Since I was born, I was considered a curse to my family. My father earns a simple living as a clerk to support my mother, five siblings and I. We live in a rural area in Punjab, Pakistan. In my neighbourhood, families who have children with intellectual disabilities are forced to hide their children to protect us from being bullied and harmed.
I was born with a developmental disability as well as a hearing disability. Growing up, I struggled with my studies and did very poorly. I was isolated because I was not like the rest of the kids. Even my own cousins shunned and made fun of me because of my poor grades. I was referred to as “the odd one”. Just stepping out of my own home was a nightmare. I lived in constant fear of people pointing fingers and calling me names.
The turning point came when I was accepted into a special school for children with disabilities at the age of 14, the Institute for Special Education Rabwah. For the first time, I could breathe freely. I no longer felt oppressed and judged. I felt like I was a worthy human being. I was included in every activity and treated the same as all my classmates. For the first time, I made friends.
When I was 18, the school introduced me to Special Olympics Pakistan. In the beginning, I found it hard to adjust to the training but the coaches were very patient with me. Over time, I improved my fitness and started training in several sports, including badminton, basketball and football.
I love sports training with Special Olympics. I’ve never experienced such a supportive, fun and encouraging environment. My team-mates and I always cheer one another on, whether or not we score a goal. Special Olympics has boosted my confidence and brought out the best in me, both on and off the sports field.
In 2018, I found a job as a receptionist at a local guest house. In Pakistan, it is a struggle for people with intellectual disabilities to find employment, even in the bigger cities where there are more opportunities. In my hometown of Rabwah, it is considered a big achievement.
That same year, I also took part in the Special Olympics Pakistan National Games in 2018, where I won 1 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronzes in badminton. It was the first time I was apart from my family, travelling to another province to represent my team at the Games. It was an unbelievable feeling to be celebrated for my accomplishments. I was on top of the world.
In November 2019, I will take part in my first international tournament. It will be my first trip out of Pakistan, to represent my country at the Special Olympics Asia Pacific Unified Badminton Championship held in Thailand. I am immensely honoured!
My parents have never imagined that I would come this far. My family is so proud of me. I’m no longer the hidden son. These days, they flaunt my achievements and talk about me openly to all their friends and neighbours. People tell me that I’m an inspiration to my classmates and to the community.
I am thankful to all the people who have given me a chance to show the world what I can do. I just hope that similar opportunities can be given to others like myself in Pakistan and around the world, to enable our journey towards true inclusion.