Being told at 15 that you’re going to go blind soon is tough. Saliya Kahawatte starts an apprenticeship in the hospitality industry anyway – and for more than 15 years, no one notices that he can’t even see the onions on the cutting board.
Interviewer: How can you complete an apprenticeship in a hotel without anyone noticing that you can see almost nothing?
Saliya Kahawatte (entrepreneur and author): Of course, it was a great challenge for me to take on this task. Of course, there were always people who said: Say, what are you doing?? And why are you with your nose almost on the onion cutting board? Why do you type all the item numbers into the register without reading them off? Of course I had them all in mind.
Or: Why do you set your tables so crosswise?? You must see that it’s not all symmetrical. I have not seen it, of course. There have always been people who have asked me about it along the lines of "Tell me, what’s going on here??"I’ve always been a little reluctant to really say what’s up with me. With the goal of somehow getting through this education.
Interviewer: Had to work with a few little white lies there too?
Kahawatte: Let me put it this way: there are black lies and white lies. If you lie and someone comes to harm – or even worse – then that’s a black lie. And I have always improvised to protect myself. I really just wanted to work in the primary labor market and earn my money. I think that is every man’s right and therefore I ask, how shall I say it, a little bit for forgiveness that I was very hasty there. But I think it was okay that way.
Interviewer: Have you come up with things to hide your limitation in some tasks?
Kahawatte: Yes, of course. I was very good at talking my way out of it. I say once, it falls to the intelligent one quite easily to pretend somewhat stupidly. The other way around is much more difficult. I’m from Hamburg now and I’ve always been able to talk well. Therefore, I have lived with the fact that I have sometimes taken on the role of the somewhat foolish and stupid. Just to somehow make it through this training.
Interviewer: If, for example, you were responsible for washing the glasses in the hotel, you did not see whether the glass was clean or not. Did you then simply rinse it again?
Kahawatte: I also rinsed three or four times, until I finally realized that you can also hear whether a glass is clean or not by the sound it makes. You don’t need your eyes for that. As a waiter, you always have a ballpoint pen with you. With that I lightly knocked against the glasses. You can tell by the sound if it’s been polished properly or not. So in the end I came to qualitatively the same results as my sighted colleagues. I just went a different way.
Interviewer: When you find out at 15 that you’re going blind, it’s a hard blow that changes your whole life. How did you manage to graduate from high school anyway?
Kahawatte: When I got the news at 15 that I was going blind – or almost blind, because I still had a small visual test – and that I had to go to a school for the handicapped, learn Braille and so on – that was a slap in the face. I was no longer allowed to skateboard, play soccer, ride a BMX bike.
I was supposed to hang up my normal teenage life and just live differently, according to my disability. It was not easy for me. I’m a go-getter by nature, and I like to live life to the full. When you’re thwarted like this, it’s hard. I was in high school at the time. I wanted to get my high school diploma.
I also had it in my mind to show the sighted world: So, now more than ever. I will show you that this is possible. And if you don’t believe in it, I don’t care either. Believe in whatever you like. I believe in myself first. It’s the only religion that gets me ahead and now I’ll do it and show you how it works. It also worked out.
Interviewer: What gave you strength in the time after the diagnosis?
Kahawatte: I didn’t have a religion back then. Or, I didn’t have the access to religion. Of course I had access to faith. But I simply realized that at that time I really only had to believe in myself. Because no one else could tell me how I could have done it better.
The school board says: It won’t work. The teachers say: That’s not possible. The doctors say: It’s not going to work anyway. The parents say: What should we do now? The specialists say it doesn’t work out. So, son, do as you’re told. I said: They can all tell me something else. They are all not concerned.
It’s not that easy to articulate something like that at the age of 15. Then you’re quickly labeled as "Maybe the boy isn’t all there in the head. Maybe this one has another problem."It’s also a bit like Germany when you go against the grain.
But in the end, I was very much on my own and I also made it up with myself. That’s why at that time the only faith I had left was faith in myself and my abilities.
Interviewer: Did you learn Braille??
Kahawatte: No, I did not learn it. As well? I never went to a school for the blind. Of course, I got a notebook with speech output later on, when I was in college. Today they have the greatest technology, but I didn’t have that back then.
