Alumnus improving the education of visually impaired students in Sri Lanka
Posted: 1 December 2023
Ashoka Bandula Weerawardhana is an Australia Awards alumnus who completed a Master of Disability Policy and Practice at Flinders University in South Australia. In 2021 while he was in Australia, Ashoka recorded a video to share his experience.
Ahead of International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December 2023, we reached out to him in his home country of Sri Lanka, to which he returned following his studies, to understand how his Australia Awards Scholarship has helped him enhance his career and life. His responses below to our questions reveal his zeal and determination to apply his studies for the benefit of people with disability in Sri Lanka.
What made you passionate about your area of study?
Disability, whether temporary or permanent, visible or invisible, is ubiquitous around us. However, this field has not yet received sufficient attention in Sri Lankan universities. As with any other social problem, the absence of systematic research is the primary factor affecting disability-related issues. As long as a phenomenon is not studied, the understanding of its true nature, the factors that have influenced the emergence or escalation of the situation, and the interventions that can be made to reduce the problematic consequences will remain hidden from society. Consequently, both beneficiaries and service providers are misled by the current lack of understanding, misconceptions and miscommunications surrounding disability.
The main objective of my studies in Australia was to explore how the globally-developed body of knowledge on disability, management strategies, interventions, and mainstream and assistive technology components could be used for the advancement of people with disabilities in Sri Lanka. In addition, one of my other interests was to study how the social justice, equality and human rights paradigms could be best used to create advocacy to remove physical, informational, institutional and attitudinal barriers towards people with disability.
Can you tell us about your experience in Australia, both at university and outside of university?
My time in Australia was an incredibly heartwarming and sweet experience, both within and outside the university setting. From the moment I arrived, I was greeted with open arms and a sense of belonging that made my journey as an international student truly special. The university itself was a treasure trove of exciting educational facilities and engaging community activities that were tailor-made for international students. These opportunities were not just limited to me; my family members also happily participated in various events, creating lasting memories.
The university’s commitment to fostering a vibrant international student community left a profound impact on me. The range of activities, from workshops to cultural showcases, not only enriched my academic journey but also allowed me to build friendships that transcended borders. I vividly recall the feeling of participating in musical and recreational activities, going on thrilling excursions, and enjoying discounted goods and refreshments.
One aspect that stands out the most in my memory is the unwavering support I received, both academically and personally. As a student with disability, I felt truly fortunate to encounter a level of compassion and deep understanding that extended far beyond the boundaries of my university. Australians showed immense support and consideration everywhere: in off-campus accommodation, on the playground, while using public transport and even during shopping trips.
This experience made a lasting impression on me. It instilled in me a deep sense of gratitude and inspired me to make a difference in my home country, Sri Lanka. Witnessing the principles of equality and individual freedom that are the backbone of Australia’s social and legal systems become a tangible reality in my everyday life ignited a fire within me. As I reflect on my time in Australia, I am more resolute than ever to contribute to making similar principles a reality in Sri Lanka’s social and legal systems.
Can you share how your Scholarship helped you develop your professional network?
The Australia Awards Scholarship offered me more than just an education. It allowed me to connect with experts from various countries and fields. Over the course of two years, I had the chance to collaborate closely with this group of professionals. This experience provided me with valuable real-world insights that go beyond what I could learn from books. Australia Awards continues to help me stay in touch with many of these individuals through local and regional initiatives.
What was returning to your home country like for you?
Adjusting to returning to my home country was a challenge because it meant having to simultaneously end the educational, social and cultural connections I had built over two years. This transition was particularly tough for my two children. However, I had a clear understanding of the terms and conditions of the Australia Awards Scholarship right from the beginning, and I respected them fully. I bade farewell to my university teachers and friends, and I also began rekindling relationships with professionals in the sector I aimed to contribute to in Sri Lanka. To ensure a smooth reintegration, I brought back souvenirs for relatives and friends living in Sri Lanka, and I took the time to help my children embrace the positive experiences that awaited us in our home country.
How has your Australia Awards experience affected your career?
My experience with the Australia Awards Scholarship has significantly boosted my career advancement. It has especially raised my recognition as a disability expert within Sri Lanka. Moreover, the Scholarship played a direct role in promoting me to the next level in my career. Despite the considerable strides I’ve made, challenges stemming from deeply ingrained systemic barriers and biases in my field have impeded my progress to my desired level. To illustrate, my endeavours to initiate disability-related academic courses have been hampered by intricate technical complications ingrained in the institutional structure.
What are your ambitions for the future?
My future goals are all about improving disability education in Sri Lanka. I know it is going to take a lot of hard work and determination to achieve this. I want to change the way people think about disability and clear up misunderstandings. I have taken it upon myself to lead this effort because I see the importance of fixing these long-standing problems.
At the core of my goals is creating a solid disability education system based on research. To make this happen, I am determined to get the right qualifications. Even though I know it won’t be easy, I’m motivated by the idea of making education better and more empowering for people with disability. I am fully committed to this mission, and I am ready to put in the time and effort needed to make my ambition a reality.
What is your advice for someone thinking about applying for an Australia Awards Scholarship?
If you are considering applying for an Australia Awards Scholarship, start by reflecting on how you can truly contribute to the human, social and economic progress of your country. Then, consider the skills you will need to enhance in order to make a meaningful contribution after returning home. Based on this, select a relevant field of study from the diverse range of valuable courses provided by the Australia Awards Scholarship. Make sure to thoroughly understand the program’s terms and conditions. It is important to maintain honesty throughout the application process, during your studies and even after completing the program. Your sincere commitment can have a significant impact, so approach this opportunity with integrity and dedication.
Do you take part in alumni engagement initiatives?
Absolutely. I actively engage in alumni initiatives whenever the opportunity arises. Australia Awards – Sri Lanka frequently informs me about these programs, and I consider them a priority. I enjoy sharing my own experiences with new Scholarship recipients and providing them with encouragement. Additionally, I had the chance to participate in the Regional Alumni Workshop held in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2022. Being a part of these initiatives allows me to contribute to the ongoing support and growth of the Australia Awards community.
You received a small grant from Australia Awards in 2023. What motivated you to apply and how did you use your small grant?
I saw the small grant opportunity in 2023 as a wonderful chance to further the community service work that has been my focus for many years. Recognising the significant challenges faced by Sri Lankans with visual impairments and learning disabilities, I was motivated to address a pressing issue. Specifically, I aimed to develop a high-quality text-to-speech software program in the Sinhala language, a project I believed could make a substantial difference.
Despite the complexity of the task demanding strong technical expertise, I collaborated with a dedicated team to achieve this goal in a remarkable timeframe of just three months. I personally volunteered my time for all the software development work, while payments were allocated to compensate other team members for their technical support. The culmination of our efforts was the successful creation of a high-quality speech software application compatible with the Windows operating system. This software seamlessly integrates with the free NVDA [NonVisual Desktop Access] screen reader, benefiting visually impaired individuals who speak Sinhala.
The motivation behind my application for the small grant was to make a tangible and positive impact on the lives of those with disabilities, and I am proud of our collective achievement in bringing this project to fruition.
Finally, do you have a message to share about International Day of Persons with Disabilities?
Disability is pervasive in and around us, both visible and invisible, temporary and permanent. It is an integral part of our social diversity, and it’s time we recognise it as such. Let us nurture empathy and understanding, dismantling the obstacles that impede the lives of people with disability. Together, we can create a world where everyone has the means to reach their full potential.