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Posted July 1997

Special: Empowering the rural disabled in Asia and the Pacific
Motor and upper limb disabled people in agricultural industry in Sri Lanka
Cyril Siriwardane
Subject Matter Specialist on Motor Disability
Sri Lanka

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Most of the motor and upper limb disabled people in the Asia Pacific region live in rural areas. Life patterns are similar in the region. Most of the countries are categorized as Developing or Third world countries except for few countries like Japan. Agriculture is the main industry in rural areas. The problems faced by the rural population is similar. A study has been made to assess the status of Motor and Upper limb disabled people within the Agricultural industry and rural sector in Sri Lanka. This will reflect generally the status of Motor and Upper limb disabled people living in other countries in the Asia Pacific region.

The study attempts to find the needs and constraints of the motor and upper limb disabled people within the Agricultural industry and the Rural sector, and the resources required to improve their living standards through better education facilities and suitable income generating projects so that they become persons useful to the society with equal opportunities.

The information was gathered by visiting rural areas and interviewing, motor and upper limb disabled people, project officers responsible for providing services to the people with disabilities, school teachers trained in special education and the parents and family members of the disabled. Officials of the Ministry of Health and Social Services, Department of Social Services, and the Non Governmental Organizations, Sarvodaya, SHIA (Swedish Organization of the Handicapped International Aid Foundation) and Jaipur Foot Programme were also consulted.


Accurate statistics are not available in most countries in respect of Persons with disabilities. In Sri Lanka, according to sample surveys carried out in 24 Assistant Government Agents Divisions by the Ministry of Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Social Welfare, 6 to 7 per cent of the population in the 24 divisions are found disabled. This survey was done for the purpose of implementing Community Based Rehabilitation Programmes. As per a paper prepared by the Department of Social Services it is estimated that about 8 per cent of the total population consists of Persons with disabilities. This figure is based on information contained in the Census reports of 1971 and 1981 and the Reports of the Director, Pensions. According to World Health Organization about 10 per cent of the population is disabled with more in developing countries than developed countries. If 8 per cent is taken as an average, in 1995 there are about 900,000 Persons with disabilities living in Sri Lanka.

Of the 900,000 Persons with disabilities it is estimated only about 5 per cent are with motor and upper limb disabilities which is about 45,000. There are more males than females who have motor and upper limb disabilities. The ratio is estimated to be 75 per cent male and 25 per cent female. Approximately 90 per cent of the Persons with disabilities live in rural areas.

The root cause of disability in developing countries is considered to be poverty and it's social manifestations such as, inadequate nutrition, disease, poor drinking water, improper hygiene, accidents, armed conflicts and genetic disorders etc. The per capital income in Sri Lanka is about U$ 540 per year.

In rural areas, other than diseases like polio, the causes of motor disabilities are spinal cord injuries due to, falling off trees, agricultural tractor accidents, stab injuries etc. Upper limb injuries are due to accidents using hand fed paddy threshers, accidents in coir factories where coconut husks are fed to the machine by hand etc. Accidents also occur when using timber sawing machines. Trapgun injuries are another cause of amputation of lower limbs. Trapguns are set up by people living around jungle areas to catch wild animals and the villager who goes into jungles to fetch fire wood or other needs get blasted in the legs without a warning.

Polio was one of the main causes of motor and upper limb disabilities among young children. Due to an effective immunization programme the incidence of Polio has considerably decreased.

Needs and constraints

Motor and upper limb disabled people in rural areas could be broadly divided in to two categories. Those who have become disabled by birth or in their early childhood comes under one category. Other category are the persons who have become disabled at a latter age. The reason for this division is to discuss the importance of education which is a vital factor affecting every person and the ability to live an independent life and be beneficial to the society.


