Remembering Senarath Attanayake, Sri Lankan Politician and Advocate for Disability Rights
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) is deeply saddened by the passing of Uva Provincial Councillor Senarath Attanayake. He died in Colombo, Sri Lanka on August 29. Our sincerest thoughts are with his wife, Lasanthi, daughter Chetianga, and the rest of his family and friends.
He was the first wheelchair user in Sri Lanka to join the bar and the first person with a disability to enter politics in Sri Lanka. Becoming the first person with a disability in Sri Lanka to hold ministerial portfolios, Attanayake served as the minister of agriculture, irrigation, livestock and land from 1999-2004 and as the acting chief minister for a brief period. Attanayake was serving his fourth term as a member of the Uva Provincial Council (UPC), becoming one of the longest serving elected politicians with a disability in the world.
His tenure as a member of the UPC was marked by his significant efforts to increase access of persons with disabilities to political and public life. His work as a politician modeled advocacy for accessibility as well as leadership of persons with disabilities within the community, for which he received the Henry Viscardi Achievement Award in 2016. Attanayake successfully put into practice the ideals of universal access and highlighted at international conferences around the world how working with government officials provides opportunities to integrate persons with disabilities in public life, not only as a citizen with a disability but also as a political leader who himself has encountered barriers when going to school or voting.
As provincial councilor, Attanayake undertook the singular achievement of creating the first disability- and age-friendly district in Sri Lanka. His vision for a barrier-free community made possible increased participation and improved the lives of those who elected him. Attanayake conceptualized and implemented, in partnership with the UPC, the World Health Organization (WHO) and several other key stakeholders, Sri Lanka’s first disabled and age friendly city. In 2012, the city of Wellawaya became a member of WHO’s Global Age-friendly City Network, and he expanded the project to cover the entire district of Moneragala. The community made possible, for the first time, the equal participation of persons with disabilities in all aspects of life, whether they are attending an accessible school or taking part in recreational activities with their peers, allowing citizens with disabilities to become engaged as active members of society, breaking down stigma and proving that they make valuable contributions to the community.
“Sena’s indomitable strength, strategic acumen, resourcefulness, and capacity to form genuine friendships across any divide made him a great champion for the rights of people with disabilities in Sri Lanka. I hope that the government, the provincial council, civil society and international partners carry on the work he started and make Moneragala district and Uva province models for accessibility,” said Vasu Mohan, IFES regional director for Asia-Pacific.
Promoting barrier-free communities through various international events, such as the first “Regional Disability Rights Dialogue on Political Participation,” which took place in Colombo in 2015, Attanayake cultivated discussions in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific on the benefits of increasing participation of persons with disabilities in political life. His personal engagement as a politician with a disability with disability rights advocates from around the world inspired them to run for office and to work with government officials to reduce barriers in their communities. Attanayake and IFES Senior Access and Inclusion Specialist Virginia Atkinson served on panels together at the 2016 and 2017 United Nations (UN) “Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” at the UN in New York City.
“The international disability rights community has lost a true guiding light. Sena’s tireless efforts earned him the respect of government stakeholders and civil society activists alike. I, along with countless others, were motivated by his commitment to human rights as well as his unique charm, warmth and kindness,” said Atkinson.
Attanayake was featured in an article on ElectionAccess.org, “Increasing Access through Elected Office,” which can be found here. He was also a participant of the “Virtual Roundtable on Advocacy for Participation of South Asian Citizens with Disabilities,” which can be found here.