ANTIGONISH, N.S. - Coady International Institute Diploma in Development Leadership participant Sureni ‘Sue’ Perera received an education outside of the Coady buildings earlier this month.
The chief executive officer (CEO) for the Fiji-based Frank Hilton Organization (FHO - Crippled Children’s Society Suva) talked about taking in some of the Special Olympic 2018 Summer Games in Antigonish.
“The experience with the Special Olympics was amazing,” Perera, who is from Sri Lanka and worked for a similar organization in that country before moving to Fiji, said.
“We’ve talked about, in Sri Lanka and Fiji, inclusion. Positive portrayals, accommodations, modifications that are required; we’ve spoken about it and I’ve pushed my staff, the system, the parents … I’m a firm believer in it. But when I came here, seeing it happen almost effortlessly, across the board, it just took me back.
“For you, it’s something you’ve grown up with, it’s normal for you,” she added.
“But for me, to sit on the bleachers and watch people support these people as athletes, not athletes with disabilities. You go and watch the Games because they were competing, not because they were competing as people with disabilities. That was something that really took me back … it’s something we’ll aspire to.”
Perera said it’s that mentality she is struggling with now in her job, even as the government has stepped up to better support programs financially.
“In seven years we’ve come a long way and last year was a game-changer because, finally, the government has been very supportive towards special education,” she said. “Last year they finally believed early intervention was, also, equally important, so we moved from being 16 per cent government funded to being 75 per cent government funded.”
So there are more resources but the battle for Perera and her organization is to change attitudes and the stigma around people with disabilities to where they’re viewed through a more inclusive lens. She said even the parents are guilty of the narrow vision.
“The kids are loved, there is acceptance, but there is acceptance based on sympathy,” she said, noting that’s not “inclusion.”
“Because they’re handicapped or crippled we will love them, feed them and, yes, we’ll bring them over and showcase them, but I don’t see that translating to services; a rights-based approach, access to services, a positive portrayal.
“Sometimes I even see a resistance in parents of persons with disabilities. They would claim a right [to support] because ‘I’m disabled,’ not necessarily because ‘I’m a person.’ So that is challenging.”
She talked more about that misguided entitlement.
“In my case in Fiji, the government is supporting – they are getting more – but the perceptions are not changing,” she said. “They still feel it’s an entitlement. I feel the parents need something more and I don’t know what.”
FHO is a non-governmental organization providing detection, early intervention, special education and family support programs for infants, children and young adults with disabilities in Fiji.
In a prepared statement, Perera said her time at the Coady will, “assist to converge practice and theory, heighten self-awareness of my role as an agent of change, and provide me with opportunities to draw on collective knowledge, to bring positive change to the lives of others.”
In an interview, she talked about gaining new strategies to empower communities.
“How to make people who seem to think they’re in a hopeless state suddenly open their eyes, recognize the situation they’re in, and want change; instead of me coming over to them and saying, ‘hey, you know what, you need a change.’”
On a few weeks into a four-month course, Perera said she is already recognizing the Coady’s unique education and benefits.
“At the end of the day when you sit down and reflect, so many questions have been answered,” she said.
“It’s giving me meaning and validating my experience at a point when I had a lot of self-doubt. I’m not saying I’m running around with a sense of euphoria now, but when I did have a lot of self-doubt as to why things weren’t working and so on, it actually gives meaning to my madness.”