies from the University of Colombo and is a chartered analytical chemist.  Following the completion of his higher education, he stepped into an entirely diverse field from chemistry. His passion for cricket made him dabble as umpire, scorer, training instructor and an examiner. He authored two of the finest books in cricket, which cricket fanatics, for sure, treasure. Unfortunately, when his life was just brightening and two prosperous careers lay ahead of him, fate dealt a cruel blow on him, altering the course of his life. Only a few have had the ability like Dr Perera to turn an ordeal into a learning experience.  


 Pancha’s many ‘ CAMPAIGNS FOR A CAUSE’                                                   

By Carol Aloysius
Pancha’s return after his long honeymoon in the romantic surroundings of Nuwara Eliya, has livened up the residents of Vipulasena considerably.

After leading an uneventful month since his departure to Nuwara Eliya, we have all of a sudden, found ourselves virtually inundated by numerous ‘CAMPAIGNS FOR A WORTHY CAUSE’ which Pancha had undertaken. This was to make up for the time he had lost before and after marriage, he told us.

The first, which I mentioned last week, was his ‘Campaign to Eradicate Mosquitoes, Rats and All Other Vectors Spreading Dengue, Chikun Gunya and Rat Fever’ from our neighborhood. Even though we had launched this campaign last week, Pancha wanted us to continue it this week as well. So, having gone through this exercise many times under Pancha’s watchful eyes, it did not take us long to sweep our gardens, cut all overhanging branches and flush out the drains. Anticipating his next request, we residents then went out to the nearby lanes and market place to woo all the stray cats to our neigbourhood. This was to eradicate the rats, pole cats and other creatures that could spread rat fever. Pancha was so pleased we had taken the initiative without waiting to be asked. He promised to get the CMC to recognise our collective efforts to clean up our neighbourhood, by presenting each of us with a plaque that read: “ THANKING OUR PATRIOTIC CITIZENS FOR A JOB WELL DONE.”

No sooner was this particular campaign officially over ( Pancha kept reminding us that for the campaign to be a success it had to be sustained throughout the year and the following year as well), Pancha decided to observe two other important days which were officially declared by the UN. One was International Day of Tolerance which fell on November 16, and the other International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25, which he told us, will continue to be observed till December 10.

Since International Day for Tolerance was aimed at bridging gaps between communities and ethnic groups, he made us each bring along a friend belonging to a different community, race and religion other than our own, for an informal , “Get together “at Sarath’s Kopi Kade. The highlight of our informal gathering was an inspiring discussion on the significance of this day, how it began, and its relevance to those of us in a country torn apart by lack of understanding and respect for each other. This was followed by an interesting discourse by the three religious leaders of the nearby temple, church and kovil who also reiterated the importance of tolerance and understanding to bring about real peace. The residents decided to stage an amusing skit carrying the message of tolerance, which was highly appreciated by the audience, that they called for an encore.

Pancha was so pleased with our performance, that he gave us all a plaque containing the words, “FOR INNOVATIVE ACTING’, which we were instructed to hang in a prominent place on our walls.

Pancha’s next campaign was the most challenging of all. Noting that we were now about to observe the UN declared “ Elimination of Violence Against Women,’ day, which would continue to be observed during the next sixteen days of “Activism Against Gender Based Violence”, Pancha decided that it was nothing but right that he too should contribute his mite towards this worthy cause. Starting with this week, he decided to carry out a campaign to prevent gender violence from taking place at Vipulasena Mawatha. He told us that the following week would focus on other perpetrators of gender violence such as bus conductors, commuters, employers etc etc.

With this in mind, Pancha and Piyasena his assistant , visited all the houses down the lane, where there were womenfolk. Carrying a large CR book and a red ball point pen, they wrote down the names and status of every woman resident, from housewives to daughters to women boarders to live- in domestics. He then asked them to be present at a “ vishesha rahas meetimak gahanu kattiyata vitharai” ( a special meeting of a ‘Highly Confidential Nature” for women only..

A total of thirty women who had surreptitiously crept out of their homes without their husbands’ knowledge, gathered in a vacant room in the nearby church that afternoon. After greeting them and putting them at ease with a cup of plain tea and a bun which Kopi Kade Sarath had kindly offered, Pancha asked them to freely confide in him of any instance when they had been physically or mentally abused by their husbands, lovers, brothers, masters or boy friends who lived down Vipulasena Mawatha.

