Friday, September 23, 2011

Of A Man Who 'Sees' No End

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 2: 2-3 (NIV)

These words from the Bible constantly inspired Margaret, mother of Don Patrick Mervin Weerakkody to be positive about her youngest son’s blindness. Though he could perceive light and make out obstacles at birth, his sight deteriorated fast and left Patrick, more popularly known as Wimal completely blind. “It was like her slogan” he chuckles as he recalls his childhood. Margaret and Wimal’s father Johannes, were both educators by profession and so strove to give their youngest an education equal to that which their three older children received. Their home was an environment conducive to learning, and Wimal picked up fast from what his brothers and sisters brought home from school. Their young uncle Juluis Perera, a master violinist and music teacher, created in Wimal his special favourite, an early love of music. And so a genius was put in the making.

In 1954, at nine years of age, Wimal entered the School for the Blind at Ragama, where he gained his elementary education as well as basic musical knowledge, mastering the piano, accordion and violin. These skills equipped him well for his task as a young teenager playing the role of organist and choirmaster at his local church as well as secondary school. He also acquired skills essential for the visually impaired academic – reading Braille script and typewriting – at this school. By the time he entered Christ King College in his hometown Thudalla, Ja-Ela for his secondary education, Wimal was well equipped not only to work on a par with his sighted classmates but even to top his class. He left school in shining glory, having passed the Advanced Level Examination at the very top of the national rank.

“Most of the responses I had from people in my young days were Christian, they were matter of fact about my blindness” reflects Wimal, now Professor. “At university it was different” he shares, describing snide remarks about karma and such. “The fact that I am a Christian has helped me a lot, my outlook is more positive because of that.”

Prof. Wimal Weerakkody. (c) Kalpa Rajapaksha
And this positive outlook he inherited from his mother has helped Wimal Weerakkody achieve amazing feats in life. Going through university and getting a BA and PhD he says, have been his greatest achievements to date. He admits the task was positively difficult since he did not have the convenience of facilities visually impaired students now have as study-aides. “I had to depend on sighted readers” he explains, adding that “the subject was difficult for the average reader and required a high standard of English” and was therefore the task even more trying. Nevertheless he trudged through, and in 1971 obtained his BA with First Class Honours in Classical Languages. Upon receipt of a scholarship he then commenced studies at the University of Hull, obtaining a PhD in Classics in 1977. Upon returning to Sri Lanka, Wimal Weerakkody joined the staff at his alma mater, the University of Peradeniya, and was subsequently made Professor of Classical Languages; a position he held for nearly ten years, until his recent retirement.

Among his academic achievements are translations of famous Greek and Latin texts ‘Phaedo’  and ‘The Republic’ by Plato, Hesiod’s ‘Works and Days’, works by Cicero, plays by Plautus and Terence as well as ‘Louise Braille: A Touch of Genius’ by Michael Mellor among many others. He is also a Vadya Visarad, (B.Mus.) of the First Division from Bhathkanda Sangeeth Vidyapeeth, Lucknow, India, and has won many international academic awards and scholarships including those awarded by the Commonwealth as well as SAARC.

Though his academic achievements are great, it is the gentle and compassionate person Prof. Weerakkody is, and the high values that motivate him, which his students and those who have the blessing to know him appreciate most in him. “My inspiration has always been my desire to help other persons with disabilities” he says unassumingly, “I try to acquire skills that help them and then impart it to them.”

He has truly done much more than has been expected of him as a voice of the visually and otherwise impaired, and as Coordinator of his brain-child; the Special Needs Resource Centre (SNRC) at the University of Peradeniya. Every year, Prof. Weerakkody conducts a number of workshops which he hopes will provide the visually impaired with skills for a better life. Although the workshops are geared at educating and providing specialized skills, it’s undeniable that the participants have immense fun in the learning process and go away having made good friends and wonderful memories. Prof. Weerakkody is a genial person by nature and an entertaining and enthralling teacher, and his lectures and teaching session are coloured with jokes and anecdotes which his students find difficult to forget. Among these unforgettable workshops number those on Braille Music notation for teachers and students as well as on special IT skills for the visually impaired, all conducted at the SNRC.

Prof.'s special watch with braille dots to mark the time.
How he clasps his hands together is typical of his patient, unassuming nature.
(c) Kalpa Rajapaksha
“I feel information is primary, that’s why we started the centre” explains Prof. Weerakkody as he describes how he once very informally approached a representative of the World Bank and was able to secure a donation of 50,000 USD for each national university that was willing to utilize it to help the handicapped. Though the fund was allocated for use over two years, Prof. Weerakkody and his staff of unconditionally dedicated volunteers managed to stretch the funds over four years. “Now we have trouble maintaining the centre” Prof. says, explaining that funding is very hard to come by. The centre takes on projects such as the recording of the pansiya panas jataka and school syllabi for grades 9-11, which are funded by organisations such as the Buddha Shasana Madhyasthanaya and the American Embassy. These funds nevertheless, do not provide any backing for the running of the centre or for the undergraduate students the centre is pledged to support.

Prof. Weerakkody believes that Sri Lanka has sufficient resources to provide visually impaired students with a good quality tertiary education, but that “attitude changes are necessary” for the proper allocation of these resources to be made possible. The attitude of the general public towards the handicapped population is also “mixed” he says, adding that despite the fact that “people are sympathetic”, there exist in our culture “age-old prejudices” regarding mental and physical handicaps. Prof. recalls the incident of a fellow undergraduate returning to his room on his way out for an examination, because the blind ‘apala’ student Wimal Weerakkody has stepped onto his path. Such incidents and attitudes are not only sad and embarrassing but also detrimental to the creation of a positive environment for the visually impaired within our country.

But Prof. Weerakkody has not allowed such events to deter him from achieving his goals and dreams. He has overstepped boundaries even unimpaired persons would consider insurmountable, mastering not only the fields of classical languages, philosophy and music, but those also of administration and information technology.

Since retiring a few months back, Prof. Weerakkody has been catching up on what he mischievously calls “outstanding work that lies on my table and my conscience”. He looks forward to completing a Sinhala translation of The Oresteian Trilogy by Aeschylus and quiet hours in his house hidden in the cool hills of Gampola. “I haven’t decided on anything yet” he smiles “I’ll just take things as they come”. Typical, one would feel, of how he has lived so far, grappling with immense obstacles and never faltering in his walk to bring glory his Maker.

No comments: