By N. Lohathayalan –
Five students graduated with bachelor’s degrees in University of Jaffna’s just concluded thirty-fourth convocation during 4-6 Dec. 2019. While many earn degrees, what is noteworthy is that all five lost both eyes and a hand or a part in the civil war
During the evil events of the Vanni war, three of the five lost their eyes and hand. Santhirarasa Vikneswaran around October 2008 in the Suthanthirapuram area during one of the last wars of the Vanni lost both his eyes and the fingers of one hand. Their bodies suffered many wounds. The remaining two too, despite losing their sight were determined not to give up on their study plans. It was that mental resolve that induced their ambition to study, they say.
The graduates are two men Santhirarasa Viikneswaran and Sipathasundaram Piratheepan, and three women Ethirmanansingi Kilaiman Kiristilda, Vikiramarasa Vijeyalatchumi and Sayanthan Mathini. The whole world admires their achievement overcoming untold hardships.
Unlike many others caught up in the Vanni war, our heroes did not go into a shell claiming their lives to be over. They did not lapse into self-sympathetic bitterness.
Although convinced that their future lay in following their studies, they could not pursue their studies in the Vanni. A part of the problem was that they were over 20 years in age when they sat their G.C.E. O. Levels. However, not overcome by the pains and sufferings of war, they found strength in their hardships. No sooner than the war was over and they were released from the imprisonment camps they went steadily pursuing their studies.
Three of them, through the Nuffield School, began their GCE O.Level studies in 2010. Succeeding, making enquiries from many and getting help from some, they began their GCE A.Level studies in schools that were willing to admit them despite their age and special needs.
Sipathasuntharam appearing for the A.Levels through the Kaithady Muththukumarasamy High School, was selected for the university. Ethiramanusingi Kilaiman Kirisilda of Tellippalai and Vikiramarasa Viyeyalatchumi of Katkovalam near Point Pedro both studied at the CMS Chundikuli Girls’ College. They have completed their dreams to earn a degree. Chundikuli Girls’ College Principal Dushy Thusitharan is so glad they could help.
These hardworking and disadvantaged students who have completed their studies have placed on record the obstacles they faced. They assert that as far as they have learnt, many universities they have seen have facilities for handicapped students like themselves but few such opportunities are afforded at the University of Jaffna. They feel great disappointment in their alma mater. Union College Tellippalai, a high school, has these facilities! Moreover, they say, it is because they are differently-abled that they were refused their subject choices. They had been able to study psychology outside through everyday living in dealing with people who treated them differently but the opportunity to study psychology formally was simply refused at the university. At the time they asserted their ability to study psychology better than others because of their life-experiences but to no avail.
At the end of their first year they obtained 75% marks in two subjects, yet they were denied admission to the special degree programme. Even if there were no vacancies, in most civilized countries they would have been given admission arguing that so long as they had the basic qualifications, given their circumstances their performance is far superior to that of a normally-abled student with the same marks. Their ambitions to be lecturers were smashed as that requires a special 4-year degree.
Right at the beginning the students were told that they cannot pursue IT Studies and they meekly accepted it without necessarily agreeing, but no such thing was intimated to them about psychology. They felt that reading psychology would lead to jobs that would be helped by their experiences through their physical limitations. They tried hard to get into that department but failed to succeed in their efforts. The university administration had failed to shed any tears for the plight of the differently abled.
Contrary to University of Jaffna, both the University of Colombo and Eastern University of Sri Lanka have “Talking Books” (that is books on audio-tape) for those without sight. However, University of Jaffna’s library has nothing like that. “When we cannot read or write, it is by using such audio-books that we can comprehend our subject matter. But we had no such facilities. There is no forum or mechanism for us to express our needs,” they all said.
There is no single braille machine at the university to date. The cost of a braille machine at most is Rs. 150,000. But there is no concern for the needs of the university’s own students. In the five students’ second year they had to by their own efforts arrange for a braille machine for their exam. This machine they had made arrangements for, stopped working. Again it was left to them to arrange for a second braille machine in replacement. This delayed their exam by thirty minutes but the authorities did not take the extra time needed into account.
Be that as it may, today at many government agencies and even at some private institutions, facilities are afforded to the handicapped to move up and down a building. At the University of Jaffna there is no lift provided even in buildings with three floors. They suffered through all this. They were even subject to humiliation by a Lecturer because of their state of being differently-abled. At the same time, another Lecturer gave her hand to lift them up in life.
Without bitterness the five dispassionately speak of a woman lecturer Menaka and man Kajavindan (who has since left) while studying psychology for their general degree who would ridicule them over their disabilities. They remember fondly the woman lecturer Indu who always comforted and encouraged them. The world is a mixed bag indeed.
The five say they are going public with these sentiments only so that no student in future ought to face the difficulties that the five faced.
At a Government Management Assistant’s interview in 2015, age was stated to be the criterion by which the job was denied to one of the five. If that were truly so, the age was known from the application and there was no need to have invited the person concerned for the interview. The students believed that the post was denied only after seeing their appearance.
At the same time there was help from different quarters. To go to university each of them needed Rs. 15,000 a month. Many friends introduced the 5 to those who had the means to help. The Vaddukkottai YMCA, persons whose relatives were abroad, Mahapola – all of them helped them.
The five declined answering some questions saying that would raise personal sympathy for them and they did not want to benefit from that. It confirmed the self-confident upbringing their families had given them.
When the present Competent Authority of Jaffna University, Prof. K. Kanthasamy, was confronted with the difficulties the students had faced, he had excused himself from any responsibility saying this was his first year in charge of the university . He added that this was the first time these problems were being pointed out and gave the assurance that he would solve them next year. However, his appointment is a temporary one for only a few months while the search is on for a new VC. So, is he planning to stay on forever?
The five students have done well. In government or in the private sector, they are looking for jobs. Who will help them and the many in our midst like them?