Going on Pancha’s assurance that their confession was ‘Strictly confidential’, the women poured out their woes. Out of the thirty, only two said they had been lucky to have never been abused physically or mentally by their men folk.

After cancelling the names of these two women from the list, and congratulating them for managing their men folk so well, Pancha then proceeded to divide the rest of the women into the following categories: 1) Abused once 2) abused several times 3) Abused more times than they could remember.

Their replies to these questions were an eye opener for Pancha. Shocked at finding that the majority of women fell into the third category, Pancha decided to act fast and put an end to what he called ‘ an epidemic of gender violence” spreading down Vipulasena Mawatha.

His strategy was to first, ‘catch the bull by the horns.’ This meant confronting the offenders directly, a task which was easier said than done. Taking Piyasena and his merry band of helpers as escorts ( in case the offenders took offence and retaliated violently) , the offending male residents who included husbands, boyfriends, masters who had allegedly committed these acts of gender violence, flatly refused to co-operate. It was only after Pancha threatened to report them that they finally confessed. After chastising and warning them never to inflict mental of physical harm on their women folk again, he dropped another bombshell on them. He told them he was gong to start a ‘CENTRE FOR REHABILITATING MALES WHO INFLICTED ABUSE ON WOMEN.’ The suggestion was received with mixed feelings both by the abusers and the victims (the latter being reluctant to have their silent suffering made public). But Pancha was adamant. Rehabilitation through counselling and anger management therapy was the only way to eliminate such abuse, he told them.

So having persuaded a psychiatrist from the nearby hospital, to give a series of talks on ‘How To Stop Abusing The Weaker Sex’, he ordered the offenders to attend the meetings. If they refused, he warned them that he would name them in public as ‘ WIFE BASHERS’ and ‘WOMEN MOLESTERS’, and make them parade the streets with placard hung around them to shame them.

Afraid he would carry out his threat, the offenders opted for the former.
After four weeks of two hourly sessions, they were soon on the way to complete rehabilitation.
As for the wives, daughters and girl friends who had suffered their shame in silence, they cannot thank Pancha, enough.

These days, Pancha’s house is virtually flooded with bouquets, flowers and fruits and numerous ‘Thank you ‘ notes with the words, “ You are our Saviour’” written on them.

Puffing his chest out with pride he tells me modestly, “ mama kale sulu deyak ape gahanu kattiya beranne. Isarahata katayuthu keepayak karanne mama balaporothu veneva” ( What I did was just a token gesture to give women back their dignity. I have many more activities in mind to help them for the future), on my way to work...


 The missing rupee syndrome                                                                                 

By Vihanga Kusal Perera.
While some things change, others simply do not: the same applies to the inability/lethargy. Many bus conductors time and again display in returning the passenger his/her proper balance. For me, not receiving the due balance is one of the most irritating things that can happen on board a bus. At times, depending on the mood and the time, one prefers to simply walk away without a grunt. But, as it frequently happens, we are forced to throw unnecessary “shows”, asking for our change. Why fight for a rupee, one may argue. But, that rupee is your right and the returning of that rupee to its rightful owner is a principle. Then, again, a hundred persons “cheated” of their change constitute a hundred rupees. As it happens, there are times where you have to take three connecting buses in reaching your destination; and all three conductors fail to return you your due balance.

This “missing rupee syndrome” is, by now, a condition of modern sub/urban living. The conductors, of course, have many excuses for the “missing” change. His not having “coins (change)” is, by far, the most common. Then, again, he is not so self-contained when the blame is shifted on the passenger for not having paid with change in the first place. “Passe dhennam” – that he will give the change later – is another template the conductors have in common. But, as it often happens, “passe (later)”, in the conductors’ jargon, connotes the same meaning as “never”. Even in cases where the passenger nags and reminds him, he returns with the negative: “No change...Look: only five rupee coins”. Sometimes one wonders how a bus that runs from morning till night loses all coins/change, specially, in the evening trips. This, I think, is one of the most baffling mysteries in public transport.

The conductor not giving you back the proper change is not an “inability” or a “shortcoming”, but a case of arrogance and incompetency. I would call it incompetency, for a “conductor” is expected to manage his “purse” in such a way that there should be sufficient coins/change to work with. This should be so for both the morning trip as well as the last trip for the day. One doesn’t expect a barber to open shop without razor blades. Halfway through the day, the barber cannot turn around and tell his/her customer: “sorry, I have run out of razor blades. So, you will have to do with half a haircut”. Not having change, therefore, is not an excuse under any circumstance. The problem is that it happens so often, that today it has immersed into our daily life as a “natural phenomenon of a day’s work”. Of course, there are people who fight till the last penny. But, such protests are becoming lesser and lesser.