The schools in rural areas have only basic facilities. They are mostly understaffed. Qualified teachers prefer to work in schools in urban areas. The reasons are difficulty in travelling, finding suitable accommodation and the lack of basic facilities in rural schools. Children have to travel far to reach the school. Proper roads are non existent in most rural areas and hence no public transport. Therefore the children have to walk several miles to reach the school. Normal children some how or other manage to travel to school. The disabled child has to depend on their parents or an adult in the family to take him to school. Attending school is compulsory in Sri Lanka. Incentives are also given such as free school books, school uniforms and in some schools free mid day meals. Here the motor disabled child is at a disadvantage. He has to be taken to the school by someone. The school must be accessible to him. The other children must accept him as an equal. Very often none of these conditions exist. Parents take the child to school during the first few years.

Generally the rural population is poor. So the parents have to work hard to earn a living. They also give priority to education of their able off spring. Gradually the parents start thinking that taking the child to the school is a burden where the time and energy spent could be used for something more profitable. At the school, the disabled child experience the inaccessibility of class rooms, toilets he cannot use and mostly students who cannot understand his problem. School children are unaware of how to treat a child with a disability. The disabled child becomes isolated in school. Little by little school life becomes an unhappy experience. The child becomes a school drop out at a very early stage. This was found true even in areas with better schools and transport facilities. Therefore the child who is born with a disability or the person who becomes disabled during the childhood does not get a proper or mostly any education at all. Lack of proper education make it difficult for the person when grown up to find employment or to engage in some form of income generating activity.

The person who becomes a disabled when grown up has a distinct advantage. He would have already had a fair education. He may have become a person with a disability while engaged in a vocation. Hence he has a very good chance of engaging in something useful and earn a living. Therefore one of the most important needs of persons with disabilities is proper education. Of the persons interviewed none of them have completed secondary school education. Less than 20% have continued beyond year 5 in school.


Persons with disabilities find it extremely difficult to secure employment in rural as well as other areas. Lack of education, vocational training and competition in the labour market are the reasons. Employers prefer not to employ persons with disabilities thinking that they are less productive. This highlights another problem. Employers are unaware of the ability of persons with disabilities. Whenever people meet a person with a disability they never see his abilities but only see the persons disability. They think of helping him by giving something but that does not do anything to help him to use his abilities.


Transport is another factor hindering employment of persons with disabilities. Public transport services are inadequate and they are not equipped to carry wheelchairs. Only the affluent own motor vehicles. So persons with severe motor problems and specially the wheelchair users cannot travel daily using public transport. The alternative is hostel facilities close to place of employment. Accessibility problems prevent this option. Transport services available in rural areas are very poor when compared to the urban areas. There are villages with bad roads but some villages are without any roads at all. There are some villages where patients have to be carried on the shoulder for few kilo meters until they reach a motorable road. The most popular modes of transport in rural areas are Bicycle, Bullock Cart and Two wheeled tractor with trailer. Two wheeled tractors are extensively used to plough paddy fields. With the trailer it is used to transport goods and people. Although slow, the most appropriate mode of transport in rural areas is the bullock cart. It is environmentally friendly, costs very little to maintain and doesn't need good roads. It can cross shallow rivers , these are the only mode of transport available to Persons with disabilities in remote villages when they have to go to a hospital to obtain medical assistance. Because of the transport difficulties, the visits of the service providers to remote villages to meet persons with disabilities, are rare.

Income generation

There are few Motor and Upper limb disabled persons in rural areas who are self employed or engaged in income generating projects. Most of them have undergone some form of vocational training. Those persons with disabilities who are fortunate enough to attend school and receive education upto a certain standard can enter the vocational training centers run by the Department of Social Services. Courses vary from carpentry, welding, sewing to TV and radio repairs. Some are successful in horticulture, poultry farming and Dairy farming. One person in a wheelchair grows betel leaves, which is in high demand specially in rural areas. Betel leaves are also exported to countries like Pakistan. He gets help from others to do things that are difficult for him to perform and pays them. But he is the one who works most and also is the owner. Another person is profitably engaged in the cut flower business, growing Anthuriums. The Motor and upper limb disabled persons find it difficult to engage in agricultural activities, on their own, depending on the type of disability and severity. They need help to perform certain tasks which they are unable to do. As with any other farmer, the farmer with a disability encounter problems finding money for the initial expenses such as purchasing seed, fertilizer etc. until the crop is harvested.