It didn’t exist in the eighties. There was just a magnifying glass as big as a glass brick. And with that, you had to somehow struggle through a Reclam booklet. That was anything but funny. And it took much too long.
Interviewer: When was the moment when you realized: I can’t go on like this and keep up this lie?
Kahawatte: To be honest, I already had the quiet insight at that time that this will reach its limits at some point in time. That was already clear to me then. I didn’t realize I was going to make it this long. The milestone goal of passing the Abitur at a regular school was of course an inner victory, that I showed everyone that it works – against all odds. Guys, I showed you.
Of course, they were also all a little bit catchless and shocked that I was able to pull it off. When I said I was going into the hotel business, people said, "He’s got a big head. That can’t work. Of course, I was of the opinion: Now that you’ve got your A-levels, you’ll be able to complete your training in the hotel industry.
I would never have imagined that it would become so difficult so quickly in the end. I thought working in a hotel was like tapping beer and carrying plates. You will manage that. Maybe I am also a bit confident by nature. That’s why I got in there in the first place. It wasn’t easy, but it worked out again.
Interviewer: They wrote down their life story in a book that was published in 2009. "My blind date with life" is the title. What was it like for you to show the world that you had been hiding something for years??
Kahawatte: The fact that I carried my own life lie and what was really going on with me inside me for so long, of course, ate me up inside. It got me into alcohol, drug and medication addiction. And end up in a locked psychiatric ward. To put it in a nutshell: I broke and failed at the end of my life lie.
At some point I said: now I’m going to study. After my studies, I decided to be open about my disability. At first I kept quiet about it. Then it went. Then I disclosed it and I wrote 250 applications and only got rejection. Nobody wanted to hire a severely disabled person back then. At least that was my perception.
I slipped into Hartz IV and wanted to develop a business concept out of my disability. That was my goal at that time. I wanted to become a writer, personal coach and lecturer. One thing I told myself: You have to deal with your disability in a different way. You have to disclose them – not only in your applications.
That’s why I wrote down my story. So I wanted to tell people: this is my story, now you can read it. Now I want to go into a conversation with you about that. That was the goal.
Interviewer: Help people like this today? Give advice to someone who may be in a similar situation, as a personal coach or even in another position?
Kahawatte: I developed a business concept out of my handicap. I help people move forward in difficult situations. And of course I help businesses today. Companies are made up of people. Every company comes to a point where change happens.
And there it can be that the company says: We’re not going to get a theoretical trainer now, but someone who really has practical experience and deals with change and proves that to us every day. Then people actually get me and ask a blind man for directions. That is so.
Interviewer: Kostja Ullmann portrayed them in the film "My Blind Date with Life". The film came out in 2017 and was very successful. How did you prepare him to play a blind man??
Kahawatte: I have to say first: Kostja played the role splendidly. Maybe it was also due to my good preparation. We sat down together for three weeks really intensively. He got a so-called simulation glasses, which let him experience the world as I see it. We looked for a five-star hotel in Hamburg and cut onions, made beds, mixed cocktails, vacuumed rooms, set the tables.
That wasn’t easy for him at first. But in the end he discovered the same ways or possibilities to work nonvisually in the hotel. He managed it with the same strategy as me. Then he was also fit for the role at the end. In the motion picture itself, he then wore contact lenses that allowed him to play this role authentically.
Interviewer: The hotel industry is just one of many jobs in which it is almost impossible for people with a visual impairment to work. In your opinion, could something be done about it??
Kahawatte: I would leave out the subjunctive II. Something must change. I think that there has been enough talk and waffle about inclusion. Now action must follow. We live in a highly complex world. We complain about shortage of skilled workers, especially the hotel industry.
If people with handicaps are simply left out of the equation or not even given a chance because someone can’t even imagine that it will work, we won’t get anywhere with that attitude. Then we would not have flown to the moon and Columbus would never have discovered America. You should always believe in people and ask: What can people actually do?? And what are the goals? And is that realistic?
Interviewer: This is a very life-affirming and positive attitude.
Kahawatte: Yes. But I can not talk about self-motivation. I have to live it. Then people will believe me.
The interview was conducted by Katharina Geiger.