22nd October 2000
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Funny business

Fit for flying

By Royston Ellis 
I have flown in a balloon over Kenya, in a helicopter over the Mediterranean, in seaplanes in the Virgin Islands and the Maldives, and even in one of those old DC6s where there was a lounge for economy passengers at the back of the plane. In 40 years of flying as a passenger, and writing about it, I am supposed to know what to expect. Instead, I have learned that the more one knows about the travails of travel, the more surprising it becomes. 

I am not a smoker, but the thought of being trapped in a flying tube 35,000 feet above the earth with a cigarette smoker who is denied his fix because airlines have outlawed smoking, makes me nervous. What if the hapless smoker gets mad at not being able to smoke and starts flinging duty-free bottles around the plane?

I am shortly to try a new flying adventure: a flight from Madrid to Santiago de Chile, a long haul of 13 hours. That is longer than a non-stop flight from Colombo to London and seems an awfully long time to be cooped up above the Atlantic with nothing to do. So I have begun training for the flight.

I have bought a cane chair from one of those kiosks at Radawadunna on the road to Kandy. It has a slight recline, roughly equivalent to the tilt-back of an airline seat. To prepare myself for the flight, I spend hours in the chair each day. To simulate the reality of trying to sleep on a crowded plane, a colleague grabs the back of the chair and jolts it just as I nod off.

To train for eating meals from a tray in a narrow space, I have lunch from a thali plate in the broom cupboard. To develop a tolerance for all the free drinks I expect to be offered, I have been practising with 13-hour drinking binges, beginning at breakfast time. This results in a headache as bad as jet lag.

To get accustomed to watching movies I would never pay to see, being shown on a tiny screen in the back of the seat in front, I watch rented videos through a keyhole. To add authenticity, I have loud music dinned into my ears through squawking earphones. I am also practising reading boring business magazines by dim light so I can get used to what to do when the movie breaks down.

For some reason, inter-continental flights always leave at an hour when one is supposed to be comfortably tucked up in bed. My flight takes off at 2.35a.m. an unearthly moment. To cope with that I have set my watch on the destination time, six hours ahead. Strangely, friends here seem offended when I forget I'm on Chilean time and turn up ten hours late for a party. 

I've read all the articles about jet lag and how to keep fit while flying. If I followed their advice, such as no parties, no late nights and a special diet of carrots and dates three days before the flight, I am sure I would be too sick to make it to the airport.

I have even prepared for the culinary ordeal of airline food by eating re-heated steaks with congealed gravy and soggy vegetables. One airline I have flown used to serve its passengers garlic curry. You can guess what that did to the cabin's atmosphere after a few hours. Actually, impure air has recently been identified as a new obstacle to flight enjoyment. A press report says: "airline passengers are being forced to breathe recycled air that is dangerously low on oxygen and loaded with shared germs and toxic fumes."

This is apparently because, to save on fuel bills, aircraft no longer suck in fresh air from outside, but recycle the air already in the cabin. To acclimatise myself for that, I have been hanging out in Colombo's casinos. However, what really requires prior conditioning is not the tenor of the flight itself, but the expense. For the cost of those 13 hours in the air, I could spend 13 weeks on the ground. But, alas, that wouldn't get me anywhere.

Work: it is their right

By Nilika de Silva
It was like searching for a needle in a haystack, looking for companies that had opened their doors to physically challenged persons.

Even though it is a government requirement that three percent of vacancies created in any organisation should be allocated to those with physical disabilities, in practice this does not happen. 

The state itself takes no action to enforce this requirement despite the fact that eight percent of our population is disabled and the need for employment among this sector is not just a financial but social obligation.

Even four years after becoming law, the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, No. 28, of 1996, has still not been enforced to obligate organisations to alter their recruitment procedure. 

Sri Lanka is only now slowly beginning to understand it has a duty to improve the lifestyles of the handicapped. It is only in the last ten years that buildings have had ramps for wheelchairs and toilets with special facilities to make them accessible to those with mild or severe disability.

Most companies contacted by The Sunday Times did not hesitate to admit that they did not recruit physically disabled persons. The visually impaired, hearing impaired and physically disabled it seems, are not exactly welcome in most workplaces. 

Work is an essential component to make life complete and every human being should be given an opportunity to engage in a suitable vocation. However, in a country like Sri Lanka where the unemployment rate is already high, the constraints on someone with a physical disability finding employment are great.

The response of many Human Resource Divisions of companies contacted by The Sunday Times, was that they did not have a strict policy of employing the disabled.

The Hatton National Bank's Personnel Manager said, "Not at the moment, we might in the future," adding "no policy decision has been taken in this regard." 

HR Manager of John Keells Holdings, Dian Gunatilaka said they had not precisely drawn up a policy that "we are going to recruit so many disabled. But we are not negative about recruiting them. However, we don't have the infrastructure in place, to recruit people who are blind," he added. The Keells group does, however, have handicapped people in its workforce at Keells Diamonds (see box story).

Employers Network on Disability (END), a committee formed four months ago from among members of the Employers Federation of Ceylon (EFC) has appointed a committee to look into recruiting disabled persons. This project is funded by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Convenor of the Employers Network on Disability, Mrs. Megamali Aluvihare said they had requested the Ministry of Social Services to let them have a list of trained people, so that they could circulate this list among the members of the EFC and thereby find them suitable vacancies. 

Stressing the need to train physically challenged persons in fields where there is a job market, Mrs. Aluvihare said, at present they go into fields like carpentry, where it is difficult for them to find employment.

"Private sector involvement is very poor," Social Services Ministry Secretary, W.P.W. Weerawardhana complained. "Only a few like the Shia Foundation, and Hameedias come forward." He added that visually handicapped people are so far neglected. 

However, companies which have gone into recruiting physically challenged people, spoke highly of the efficiency and productivity of these workers

Chairman, E.N.D. Anwar Dole, citing an example said that in a factory where stickers were being pasted on cartons, while a sighted employee would do 2,500 to 3,000 per day, a blind employee did well over 4,000. This is mainly because these workers do not get distracted, he explained.

Meanwhile, a serious drawback with regard to job opportunities for the physically challenged is transportation. The public transport in Sri Lanka is so congested it does not allow for those who have severe disabilities. However, this is an area that can be easily addressed, with a special bus set aside with an attendant to transport physically challenged persons to and from work.

Happy and doing well

Thirty-year-old Ranjith Gunatilleke who specialises in diamond polishing has been working at Keells Diamonds for ten years. He suffers from a disability caused by polio. 

Ranjith who has been very comfortable at Keells Diamonds says his work environment is most conducive and that he enjoys the company of his colleagues who do not treat him as anyone different. His superiors too accept him as a good worker. Recently Ranjith married another employee at this company. 

In the case of brothers Sunil Chandrasiri (40) and Ajith Kithsiri (32), despite hearing and speech impairment, they have been working for many years at Hameedias.

Their work is quick because they don't waste time talking to the others, commented their supervisor. Whenever they need to communicate they use pen and paper. 

There is also another employee fluent in sign language who interpreted for them. Both Sunil and Ajith appear very happy in their workplace.

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