At the end getting a good price for the produce becomes a problem. As far as other income generating activities are concerned, persons with Motor and upper limb disability can engage in making household items like brooms, brushes and weaving mats. They also can turn out spoons from coconut shells. Here the profit is marginal ,and they have to depend on able family members or friends to find and bring the raw materials. Another activity engaged in by persons with disabilities is running small retail shops. Here again the constraints are the initial capital and also getting stocks from wholesale outlets. In rural areas, wholesale distributors are not interested in delivering stocks as the volumes purchased by small retail traders are low and the access roads are bad or non existent. Family members or friends help them by bringing the stocks by bicycle, bullock cart or two wheeled tractors with trailers.

Health services

Health services in rural areas are provided by rural hospitals and also by trained family health workers who visit the homes of the needy. There are no special services to persons with disabilities like Physiotherapy units in these hospitals. The family health workers who visit homes are specially trained to help expectant mothers and children. They are not exposed to problems of persons with disabilities. Hospitals in provincial capitals are better equipped and better staffed. Various clinics run by specialists are established in these hospitals. Only one hospital in Sri Lanka specializes in rehabilitation of the disabled, which is situated about 20 KM from capital Colombo. Patients from all over the country are referred to this hospitals for rehabilitation. The facilities available in developed countries such as gymnasiums for exercising and sports or places for physiotherapy treatment is not heard of in the rural areas.

Social services

Trained social service officers appointed by the Central Government and the Provincial Councils are available in all districts. They do a commendable job with the limited facilities available to them. They co-ordinate projects jointly run by the Government and NGO's to help the persons with disabilities. Due to the large area an individual has to cover and the limited transport facilities available, they are unable to extend their services to all persons with disabilities in areas coming under their purview. The people in rural areas are mostly affected because of this. Many NGO's are involved with helping the persons with disabilities but their projects cover only few areas. The NGO's reach the rural population more effectively, but their services are limited to a few villages.

Rehabilitation facilities

Awareness of the rural population regarding advantages of rehabilitation and the resources available is very poor. Some are resigned to the fact that disability is God's will and do not do anything about it. The quality of the lives of all members of a community, regardless of whether they are able people or persons with disabilities depend on their physical and social environment. The extent that any individual can develop is very often affected by the social attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of the community in which they reside. Therefore the extent of rehabilitation of the disabled is dependant on the attitudes, beliefs and behavior patterns of the rural community of which he is a member.

The rehabilitation facilities available to persons with a disability residing in rural areas are limited. Traditionally it is considered a family responsibility to look after any member who has a disability. But in rural areas due to such factors as poverty, lack of knowledge and lack of facilities to rehabilitate them at home, the responsibility is forced to fall back on welfare schemes operated by the state and NGO's. On an average about one per cent of the disabled in need are treated in these centres. Community based rehabilitation projects are being established gradually to fill this gap.

The sexual needs of persons with disabilities is another important aspect rarely discussed. Persons with disabilities also have the desire to marry, have children and enjoy family life like any other normal person. Here the women are more disadvantaged than men. People think disabled women are unable to perform house hold chores even marry and look after children.

For most women in the world marriage is the primary means of economic survival and achievement of social status. Disabled women in rural areas are often hidden from view by their families. They are not only seen as unmarriageable but also as an obstruction to other marriageable members of the family. Disabled men are better off than disabled women in this respect although the situation is far from satisfactory.

The persons with motor and upper limb disabilities need wheel chairs, invalid tricycles, artificial limbs etc., so that they can become mobile and be useful citizens. This requirement of the persons with disabilities is not fully met by the authorities concerned mainly due to financial constraints. Here again the persons with disabilities in rural areas are at a disadvantage because they cannot afford to purchase the assistive devices they require and also they are unaware of sources where it could be obtained free. This problem need an urgent solution.

Sports and recreation facilities

Participation in sports activities helps rehabilitation process. Sports and recreation activities helps to keep the mind and body healthy. Unfortunately no organized sports or recreational facilities are available in rural areas. A National Federation of Sports for the Disabled has been formed under the Ministry of Sports to provide all encouragement for the persons with disabilities to improve their talent in sports activities. At present it's activities has not reached the rural areas.

