Memories That Linger – Padmani Mendis’ recounts her lifelong journey, changing the lives of the disabled

Jan 22, 2023

Padmani Mendis was born three months after her father passed away, on the 8th of February, 1939…and so begins Padmani’s tale that recounts a truly inspirational life that would lead her to take on the pioneering role in a strategy that would forever change the lives of disabled people in developing countries.

Where better to begin an auto-biographical account, but from the beginning. Padmani – or Padmi, as her mother affectionately called her – takes the reader through a flood of nostalgia as she recalls growing up in Colombo, and her tales of her younger years are dotted with anecdotes and snippets of interesting information.

For instance, her great grandfather on her mother’s side was none other than Charles Henry de Soysa, recognised as the greatest philanthropist that Sri Lanka has ever known, and the only Ceylonese at the time allowed to entertain Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the son of Queen Victoria, on his visit to Ceylon in April 1870. Alfred House was named so after the visit of the Duke by Padmani’s grandfather, and evidence of his vast estate – said to be around 120 acres – exists in the many roads and streets in Colpetty named after either the Duke or Padmani’s great grandfather… Alfred and Charles.

Her father was a planter and was 24 when he married Padmani’s mother, who was 16. It was a happy, if short-lived marriage, as Padmani’s father died at the age of 44 due to diabetes. Padmani was the ninth and youngest child.

Padmani’s younger life was a happy one, and she recounts schooling, friends, her siblings and, with special affection, her mother. The reader walks with her as she grows up to become a fine young woman, growing ever more independent, yet never forgetting her roots and appreciating all the big and little events in her life that make her the outstanding individual she was destined to become.

Padmani wanted to become a doctor… instead she became a physiotherapist and this decision was never regretted. Her path unfolds, dotted with opportunities and setbacks, that put in motion a chain of events that eventually led her to be in a position to introduce a different sort of thinking; a different approach to the world of disability.

To quote Padmani from the pages of her autobiography:

“People who have disabilities are, first and foremost human beings like you and me. They are that part of humanity that have been made disabled by society. Society does so primarily by considering them to be some other kind of human being, essentially different from us who are “normal”. Society stigmatises them; by seeing only what they cannot do and not what they can do or have the capacities and potential to do; by not providing within our societies facilities that would enable them to do what they can do as human beings. That which would enable them to enjoy their rights as human beings. That which would enable them to carry out their role as citizens. By not doing these things, it is we who disable them. It is not the fault of those that are born with or acquire disability at some point in their life. It is Society that creates disability.”

Padmani’s words rip off the Band-Aid, so to speak. She continues, “Changing this [situation] requires an acceptance that this is the fact, that this is the truth. Then only can we bring about change in our beliefs and attitudes so that we accept them as one of us; so that we make a change in our systems and services to enable them to access their right to share in the benefits of being a member of our families, of our communities and of global society; so that they could play their part and take responsibility within these as we do. This is a Vision. But until we are well on the path to reaching that vision, Society will continue to be responsible for their situation. Society will continue to create disability. They will remain disabled people.”

In 1978, Padmani was a teaching at the School of Physiotherapy of the Ministry of Health in Colombo, when she was nominated to attend a meeting on Disability and Rehabilitation organised by WHO. As pre-preparation, WHO called for two documents which would be presented at the workshop. One was a Situational Analysis of Disability and Rehabilitation in Sri Lanka and the second was a Plan of Action to introduce what was then called Disability Oriented Rehabilitation to improve the lives of disabled people.

Armed with these presentations, Padmani made her mark at the workshop and it was here that she met with Dr. Einar Helander who was in charge of the Disability Prevention and Rehabilitation Programme at WHO HQ. This meeting cleared the pathway for what was to become a life-changing programme – not just for Padmani, but for disabled people across the world.

Padmani, together with Dr. Einar and new-found, bosom friend, Gunnel Nelson got straight to work on “Community Oriented Rehabilitation”. Yet they quickly realised they had not got something quite right. “Orienting” rehabilitation to communities does not go quite far enough, and what they were discussing was something far deeper, penetrating communities where disabled people lived, promoting ownership of the rehabilitation process by those community members and disabled people together… In a Eureka moment, they realised that rehabilitation must be based in the Community. It must be part of the fabric of each community. What they needed was Community-Based Rehabilitation. And so, the term was born.

Community-Based Rehabilitation, or CBR, introduced by the World Health Organization in 1979 is yet evolving. This programme has opened up for disabled people a world of opportunities. From isolation and segregation, the strategy allows disabled people choices that bring them equality and equity in their communities and through that, in Society- at-Large.

In this book the author recalls many memorable experiences of the role she played formulating, introducing, monitoring and expanding the CBR strategy across the three developing continents of Africa, Asia and South America to support of the work of the World Health Organization, other UN and International Agencies, and some countries of the North.

This is a thrilling journey to say the least, and Padmani takes us on a journey in the world of disability, opening up our eyes to see the world in a way that many of us haven’t thought of.

There was a verse from author Grantland Rice that Padmani’s mother, Pansy de Soysa, would often quote, as a way of reminding her children of the values she wanted to instil in them:

“For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes not that you won or lost

But how you played the game.”

 And to the Great Scorer, the good marks besides Padmani’s name are surely great and she has played her part in the game of life very well, leaving things so much better than the way they were found.