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3rd June 2001
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Able workers

  • 'The disabled are employable' 

  • These differently abled people have proved that they are as capable as their able colleagues at semi- skilled or skilled jobs

    By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
    Padmasiri Wijekoon sits at a table, deftly pulling apart individual ice cream spoons from a bunch which has come on a long stem from the production line. He works undistracted, without pausing even while talking to his colleague. At a corner of the same table, Ajith Kumara Kannangara pastes stickers, without missing a beat, on coloured plastic containers, which will ultimately hold different Imageflavours of ice cream.

    They have two things in common - they are blind, but lucky. For they are among the minority 10 percent who are employed, of one million disabled people in the country. The other 90 percent suffering from various kinds of disabilities languish in a world of their own, pushed there by society, which assumes that to be disabled is to be unemployable.

    But a few companies in Sri Lanka have proven this premise wrong. For they have been employing people with disabilities since the 1980s. "We do not employ the disabled on the grounds of sympathy. We check out their abilities and give them a job to suit that. We also follow the policy of equal pay, whether they are able or disabled," says Anver Dole, Factory Director of CEI Plastics located at Piliyandala, which is the sole and major supplier of plastic goods to several big companies.

    This experiment, begun after his involvement with the Lions' Movement and also seeing the capability of those in the Ratmalana School for the Blind where he taught English in his free time, has paid off. Of the 350 employees on the roll of CEI Plastics, 14 are fully or partially blind and five have other "drawbacks" including being victims of polio. Among these disabled, only one is a woman for the others have left to get married and start their own small businesses. "Those days the company bought 100 big bars of soap a month from the open market. But now one of the girls who has left, makes Imagesoap as a cottage industry along with her husband to meet this demand," says Mr. Dole.

    "They are very good at repetitive work. We started with two or three. At first there were a few concerns. How they would move around the work environment, with multi-storey buildings. How they would interact with the others. How the others would treat them. They were all non-existent concerns," he says. 

    The disabled employees are totally focused on the job at hand and their absenteeism rate is much lower than the other employees. Their output too is higher. Padmasiri, 30, when pasting stickers does about 450 an hour, whereas his able counterparts do only about 250. 

    The disabled are good at overcoming hurdles, because they meet them all the time. Their resilience comes through. It is also a two-way process. They work with dedication and the company looks after them in return. Padmasiri's job at CEI Plastics since 1993, has helped him to see the fruition of part of his dream. With his savings he has bought a small piece of land in the Bandaragama-Aluthgama area. He travels to work daily from his half-built home - walking one and a half miles to the bus route, taking a bus to Piliyandala and a second one to his workplace, all with his white cane. Like most of the others, he had lost his sight only when he was about six years, due to mandama (anaemia).

    Ajith, 29, was sad that he had lost the weak vision he had in one eye recently, but determined to better himself at his job. "We don't want sympathy, only support to make maximum use of our capabilities," he stresses. 

    And the Employers' Federation of Ceylon (EFC), has now stepped in to help other companies tap this vast resource of disabled people, who could do a wide range of semi-skilled and skilled jobs. Setting its sights on this goal, it has set up the Employers' Network on Disability to involve employers directly in promoting job opportunities for the disabled. Among the many tasks it hopes to handle are identifying jobs for the disabled in companies, examining recruitment policies and providing guidance on vocational training based on employer needs.

    EFC's Director-General Gotabaya Dasanayaka says its 450 membership including 23 plantation companies, has an employee base of around 500,000 to 600,000 people.

    "The companies which had hired the disabled on their own initiative had a positive response. We are conscious of our social responsibility. In the Sri Lankan context, the social security system which is provided by the concept of an extended family is breaking down. Therefore, we need another support system."

    "The private sector as the principal engine of economic growth must harness every possible human resource, including the disabled. Thereby we would be doing our duty by the country and also strengthening our companies, which would in turn benefit," he says.

    With assistance from the International Labour Organization, the Sri Lankan Employers' Network on Disability had sent two of its members to study the situation in the UK in 1999, to prepare the groundwork for the local network. "We could base our network on a similar model, adapting it to local conditions," adds Mr. Dasanayaka.


    'The disabled are employable'

    An authority on the business advantages of embracing diversity and equal opportunities, Susan Scott-Parker, Chief Executive of the Employers' Forum on Disability based in the United Kingdom, was in Sri Lanka last week to share her experiences.

    "I was drawn to this field at the swimming pool as a 16-year-old living in Canada," says Ms. Scott-Parker who heads the first organisation set up way back in 1986 in the European Community which works towards making it easier to employ disabled people and serve disabled customers.

    At that time, she was teaching swimming to the disabled. "When they came to the pool, they looked as if they couldn't do anything. Some of them had cerebral palsy, others various disabilities. But the moment they got into the water, their spirits came through. They were free of their disabilities," she says.

    Around 15 percent of the populatuin in the UK suffer from various disabilities, both physical and mental. However, only one percent are in wheelchairs. "The stereotype we have in mind is that they are unable to cope. But what must be remembered is that they have already gone through a hostile environment and are capable of managing," she explains. 

    She gives the case of an efficient woman accountant who worked for a UK firm, who was suddenly struck down by multiple sclerosis. She was out of a job for two years until the IT people, after a long, long time came up with a simple solution. The keyboard of her computer had to be dropped to knee level and she could do her work as before. "Her brain was not affected and she was still good at her job."

    The big challenge is to get across the message that the disabled are employable. Her organisation plays the role of a go-between or broker. The Employers' Forum on Disability puts up the right candidate for the right job and lets the employer decide. It studies the demand and supply situation, while also acting as the employers' voice to government with regard to the quality of training and other facilities given to the disabled.

    "Otherwise, only NGOs which are totally run by able people mediate on behalf of the disabled. This is similar to a Canadian women's organisation being run by American men. But we provide the direct contact, because we have disabled people with the Forum," she stresses. 

    That is the need in Sri Lanka too.

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