Data on people with disabilities

Unavailability of proper data is one of the greatest constraints to plan any programme to help the people with disabilities. Accurate data on type of disability, sex, age, education, location, family status etc. is required to formulate a plan of action and implement it successfully. It is proposed to include a section to obtain data on persons with disabilities at the next census.

Resources available

There are 72 centers in Sri Lanka which provide services to persons with disabilities. Six are run by the department of social services and the rest by NGO's. These centers provide health facilities, education, vocational training etc. Only about 1% of the disabled community in served by these centers.


The special education unit in the Ministry of Education provides facilities for the education of disabled children using normal schools. A special teacher training scheme is also implemented by this unit. The programme is designed to provide an opportunity for disabled children to attend schools along with normal children. The special education unit of the Ministry of Education operates under severe handicaps. The equipment is old and the funds allocated are insufficient. Due to transport problems the motor and upper limb disabled children in rural areas find it difficult to avail themselves of this opportunity. Trained teachers in special education are not properly motivated. The teachers believe that they could be more productive, teaching the normal children and the time spent teaching the children with a disability as a waste.

Institutions providing rehabilitation services

Community Based Rehabilitation Programmes (CBR) are being implemented by government and Non Governmental organizations. Ministry of Health and Social Services with the assistance of UNICEF have initiated CBR programmes in 55 Divisional Secretary Divisions out of 308 in Sri Lanka. Lot of work has been done to train officials on CBR. The Ministry of Social Services is planning to establish CBR programmes in all districts within the next few years, as CBR is considered the most effective way to rehabilitate the disabled within the community he lives in, with the least cost to the state. It will take few years before an evaluation could be made to find out the actual benefits received by the Persons with disabilities in the areas where CBR programmes have already been implemented.

Sarvodaya movement is one of the biggest indigenous NGO's working in Sri Lanka which provides many services to the less privileged in the society including the persons with disabilities. It's services cover almost the entire island.The movement is more active in rural areas. The persons with disabilities are provided with vocational training and material assistance to start income generating projects.

The Friend in Need Society of Colombo manages a project called Jaipur Foot programme. It is a programme to provide low cost artificial limbs to amputees. The artificial limbs are given free of charge to persons who are unable to pay for it. Production costs are met by donations from well wishers and aid from international agencies such as USAID, DIAKONIA of Sweden, NORAD of Norway etc. After fitting of the limb and gait training,

If needed, they are given a revolving loan in collaboration with World Vision, to start an income generating project. The persons who are mostly benefitted are persons with disabilities in rural areas. The limb suits the conditions in the rural areas. The amputees in urban areas prefer better looking and more comfortable limbs, although they are much more expensive. The Jaipur Foot Programme organizes an annual sports meet in order to encourage the amputees to participate in sports.

Rehab Lanka is a sheltered workshop for persons with disabilities managed by Sri Lanka Foundation for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled (SLFRD), an organization of the disabled for the disabled. It has provided employment to over 35 persons who are mostly motor and upper limb disabled persons. Although Rehab Lanka is situated in Colombo all the employees are from rural poor. They work in three sections VIZ: tailoring Welding and Carpentry. The center is managed by persons with disabilities.A percentage of the profits made are distributed among the employees and the balance used for the improvement and expansion of Rehab Lanka.

SHIA (Swedish Organization of the Handicapped International Aid Foundation) is active in Sri Lanka for the past 10 years. It's activities are carried out in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Social Services. SHIA is also active in other Asian countries like Nepal. One of it's main activities in Sri Lanka is to strengthen the organizations of the persons with disabilities. Meetings are arranged at regular intervals between the representatives of the Organizations of the disabled and the Government officials in the Ministries, Departments, Health institutions etc. who are connected with services to persons with disabilities. Problems are discussed and the solutions are found at these meetings. SHIA has also started a CBR programme in the district of Kalutara which consist mostly of rural areas. Suitable persons are given grants or loans to start income generating projects. SHIA also sponsors awareness programmes to educate the Media, Business Community and the general public, on the rights and privileges of persons with disabilities, their problems and abilities.