The no-change situation is mainly due to the conductors’ arrogance. In my reading, it is more a show of “who’s boss” and “who’s calling the shots”, for, in the bus-scenario, the passenger is at the mercy of this manual ticketing-machine. The conductor, too, is a service provider – same as a grocer or a vendor. But, this is one service that is supplied with minimum respect for the client, because it is understood that irrespective of respect the passenger will have to take that bus. This is also owing to the want of an established training programme the conductors ought to undertake. The authorities, at its best, should formulate an “initiation course” that would guide all would-be-conductors to fashion themselves into better service-providers. However, at its worst, the same authorities are yet to even properly lay out a schematic monitoring system to safeguard the efficiency of public transport.

It is my belief that the “missing rupee syndrome” is far more common in private buses than in the “CTB” services. This happens both in short distance as well as long distance routes. While the missing change in short routes gets confined to a rupee or two, in longer routes this can even lead up to ten or twelve rupees. Once travelling from Ratnapura to Badulla on a so-defined “Semi Luxury” bus, I was charged Rs. 235. As I was standing half the way I simply had no means to enjoy the “semi-luxury” of it all. But, the worst happened when the conductor-boy couldn’t remember that he had yet to pay me my change of Rs. 15 as we reached Badulla. After much debate, the driver interfered and settled the issue – but, as it shouldn’t be, this was with my having to cause a sensation in front of the whole crowd.

When the contemporary German economy crashed, Nietzsche duly justified suicide as a means of escape for desperate debtors and creditors. Likewise, in the absence of a courteous and passenger-friendly transport system the public has to device its own mechanisms to maintain sanity. The more common responses are to pay less and not to pay at all. These should not be considered as “cheating” or as “uncivil behaviour”, because they are used as counter-propositions to the conductors’ cheating and uncouth conduct. Nowadays, people employ these on a more frequent basis – both, due to the rising cost of living, as well as a means of self-fashioning an affordable transport service.

In buses where proper tickets are not issued, paying less or not paying at all can easily be applied. Once, travelling in the 155 from Bambalapitiya to Mattakkuliya I happened to overhear a young mother with two children take her tickets to Ellihouse Park. However, she actually got off alongside me only at Mattakkuliya (For me, she was a real life hero and I felt quite honoured to get off the bus in her shadow). There are many who do not pay the bus unless asked for – and this number, I feel, is on the rise. My opinion is that these people are not at fault: it is the faults of the system that encourage them to do so.

The authorities also need to introduce a form of quality-control to the transport service. Specially, the so-called “semi-luxury” services are notorious for their service, in return for the charges they make. The basic charge of a “semi-lux” is twice as the normal fare. For example, a “semi-lux” running from Anuradhapura to Embilipitiya would charge a passenger Rs.80 from Avissawella to Ratnapura (the normal fare being Rs.40). Yet, contrary to the claim, these buses, too, keep picking up passengers from arbitrary points and the fare, too, then, becomes arbitrary. The “semi-lux” ticket machine, again, is prone to “night fever”: for, in evening trips their charges tend to be more arbitrary – unless, of course, they consider the late trips as a “value added service”.

Electronic ticketing machines have been introduced in several routes; but, this, still, is not the remedy for the “missing rupee syndrome”. While the tickets are duly issued, the conductor still refrains from giving you the proper balance. This malady, I feel, cannot be overcome without a proper facelift to the vocation of being a conductor and without relevant training in customer service. But, knowing the system, I know that this is a tall order – but, an order all the same.

On a parting note I will lay out an incident of extreme protest against a bus conductor that I witnessed in 2004. During a morning trip, a conductor of the 155 accused a schoolboy of not paying the fare. The boy, in retaliation, argued that in fact the conductor did not return his balance. The argument continued for a while and neither withdrew their stance. The boy, who had a mobile phone with him, called (as we later found out) some of his friends/allies and as the bus approached a Colombo 7 school several other boys entered the bus. The conductor was asked to get out of the bus and he was requested (though not in the melodious tones of a morning bird) to pay the proper change. The boys left the bus conductor and the bus as soon as the due amount was retuned.