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Expanding your interests: AKASA case study – Part 5

In this video, N.G. Kamalawathie describes the contributions made by AKASA, an association of women with disabilities in rural Sri Lanka.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. AKASA case study, part five. N.G.
KAMALAWATHIE WITH INTERPRETER: We started working in the conflict areas when the conflict was very intense, so we had numerous experiences of how the war impacted on disability. There have been times when we worked in villages while we could hear the ongoing sound of hostilities in the next village. So we heard sounds of gunshots and bombings while we worked in the other village. There are numerous stories of how people with disabilities have coped during this time. In the border villages of the conflict zone, people used to flee into the forests in the night, dig holes in the ground, and hide in the ground for the fear of being harmed in the night.
There was one family in which there were three children with disabilities. And when I met them, the mother was crying, saying that there was no way she could carry her three children into the forest. So their lives really hung in the balance on a daily basis.
By working in these villages, we had so many different experiences, and these are extremely difficult experiences. There is disability caused directly by the war. For instance, we know of children who either don’t speak or can’t hear, simply because they have been mentally traumatised by the sound of bombs and gunshots. We know of children who are have been born with disability because their mothers underwent severe trauma and stress when they were pregnant during the war. So there are so many different types of disability that people have acquired due to the different aspects of hostility that they have had to experience during the war. One area where we have made significant interventions is in the camps of internally displaced persons, or IDPs.
One of the causes of our conflict is the differences people have perceived based on ethnicity. So even in these camps we saw that. And even cutting across all those differences, persons with disabilities remained marginalised within the IDP camps. For instance, if there was an announcement being made about food parcels being distributed, a person with a hearing impairment wouldn’t know about it and would be unable to avail himself of that facility. So having gone to these IDP camps and seen the situation for myself, I made a special intervention through the United Nations. And I was able to do these projects for five years.
And perhaps because there was recognition that this work was significant and meaningful, the United Nations gave me an award for working with people with disability in camps of internally displaced persons. So these are some of the ways in which we have tried to make an improvement in the lives of persons with disability in war-affected areas.
AKASA has worked in relation to the conflict, during the conflict, and after the conflict. During these three stages, we never looked at ethnicity, but we looked at the need for the person with the disability, and that was the basis for our intervention. For instance, at the end of the war, the European Union funded us to study the quality of life of persons with disability in several districts. And during this project, we were able to bring about several transformations. For instance Sinhalese women with disabilities who had never been to Tamil villages were able to travel to Tamil villages for the first time. Similarly, Tamil women who had never been to Sinhalese villages did the same.
And through that real, lived experience, they were able to bridge the barriers they had created between the ethnic communities. I don’t think there is a difference between women who acquired disability because they were combatants and women who acquired disability from the war as civilians. When these women talk to me, what they say is, “Some of us acquired disability because we took part in hostilities. Some of us acquired disability due to hostilities. But the war is over, and both groups are left with disabilities. That seems to be the only legacy we have now, and that means we are all in the same boat. The consequences of the war are the same. We all have the same disadvantage.
It’s we who separated ourselves based on false perceptions of ethnicity, and now we are all women with disability.”

In the above video, Kamala describes the contributions she and her organisation, AKASA, have made to expanding opportunities for women with disabilities in war-affected communities in rural Sri Lanka and to ensuring their basic needs were met in times of war and hardship. She also describes how she has been able to unite women with disabilities across cultural and ethnic barriers and foster supportive communities and relationships.

Over the past five weeks, you have seen various examples of the contributions Kamala has made within her local community, as well as on a global stage — from enabling women through livelihood projects, to introducing a wheelchair ramp to the Ruwanwelisaya stupa, to representing Sri Lanka in the Paralympic Games.

Talking points

  • How does Kamala’s work expand ideas about what it means to contribute?
  • How did Kamala’s insights into the needs of people with disabilities — as a disabled person herself — help her to identify opportunities for contributing?
  • Do you think it is important for people with disabilities to talk about or showcase their contributions?

In the next step, we look at disability arts as a form of contribution.

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