Going for his goals inspite of being blind
“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” reads Ishan Jalill’s business card. The phrase speaks of a multitude of untold stories of the young man patiently seated in his family living room, an infectious smile on his face. To the bystander, Ishan is a typical happy-go-lucky 25-year-old. The cliché however, ends there, as a few minutes in his company reveals a man of strong convictions who has been tearing down stereotypical images all his young life.
Having being born blind, Ishan never let his disability keep him from doing what he dreamed of. Today he is awaiting his final results from the University of Colombo, Faculty of Arts and is also the President of Young Voices Sri Lanka; an international campaign of the Leonard Cheshire Disability Global Alliance. A UN Volunteer and member of the Sri Lanka Youth Parliament, he is also a youth
activist. The small card is a modest compilation of his achievements and designations. “You could say it’s a CV and business card all wrapped in one,” laughs Ishan. But the neat typing hardly does justice to a dynamic individual who has accomplished so much.
Life is always an adventure for Ishan. Looking back, he claims that every experience and person he has encountered has been a lesson in disguise. A student of President’s College and the Blind School Ratmalana, Ishan was taken out of his comfort zone when he joined S. Thomas’ College after his O/Ls. “The transition from the Blind School to St. Thomas’ was quite a culture shock for me,” he admitted, especially when it came to language. “Almost 96% of blind people in Sri Lanka don’t talk in English,” he observed, but thankfully he was conversant in both English and Sinhala. Always a people’s person, adapting to his new surroundings wasn’t too difficult for the boy who always had a smile.
For Ishan many of the experiences that moulded him to manhood came from the school, which let him break free from the accepted path for the blind. The decision to study English, Greek and Roman Civilization and Economics was one such. “Everyone told me that I would be better off studying music,” he explained referring to the stereotypical belief that blind people make good musicians. “It was my economics teacher who really motivated me,” he explained.
Another individual who would create a lasting impression on Ishan was Ajith Gunawardena, the rowing coach of S. Thomas’ at the time. “I like to think it was rowing that really made me a man,” he smiles reminiscently. It was while at the school big match in 2007 that Ishan was first introduced to the idea of rowing. “Mr. Gunawardena approached and asked me if I would like to join,” he remembers and Ishan said yes not having thought the idea through yet spontaneously wanting to give it a go. “I am someone who likes to take risks in life,” he explains. It proved to be no easy undertaking, with land training involving beach runs and vigorous sessions at the gym. “Initially even the other boys didn’t know what to do with me,” he says, but with the help of his coach and teammates, not to mention his own indefatigable attitude, the same year saw him competing at a mini regatta. “I lost the race,” he says matter of factly. But he recalls his coach coming up to him once the race was over and telling that he had been given a standing ovation by the crowd once he came to the pier. It was only much later that Ishan
would find out that he was the first born blind person in the world to be an oarsman.
Entering university was in Ishan’s mind another very special experience. Quick to make friends he was soon very active in the university debating teams. While he shrugged off the difficulties his disability produced, especially with getting about etc. he is always thankful to his supportive friends. “Even when I was getting to and from lecture halls or going out somewhere with my friends there was always somebody to help me out.” He observed however that a lot of the other blind students stayed only with each other and didn’t interact with students who weren’t disabled.” Always wanting to dispel negative stereotypical images Ishan was adamant not to do the same. “I never wanted to limit myself to anyone or anything,” he states, feeling that it is all in one’s attitude and conduct to make things work for oneself. It has helped that he has very supportive parents and a sister who give him the freedom to be what he want to be with zero imposition.
Having been an active member of his school UN and Debating Clubs, and a delegate at COMUN Ishan first came into contact with the UN when, as a 4th Year university student he interned at V Force; the National Volunteers Task Force attached to the UN volunteer Programme. Appointed the President of Young Voices, his involvement in the programme led to the UN recognizing his interest in the area of activism for the disabled. Since then he has travelled to the UN headquarters in New York and participated at the World Conference on Youth (2011).
A senator of the Sri Lanka Youth Parliament Ishan was also a facilitator at the Youth Forum held as part of the CHOGM celebrations and says he was greatly impressed by the enthusiasm and passion of the young foreign delegates who would go on debating motions till as late as 3.30 a.m. “It was truly inspiring to watch and their energy motivated our own delegates to a great extent as well,” he says.
2014 has a lot in store for Ishan. A member of the International Youth Task Force, he is a part of the organising committee for the World Youth Conference to be held in Sri Lanka this May. He is one of 10 Sri Lankans in the committee and is the international representative for disabled people as well. In addition he is awaiting his university results. “I’d like to go abroad and study for my Masters this year,” he says. Being a part of the UN has always been a dream. “I am passionate about making the world accessible for all,” he says. “I want to serve people. But my country is important to me. I am a Sri Lankan and want to serve my country too.”
Ishan has only one New Year resolution- “to achieve more and more each year”.