Employment opportunities

The rural Motor and upper limb disabled people are normally looked after by their family. Sympathy and kindness towards the disabled is a social tradition coming down from the distant past in Sri Lanka. The majority in Sri Lanka are buddhists and they consider looking after sick , disabled etc., a meritorious act. Only the severely disabled are sent to the institutions, but generally the parents and the other family members take care of the disabled in the family. Unfortunately this taking care means to meet the basic needs of a person VIZ. food, clothing & shelter. The aspects of, education, rehabilitation to become independent and a equal member of the society etc., is neglected. The main reasons for this are poverty, ignorance and lack of awareness of opportunities available to persons with disabilities's.

The persons who have become motor and upper limb disabled after they have reached adulthood find it easier to find employment or start an income generating project. This is possible only if they have received education to a reasonable standard and have been trained and experienced in a vocation.

Persons who depend upon society at large for support

Here are motor and upper limb disabled persons who beg on the streets. They make use of their disability to earn a living. They exaggerate their disability and passers by through sympathy give them money. There are persons who maintain families with what he earns from begging. These people resist any attempts to rehabilitate them as they feel begging is an easier way to earn a living than working.

Projects for income earning within rual communities

There are sufficient opportunities for income earning within rural communities for the motor and upper limb disabled persons. The income generating venture he can embark on depends on the type of disability, the severity of the disability, level of education and the resources available. The most important factor is education. With a good education, finding employment is not too difficult. If a person has a good basic education it is easy for him learn a skill.

Some motor and upper limb disabled persons cannot work alone because of the type of disability. It is possible for few persons with different levels of disability to get together and complete a job. For example a motor disabled person will find it difficult to move about all the time, but he has strong hands. A person with only one hand will not find it difficult to move about but unable to perform tasks which needs working with both hands. Thus they can complement each others abilities when working together.

Horticulture is a good income generating project for persons with disabilities. There is a steady demand for cut flowers, vegetables etc. Plant nurseries are another source for generating income. Proper training and availability of correct advice on agricultural practices is neccessary for success.

Another area a person with a disability in rural areas can earn an income is retail trading. They can sell consumer goods required by the rural community. Many NGO's help persons with disabilities's by providing initial capital to start a retail shop. Shops can also supply the needs of the agricultural sector such as fertilizer, implements, insecticides etc.

Animal husbandry is another possible income generating avenue. The motor and upper limb disabled together can manage, Dairy farms, Poultry farms, Goat farms, Piggeries etc.

The resources required for income generating projects mentioned above are, proper training, the initial capital, suitable and sufficient land for the intended agricultural project or a building at a suitable location if it is a retail shop. The most important requirement is the availability of a person with adequate knowledge to guide and advice them until they become self sufficient. Finding a mmarket and the ability to sell the products at a good price is also important for success of any income generating project.

Agricultural industry as a source of income for the rural motor and upper limb disabled

During the visits to rural areas the motor and upper limb disabled personnel were found to be successfully engaged in following income generating projects.
  1. Cut flowers.
  2. Banana Cultivation.
  3. Betel leaves Cultivation.
  4. Poultry farming
  5. Dairy farming
  6. Goat farming.
  7. Tea plant nursery.
  8. Mushroom growing.
  9. Mat weaving using reeds.
For any agricultural industry to be successful the producer should be able to market his produce at a reasonable profit commensurate with the cost of production. It is also important that the industry must produce something which is in demand.

