I did not speak until I was 7. According to my parents, I spoke only a few words when I was a toddler; but after that, I just stopped talking.
My parents enrolled me in a play group. Back then, I couldn’t sit still and often fought with the other children. The teachers could not control my aggressive and hyperactive behaviour. For a long time, my parents thought that this was normal. They had no one to turn to for help on how to handle children with intellectual disabilities.
But things got out of control. There were frequent complaints about me from teachers and other parents. I would injure other children. I would also come home with bruises and bite marks from fighting with others.
Mum turned down a Government job offer so that she could spend more time with me. Often, she would take me to parks and let me play with a ball. Helping me expend my energy reduced my aggression. Mum also spent a lot of effort teaching me simple tasks like buttoning my shirt and tying my shoelaces. It was difficult for me, but Mum taught me never to give up.
People called me pagal (lunatic in Hindi). Some acquaintances told Mum to place me in a hospital for people with mental disorders. They said things to her like, “Why invest energy in disciplining and guiding him? He will never improve.” Even my own father questioned why my mother was doing so much for me. Close relatives stopped inviting us for parties and gatherings. They just didn’t know how to deal with my behavior.
My parents took me to see a doctor. At the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, I was found to have lower than normal IQ. I was referred to the Mata Bhagwanti Chadha Niketan, a school for children with disabilities in Noida. Through the school, I found out about Special Olympics in India. I was started on various sports programs so that I would channel my energy in a constructive and meaningful way.
Since I joined Special Olympics Bharat in 2008 at the age of 13, I have tried cricket, cycling, and softball. I was given the opportunity to take part in various local competitions. As I got more medals, I became a local hero in my school. It felt nice to be celebrated for my abilities. It boosted my confidence.
Soon, my sports journey went beyond the borders of India. In 2013, I represented the country in cricket at the Special Olympics Asia Pacific Regional Games in Australia and took home a silver medal. I was also vice-captain of the softball team that represented India at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles in 2015.
Beyond the sports field, I have been part of the Special Olympics Asia Pacific Athlete Input Council since 2017, lending my voice to advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. I’ve also been on the global stage to voice my ideas on how to promote a more inclusive world at events such as the Special Olympics Youth Summit in Shanghai, the Global Athlete Congress in Santa Domingo, and the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Special Olympics movement in Chicago in 2018. Back home, I have helped to train and inspire other athletes, both with and without intellectual disabilities in football and cricket.
Sports has changed my life. Training has taught me discipline, independence and given me the confidence to speak up for myself and for others with intellectual disabilities.
It is ironic that I used to not speak a word. Today, I want the world to know my story, and to realize that people with intellectual disabilities are not to be avoided or discriminated against. I believe that if we persist, we can overcome all odds and change the world. My personal mantra is “Yes, I can!”