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A guiding hand: How Mahinda Sandanayake’s passion overcomes his visual disability 

2 years ago

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It is said that the only thing worse than being blind is having sight with no vision. We all face hardship, but for many, the thought of losing our sight is a horrifying prospect. Despite facing immense difficulties as a result of vision loss, there are some truly amazing people in the world who have overcome their disability to achieve amazing things.  In Mahinda Sandanayake’s case, he may be visually impaired, but that never stopped him from pursuing his dream. Being blind since birth, Mahinda never despaired about his lack of sight; instead, during his school time, picked up the art of weaving cane, and in doing so, worked on keeping a dying industry alive. He has been self employed in this sector for over 20 years, and is now a professional at his craft.  Brunch spoke to Sandanayake on his life’s journey and the art of weaving. Telling his story, Mahinda began by telling us that he repairs cane furniture and items for a living: “I have been blind since birth, and my wife is also blind; not from birth, but as the days passed, her glaucoma got worse and worse and now she also cannot see. This is why I depend on my job to make a living, but because of Covid, this has also not been possible and we are struggling.”
    Mahinda Sandanayake
Currently, he is finding it extremely difficult to make a living, because people are unwilling to let him into their homes to perform repairs – as obviously the fear of catching Covid is in many. He added that it is the same with public institutions that he would occasionally visit to carry out some repair work. Until the situation with Covid eases and the spread is controlled, there is no way for him to find work or earn a living, which puts him in a difficult position.  He also informed us that he gets most of his business through his personal contacts and word of mouth, but even that is less because of the pandemic. Another factor that hinders his work is the lack of transport. Mahinda takes public transport to conduct his house visits, and again, many drivers had returned to their hometowns to wait out the lockdown and are now unable to return because of the interdistrict travel ban. So even if he does get the occasional job, he finds it difficult to go to the location, adding that if he was to take a tuk tuk, he would not be making much of a profit from the repairs, as most of the funds would be spent on transport. One may wonder how he weaved, or even learned to weave, without sight. To this, he commented that with over 20 years of experience, weaving is now ingrained in his memory, and his hands are used to the art of weaving. “As long as I'm alive, I have to find a way to earn a living, which is how I became so motivated to perfect this art,” Mahinda commented.  His passion for the craft began many long years ago, when one of his Ordinary Level (O/L) teachers prompted him to pick up the craft. “She told me that since I’m from Wevaldeniya, which is famous for weaving cane items, I should learn the craft and stay true to my heritage,” he said, gratefully adding that this teacher was the one who patiently sat with him and taught him the art of weaving, which, after a few weeks of trying, he managed to get the hang of. Many years later, he is now considered a professional in his field, but unfortunately, the situation in the world is such that despite his talents, he is unable to find work. We asked him whether, since repair work is not coming in, wouldn’t he be able to begin making his own furniture for sale instead? He earnestly told us that he would love to make his own furniture, and is skilled enough to do it, but starting up such a business would need a lot of capital, which he simply does not have right now. “I have pushed my unattainable dreams aside, and am focusing on how I can use my skill to feed my family. That is what is most important to me.” Another challenge he is facing these days is the lack of cane. Since the third wave prompted the Government to re-impose travel restrictions, some of which have still not been lifted, he is unable to obtain the cane that is needed for his repairs. “I get most of my cane from Polonnaruwa, because it is of good quality as well, but because of the limitation on interdistrict travel, I am unable to get it down to Colombo.”  Mahinda informed us that recently, the new Government announced that they would develop the cane industry in Sri Lanka, and he hopes that this is not just an empty promise, as someone like him can use all the support that the Government can offer. If this plan is put in place, the industry will also come back to life, as currently, not many people purchase furniture made from cane, opting for wood or glass instead. “If the Government really does bring the industry up, then it is likely that more people and companies will purchase more products, and I will have more business,” he stated.  Mahinda’s story is one that is inspirational to many; his passion for his craft is truly admirable, and we can all take a page out of his book when it comes to his dedication. When asked about his plans for the future, he commented that he only hopes that in the future, the situation will get better and he can go back to earning an honest living once again.    You can contact Mahinda on 0718 470 374 for any cane work repairs. 

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