Resources required to establish agricultural industries

Then determining the resources required to establish agricultural industries for the motor and upper limb disabled persons, consideration have to be given to the constraints mentioned earlier, specially in rural areas. Although the current thinking is to allow the persons with disabilities to remain with the family or Community based Rehabilitation, the problem of travelling has to be given due consideration. The solution seems to be large farms with resident facilities. The type of project should have the following features:
  1. Should operate on a co-operative basis with profit sharing.
  2. Reasonably large with a capacity to employ about 100 persons.
  3. The work force must constitute of 90 per cent disabled persons and 10 per cent normal persons.
  4. Mixed farming with animal husbandry should be practiced.
  5. Residential facilities should be provided to the persons who are unable to travel daily.
  6. Environmentally friendly energy sources such as bio gas plants, solar power systems should be used.
  7. An expert in agriculture must be available for advice and guidance.
  8. Farm management positions should be occupied by persons with disabilities who are suitably qualified.
  9. Appropriate marketing facilities should be established.
  10. As far as possible the produce should be further processed such as making jams, cordial, yoghurt etc. before marketing. This will generate additional jobs and income.
Resources required to establish such an industry are:
  1. Suitable land
  2. Buildings. Residential facilities should be suitable for persons with disabilities.
  3. Motor transport.
  4. Agricultural machinery
  5. Machinery required for processing agricultural produce.
  6. Recreational facilities such as libraries, sports equipment, televisions etc.
  7. Medical facilities
  8. Welfare facilities
  9. Marketing facilities
  10. The most important resource is to have sufficient cash to sustain the project until it becomes profitable and self sufficient.
Agricultural industries mentioned in section 7. could be started by individuals depending on the severity of disability. Initial capital required is little compared to starting a big farm but facilities should be available to obtain the agricultural inputs and marketing the produce. The financial requirements are not shown as it depends on the type of industry.

Contributions required to implement activities to enable rural motor and limb disabled people to integrate fully into local communities

The activities that may enable rural motor and upper limb disabled people to integrate fully into local communities are:
  1. Provide facilities for education.
  2. Provide vocational training facilities.
  3. Provide aid to engage in an income generating project so that he is not dependant on the society or his family.
  4. Conduct awareness programmes to educate the society so that it understands the problems of the persons with disabilities and their abilities. Changing social attitudes is very important.
  5. Assist the motor and upper limb disabled people to acquire correctly manufactured wheelchairs, artificial limbs, crutches etc. so that they are mobile and capable of engaging in useful activities.
  6. Provide better health and recreational facilities.
  7. Provide better rehabilitation facilities.


Special education units with teachers who have undergone special training are available in a number of schools. But the number of disabled persons who avail themselves of these facilities are few due to transport and accessibility problems. Schools with hostel facilities must be made available to the motor disabled persons who find it difficult to travel daily. Present trend is to believe Community based Rehabilitation is the best. But due to certain difficulties it is not always possible to abide by the principles of CBR. A study in Sri Lanka has revealed that special schools where only children with disabilities attend have produced more graduates than any normal school with special education facilities. Vocational training facilities must be expanded to include more vocations.

Employment opportunities

In Sri Lanka 3 per cent of the jobs are supposed to be allocated to the people with disabilities. This is not being properly implemented as there is no monitoring authority. Also there are no incentives to employers who provide employment to persons with disabilities. Due to transport, accessibility and accommodation problems it is more practicable to have special workshops to employ persons with disabilities.

No attempt has been made to estimate the financial implications. Initially a proper plan must be drawn with expert advice before calculating the cost of implementing a national plan. As per an investment programme prepared by the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Social Welfare for a five year period 1992 to 1996 the total cost is US$ 26.0 Million of which the foreign aid component is US$ 15.0 Million.

To start an income generating project for one person in a rural area the cost will be about US$ 200 to US$ 1000 depending on the type of project.


A good education is very important for the people with disabilities, if they are to live an independent life and as useful citizens of the country. In rural areas health, transport and accessibility facilities must be improved to help the motor and upper limb disabled people. Incentives such as tax benefits must be given to employers who provide employment to persons with disabilities. Awareness programmes must be conducted to change the negative Social attitudes towards persons with disabilities.

Empowering the rural disabled: Introduction | Women | Cambodia 1 | Cambodia 2 | Lao PDR | Sri Lanka | Thailand 1 | Thailand 2 | Vietnam 1 | Vietnam 2 | Agroindustry | Horticulture | Strategies

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