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Scholar with disability experiences new opportunities in Australia

Posted: 16 January 2024

Sri Lanka, Experience, Inclusion,

Chani Jayathilaka is a Human Resources professional, activist and advocate for disability rights. Born without arms, Chani has demonstrated enormous reserves of determination and resilience during her journey. Despite numerous obstacles, she successfully pursued her dream of higher education and received an Australia Awards Scholarship.

She was working as a Human Resources Business Partner at a leading apparel manufacturing company in Sri Lanka when she received her Scholarship to study a Master of Disability Practice and Leadership at Flinders University in 2022.

Chani’s main aim is to change people’s attitudes towards people with disability in employment and this is the primary focus of her Development Impact and Linkages Plan. When Chani began her career in the private sector in Sri Lanka, she soon realised that there continues to be a stigma attached to disability. Even in workplaces that have inclusive policies and procedures in place, there is a reluctance to recruit people with disability.

Chani recalls a particular incident in her career when questions were raised about how she would handle a projector, having no arms. Not only did Chani find a solution to this problem, but by doing so she both built her own confidence and increased her employer’s trust and faith in her. Chani is living proof that limitations in oneself are only as restrictive as one allows them to be.

Chani with other scholars from Sri Lanka and Nepal at the Scholars Forum 2023.

Beyond her academic study, Chani is actively engaged with her peers as a student mentor and as Treasurer of the International Student Association at Flinders University. In addition, she currently works as a Recruitment Coordinator at Maxima Group, a large recruitment and training company based in Adelaide. She was connected to Maxima Group through the Multicultural Communities Council of South Australia, a peak organisation that shares her vision of changing negative perceptions of people with disability.

When she has completed her degree and returned to Sri Lanka, Chani aims to develop an action plan to directly involve people with disability in the drive for development. She notes that Sri Lanka presently lacks the social structure to achieve this and that very few organisations have inclusivity policies in place. Chani looks forward to seeing her country’s attitude to people with disability transition from a charity model to a human rights model. She hopes to be a catalyst for this change.

Alongside her study load, extracurricular positions and planning for the future, Chani has nonetheless managed to maintain a work–life balance and experience much of the fun that Australia has to offer. In just a year, she has already visited Sydney, Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Melbourne. She plans to fulfil another dream when she explores New Zealand before returning to Sri Lanka at the end of her Scholarship in December 2024.

Chani’s story is a testament to the extraordinary achievements one can attain with determination. As we celebrate diversity and empower individuals like Chani, we recognise the importance of creating a world where anyone, regardless of physical abilities, can contribute to the improvement of society. “I can pave the foundation for this inclusive society in Sri Lanka. Maybe it will take 50 years, maybe 25 years. It’s a mystery,” Chani says, under no illusions that society can be changed overnight. But she knows how she can best contribute: by speaking her truth. “I can talk. I can share this experience.”

Watch the video below to learn more about Chani’s journey as an Australia Awards scholar.