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Dr Samitha Samanmali: Drawing strength from adversity

Posted: 30 September 2019

Sri Lanka, Alumni, Disability, Impact, Inclusion,

Australia Awards alumna Dr Samitha Samanmali’s story of courage and inspiration is a perfect example of how one can draw strength from adversity.

Samitha was a promising third year medical student when tragedy struck; an unexpected accident left her partially-paralysed with a spinal cord injury – compelling her to spend 6 months confined to a bed. She was 25 years old. Refusing to be deterred by her injury, she later went on to complete her medical degree and continued to do her postgraduate studies in community medicine.

“After that I wanted to specialise in the field of disability and searched for available study options all over the world. I found a course at Flinders University that met my interests, but the cost was not affordable for me. So, I was looking for scholarship opportunities for postgraduate studies; this is when I received an email from an Australia Awards alumnus.”

Samitha’s application was successful and she received an Australia Awards Scholarship in 2017 to study the program she had hoped to undertake, a Master of Disability Policy and Practice at Flinders University.

After moving to Australia for her Scholarship, Samitha found adjusting to life in Australia stressful in the first few months, as it was the first time she was separated from her family. It also took her a little time to get accustomed to the education system in Australia. However, she soon adjusted. There were a number of recreational activities accessible for wheelchair users and Samitha made the best use of these opportunities. Reflecting on her experience in Australia, Samitha says;

“For the first time, I experienced independence in my life. I swam, went underwater diving, skydiving, and learnt to drive. I wanted to be independent as much as I could”.

Samitha skydiving in Australia

Samitha says life as a student with a disability in Australia, was a “comfortable experience”. “I could hardly find a place which was not accessible through my wheelchair. There was also a disability advisor at the University with whom we [myself and other scholars with a disability] could discuss our issues. Australia Awards helped us overcome the barriers we faced as students with a disability”.

One of Samitha’s objectives when applying for the Scholarship was to learn about practices and policies in Australia designed to support and uplift the lives of people with disability. The professional network she built while in Australia – including with Australian students and Disability Organisations such as Para Quad South Australia (PQSA) and Brain Injury SA – helped her understand and contextualise these practices and policies.

While in Australia, Samitha also worked as a volunteer at the Lions Club at her University. Along with other Australia Awards scholars, she also revived the Sri Lankan Student Association at Flinders University, of which she was President for from 2017 to 2018. This also helped her connect with the Sri Lankan community in Adelaide.

“Australia Awards gave me full support to make my life easier in Australia, as they allowed a carer to accompany me as well. As a result, I had enough time and was in a good mental state to focus on my studies and engage in extra-curricular activities.

“I also received mobility aid support. I was able to take the electric wheelchair I used in Sri Lanka. All its maintenance cost was borne through the Scholarship. In addition, I received a manual wheelchair for indoor use and tutor support to conduct my research. As English is not my first language, I needed support with my dissertation writing; this support from my tutor was very important to me”.

Having returned home to Sri Lanka in December 2018, Samitha recommenced work at the Youth Elderly and Disability care unit at the Ministry of Health, the focal point for disability and elderly care within the country’s health sector. She is confident the knowledge she gained in Australia has been instrumental in her contributions to develop policies and guidelines in disability care at the Ministry.

Her personal experience of having lived in Australia has given Samitha the strength and confidence to raise her voice on disability issues in Sri Lanka, and Samitha feels that this will also open new doors for further studies.

In addition to her work at the Ministry, she is an executive committee member of the Sri Lanka Foundation for the Rehabilitation of The Disabled (SLFRD).

Samitha encourages others to apply for Australia Awards opportunities. “Students with a disability are hesitant to leave the country to pursue studies. I had the same fear too. I can assure, through my experience, if you do receive an Australia Awards Scholarship, you will receive all the support and assistance to help you successfully complete your studies”.

“I highly recommend the Australia Awards Scholarship to friends with a disability. I can guarantee that it will be a great opportunity”.

Australia Awards alumna Dr Samitha Samanmali from Sri Lanka