Over the years, I have witnessed only too often—and experienced first-hand—how many individuals view people with intellectual disabilities. They believe the differently-abled should have no friends. They are wrong.
I have had the good fortune of meeting people who have not only accepted me for who I am, but also included me in activities that have completely and irrevocably changed my life.
During my early childhood, I had many friends, but as we grew older, everything changed. My friends formed their own cliques which did not include me, often leaving me alone in a corner. I used to go home and cry. I would ask my mom if something was wrong with me, questioning why everyone made fun of me, and why I had no friends.
I so wanted to be like those girls I had known all my life, but I remained on the outside, on the fringe, always “the other.”
Some days, I felt like jumping out the window. I didn’t feel like eating. I became so weak that my mom had to feed me with her own hands. I had an imaginary friend. She was a beautiful fairy named Amanda. She’d make me laugh, and encourage me. She was my only friend.
In 2004, I met an angel. Ms Ronak Lakhani, the Board Chair of Special Olympics Pakistan, encouraged me to join Special Olympics. She told me it would change my life. I listened, enrolled, and with the guidance of my coaches and through my own hard work, became part of this life-altering movement.
I went on to take part in the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai and won two Gold medals in swimming for my country. In the process, I also made so many amazing friends.
My best friends, who are also the Unified partners whom I play sports with, are Sanam and Nida. They have taught me so many things, both on and off the sporting field, and I have cherished each moment. They, too, have learnt about acceptance and equality. Through their interactions with me and other athletes in Special Olympics Pakistan, they have embarked on their personal learning journeys of inclusion and respect for people with intellectual disabilities.
These days, I’m no longer afraid to speak up. Previously, I felt that my views would fall on deaf ears, but now, I am in an inclusive environment where my voice is heard and my opinions are valued.
Through sports, I have found my place and purpose in this world. I am now an assistant swimming coach, helping to guide other Special Olympics athletes in Pakistan to perfect their sport. I am also an athlete leader, helping to advocate for equal rights for people with intellectual disabilities across the country and globally.
I am looking forward to representing my country again in swimming at the upcoming 2019 World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi. I can’t wait to show the world what I am capable of.
Through Special Olympics, I understand now what true friendship is – “A friend is someone who understands your past, believes in your future, and accepts you just the way you are.”
So to all those out there who hear me, please accept people with intellectual disabilities, befriend us, engage with us, and involve us. Your support can change our lives and yours.