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Sunday Times Jun 20 1999

She did it: Dhammika Priyadarshani

With determination as her only guide, Dhammika blind from birth, faces the challenges in life

By Wathsala Mendis

Dhammika PriyadarshaniWalking with quick, sure steps along the long corridor, she appears within seconds of our arrival; greets us with a friendly nod and waves us to sit in front of her on the parapet. God has blessed her with good looks and a cheerful, infectious smile. At first glance, everything about her seems fine. Then you realise that Dhammika Priyadarshani is blind. She has been sightless from birth.

Her agility, naturally, comes as a surprise to us. "This is like a second home to me. I know my way around here," she explains, with a wave of her hand, towards the school premises.

She was five when she first walked the grounds of the Ratmalana School for the Blind, clinging to her father's hand. Born into a family of two brothers and a sister, all elder than her and all with twenty-twenty vision, Dhammika realised at a young age that life was not going to be easy. But instead of brooding on her misfortune, she decided to meet the enormous challenge head-on.

With her father's meagre income as a labourer at the Electricity Board barely sufficient to feed the family, she found the school which provided board and education free, a haven. There she learnt one of the most important lessons in her life: that blindness was no tragedy, that she should be able to stand on her own feet instead of expecting somebody to always wait on her.

Ahead of her lay long years of toil. But Dhammika knew if she were to try and fit into 'normal' society, she would have to brave it all and get a good education. Proving her worth as the 'family's pride,' she went on to excel in her studies. She got through her G.C.E. (O/L) with flying colours, earning a scholarship to Ladies' College, Colombo to do the A/L. All well and good. But paying the four-figure boarding fees and tuition fees was beyond her parents' means. When she told the principal of her difficulty, she was exempted from the former. As for tuition, it was simply out of the question. She never complained. And when the results were released in 1990, she had qualified to enter university in the arts stream.

During the three year period before starting university, Dhammika joined the Vocational Training Programme at the school, receiving a monthly allowance of Rs. 500. There she gained invaluable experience and guidance in teaching which was to become her future profession.

Once she entered university, Dhammika found herself in a new predicament. Nothing could have prepared her for what lay ahead. From the very beginning she found it difficult to keep pace with other students in taking down notes on her braille slate. Hence she had to settle for a braille-writer, provided by the university. But it was so noisy that others found it a distraction. So she had to record the lectures in toto on free cassette tapes provided by the 'Talking Book Library' of the Sri Lanka Council for the Blind. At night she would replay them and take notes on her braille-writer.

One blind student was entitled to only five tapes a year which, of course, was totally inadequate. Some days the lectures would go on for about three, four hours and there were times that they had four or five lectures a day. This meant she had to work extra hard to finish the workload on that day itself so that the tapes would be ready for the following day's lectures. The pressure was too much, she admits, but she refused to give in.

Towards the end of her third year, she had qualified to specialize in all three subjects of her choice: Sinhala, Sociology, and History. Faculty advisers reasoned with her when she opted for Sinhala and then sociology, pointing out the difficulties she would have to encounter. So she settled for history, something more within her capabilities.

In April 1998 she graduated from the University of Kelaniya with an upper second class degree. Tears of joy streamed down her face as she walked up to accept her certificate. Yes, she had made it! She had done the impossible. Today she teaches at the Ratmalana School for the Blind as a volunteer and is awaiting the approval of the Ministry of Education to be absorbed into the permanent staff.

Dhammika could easily have given into despair. But she didn't. With sheer grit and calm confidence, she stayed the course. Bravo, girl. We're proud of you!