The Employers Federation of Ceylon (EFC) yesterday announced that staff member Manique Gunaratne has been awarded the national honour of Keerthi Sri Lanka Bhimani Deshabandu.
Gunaratne is known to many for her tireless work on promoting the rights of persons with disabilities. As Senior Trainer at the EFC’s ICT Training Center for the Visually Impaired she has successfully taught IT skills to hundreds of visually impaired students, with the aim of bettering their chances of getting employment.
As Vice Chairperson for the South Asian Disability Forum, she travels the world addressing nations on the wants and needs of the disabled community. The fact that she is visually impaired herself does not hinder her resolve to build a more tolerant world in any way.
Last Saturday Gunaratne’s work was acknowledged by the nation as whole, as she was bestowed with title of Keerthi Sri Lanka Bhimini Deshabandhu, the third highest national honour award in the country for meritorious service. When asked how she felt to receive such a prestigious honour, Gunaratne spoke of how important this was, not just for her but for all persons with disability.
“I am really proud of my achievement. It’s not sympathy that we expect from society but empathy. The service I do to the community has been recognized. This opens doors for more opportunities for persons with disabilities and persons with non-disabilities to break barriers and create a disabled friendly environment with dignity and justice for all,” she said.
Although, Gunaratne has quite rightly received the recognition she deserves, she painfully remembers earlier times when our society was far less charitable to her. The loss of her sight at 30 years of age, led to this highly educated young lady losing a lot more than just a physical sense. As her world descended into darkness, she noticed peoples’ attitudes to her changing.
As uncomfortable as her disability was for her, it also appeared to make others uncomfortable. People not knowing what to say to her, simply didn’t say anything at all and avoided her. She found herself excluded from certain conversations when people referred to something visual, because they assumed she would have no opinion as she couldn’t see. At the other end of the scale well-meaning people treated her as a charity case and pitied her. They feared for her safety and told her she would never be able to do anything on her own again.
The exclusion and isolation for a once bright, independent, dynamic young woman was enough to send her into deep depression and despair. She, like many in her situation, withdrew from society and resigned herself not to living but to existing.
But it wasn’t long before her indomitable spirit began to shine through. Through her own self-determination she refused to accept being treated as a second class citizen. With pure focus, she set out to get herself a job and become independent once again.
Despite numerous rejections she remained resolute and eventually went for an interview as a receptionist at the EFC. The EFC at this time was creating a Network amongst its members to empower persons with disabilities through employment. Feeling that it should walk its talk, the Federation was keen to have persons with disabilities in its own workforce. But, how would this woman be able to answer the phone? How would she take written messages and deal with visitors to the EFC? “Just give me a chance, sir and I will not disappoint you,” was her answer to the interviewer.
Thirteen years later Gunaratne has remained true to her word. She has not disappointed the EFC at all. She has progressed her career from receptionist to senior trainer at the EFC’s ICT Training Centre and is a key member of the EFC’s Network on Disability, working with employers who are members of the Network to place other disabled persons in jobs.
Commenting on Gunaratne’s honour, Director General Ravi Peiris said: “We at the EFC, are delighted and proud to have Manique with us. She brings into life the famous words of Sir Winston Churchill when he said, ‘see opportunities in every difficulty rather than difficulties in every opportunity’. Manique has overcome her worst difficulties in life by converting them into an opportunity to serve and assist others in similar circumstances. Her determination, commitment and above all, her positive attitude towards life and work is a strong message to all of us. The Deshabandu Award bestowed on her is a token of appreciation for her invaluable service to society. We wish her more strength and courage in continuing her work in the future!”