I have a disability called Sotos Syndrome. I used to study in a mainstream school and was bullied quite often. It took me longer than most to keep up with studies and sports. I also got pushed around often, causing me to fall and suffer hairline fractures in the ankle, elbow and fingers. After some time doctors in the Emergency Room started to say, “Oh! it’s you again.” I thought those who pushed me were my friends so I did not complain to the teachers. It made me very confused and sad.
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.”
Apart from sports, one of my teachers also told me that through art I could communicate with my fellow students. Whenever we had art classes, I felt relaxed and included. From there on, every day I practised my arts and crafts at home. I painted the way I felt. When I was sad, the colours were black, grey or brown, other times they are shades of red, green and blue. Painting is a therapy for persons with special needs as we feel relaxed and happy to see our paintings come to life. Having a disability doesn’t stop a person from dreaming.
Ten years ago, when I was working at the Special Olympics Pakistan office on my laptop, one of my colleagues told my mother that I should enroll in a computer course. I took her advice and did a six-month Graphics Design Course.
Some years passed by and one of my friends motivated me to start designing things for Special Olympics Pakistan. Another colleague trained me and I have done mugs, pins, T-Shirts, posters, motivational quotes, greeting cards and name tags. I love doing graphics because I can express my feelings and spread the message of inclusion.
Having a disability is like having Super Powers. Don’t be sad, enjoy having Super Powers. If someone makes fun of you, just smile and walk away.
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.