Assistant Secretary of the Embassy of Japan in Sri Lanka, T. Igarishi (on the right ) gracing the launch of ‘Sith Esa’
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Thus were the words of the world renowned American author, Helen Keller. Why she and her quote is immensely important to this discourse is because this article addresses members of a group of people like her, in state and in determination.
As a result of acting upon the unity she has wonderfully put in to words, Sith Esa, a monthly magazine, catering to the vision impaired Sri Lankan population, was launched at the National Libraries and Documentation Services Board in October 2019. The objective behind this was to provide knowledge and information in the Braille medium for the vision impaired population of the country that exceeds 458,000. The event was graced by the presence of the Chairman of the National Libraries and Documentation Services Board, the Assistant Secretary of the Embassy of Japan in Sri Lanka, T. Igarishi and a few representatives from the Embassy.
At a time when the council was publishing an audio magazine on a bi-annual basis, having opted for a less costly version, the Embassy of Japan had provided them with the printing machine required to produce a Braille magazine. Acting upon the “Freedom of expression and opinion and access to information” of the visually handicapped, this donation was arranged as “The project of Ensuring Access to Information of Vision Impaired Persons” under the GGP assistance projects of the embassy. “Just because a new good thing occurs, it does not mean we have to let go of the old. Therefore we will be continuing the audio magazine as well,” saying thus, Sugath Wasantha De Silva, the president of the council joined the discourse. His view on the magazine and the council in general was an eye-opener:
Acting under the moto “Lets light lamps of knowledge to the Nation’s darkness,” the council was established during 1983-1985. Their main objective has been to uplift the social status of the visually impaired through means of education. De Silva recalled that when he was educating himself in a state governed university in the 90s, a very minute number of about 5-6 graduates of the visually handicapped category were privileged to have access to degree level qualifications. However, today he is happy to see the progress, where about 70-80 visually impaired graduates are produced in universities across Sri Lanka on an annual basis.
“I joined the leadership of this council in the 90s, and since the primary objective has always been enlightening minds. We take the necessary steps to remove whatever barriers that tend to cross the paths of our children in education and we materially as well as financially help our students up until their degree. We provide scholarships to them and help them gain a stable employment in the job market,” De Silva added. He also revealed how the education process of a visually handicapped student is different to that of another in diverse situations. “It will always be double the expense, double the required determination and double the effort. Most essentially the support of the family has to be there 100%,” he said. He said that it is indeed a miracle and of course the genius of these students, that with a minimum of accessible resources, there are over 300 visually impaired graduates working in multiple levels of the society across Sri Lanka today.
The most important benefit of this initiative is that this is the first ever Braille magazine to be printed in two languages
Answering the question why “Braille” is so crucial, even at a time where auditory means of accessing information are more advanced, De Silva described its importance in detail. Braille is the only means of improving the literacy rates of the visually handicapped, he said.
De Silva also said that according to the “Marrakesh Treaty” of 2018, a non-binding agreement signed in Morocco, their right to access published work is confirmed. However, this has not been given effective prominence nor attention in Sri Lanka as yet. As a non-profit organization, the council decided to come up with a range of options even before the treaty was signed. “We should not wait until everything is offered to us on a platter,” said De Silva who added that he and his colleagues had introduced the “Digitally Accessible Information System” (DAIS) for the blind. This method was effectively implemented through CDs and computers, not only paving access to over 5000 books but increasing the literacy rates in Information Technology among the blind. Adding to this chain of programmes, they brought down 6 Braille Display Machines, where 6 students per week are trained on how to use them.
Extending his special thanks to the Embassy of Japan for making their dream of printing in Braille a reality, the latest addition to their line of achievements, Kasun Nayanajith, Assistive Technology Trainer of the council further described the value of such an implementation; “Perhaps the most important benefit of this initiative is that this is the first ever Braille magazine to be printed in two languages. While “Sith Esa” will focus on the Sinhalese audience, it will be printed as “Mana Oli” for the Tamil readership,” he said.
“We plan to provide information as well as entertainment under 10 topics ranging from Science and Technology to Art and Literature,” Nayanajith declared further.
With this idea in mind, they made this an opportunity to open doors for the vision impaired public in providing content for the magazine. Creative pieces of work in any field of interest can be sent to: Sri Lanka Council of Vision Impaired Graduates, 694/1D, Galle road, Idama, Moratuwa.