Sri Lanka’s first-ever sign language journalist makes her debut

Saturday, 23 January 2021 00:24 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Suranga Udari at a training camp conducted by Sri Lanka Development Journalists Forum

Central Federation of the Deaf Sign Language Interpreter K. Janaka Ranasinghe
First female sign language journalist Suranga Udara

The Sri Lanka Development Journalist Forum produced Sri Lanka’s first sign language journalist Suranga Udari on 1 January. Her report on pollution in the beautiful coastal area of Galle went down in history as one of the very first sign language news reports in the country; a first for Sri Lankan journalism.

Suranga Udari who was born with a loss of hearing was determined to become a journalist from a very young age. She was nominated by her fellow employees at the Sri Lanka Central Federation of the Deaf to participate in a five-day intensive residential training camp conducted by Vibrant Voices, a program dedicated to support organisations that work for marginalised communities. 

The program which is part of the Media Empowerment for Democratic Sri Lanka project supported Udari in realising her dreams of becoming a journalist through its weekly news magazine MediaCorps Watch. The news magazine featured Udari’s first-ever news report on 1 January, following which she was extended an invitation to work as a journalist in one of the leading news organisations in Sri Lanka. 

“I have five siblings, two of them are deaf. My parents can both hear, so can my three other siblings. Growing up it was incredibly difficult for me to learn from a school that is equipped for hearing children. However, I was determined to learn, signed Suranga Udari who was assisted by a Sign language interpreter at the Sri Lanka Central Federation of the Deaf, Janaka Ranasingh,” she signed.

“I sometimes had to copy notes from hearing children in order to learn a certain subject when I was in school, it wasn’t easy. But my parents took a major role in teaching and guiding me in my learning process.”

Suranga Udari, a resident of Ahangama, worked as a Graphic Designer for seven years after completing her formal education up to the GCE Ordinary Level at the Shariputhra College Ahangama, Galle and completing a year-long diploma in computer software at Lake House. 

She signed that she was never the one to be discouraged by any of the challenges she had to face in life as she has always been inspired to become a journalist. Despite her passion and interest in the field of media and journalism, becoming a part of a media organisation let alone a journalist was out of reach for Suranga as she was never given an opportunity to pursue a career in journalism.

“When you face a job interview the employer expects you to have your Ordinary Level qualifications. Deaf people or persons with disabilities are no exception for this criteria. I don’t think it’s fair to give both people with disabilities and ordinary people the same requirements in order to be eligible employment – specially taking into account how ill-equipped our education system is to accommodate people with disabilities,” signed Suranga.

Even though a circular was issued by the Ministry of Public Administration in 1988, reserving 3% of job opportunities for persons with disabilities in the Government sector later extending this quota for private and semi-governmental sectors in 2004, many public and private institutions have fallen short of fulfilling this mandate, she mentioned.

As per the Department of Census and Statistics’ 2012 report – the latest report in the public domain – Sri Lanka has a deaf population of more than 400,000. The community faces many obstacles in having access to quality formal education, employment opportunities and obtaining a driving license to facilitate their own travel.

At a time when digital literacy is considered as one of the main tools needed to learn and communicate, people with disabilities including the members of the deaf community are not provided with the specialised technical support by any Government or Non-Government Organisation to adapt to the new normal.

This milestone by Suranga Udari shines a light on the struggles that people with disabilities face while eventually paving the way for an inclusive culture in media and journalism. This could potentially pioneer a new wave of employment opportunities for people with disabilities in the Government and private sector. 

Vibrant Voices together with MediaCorps Watch is designed and implemented by the Sri Lanka Development Journalist Forum in partnership with IREX under the project Media Empowerment for a Democratic Sri Lanka (MEND) funded by USAID.