It's a beautiful, sunny October morning. A perfect day for an outdoor swim, something 16-year-old Behram Khan thoroughly enjoys.
But he wasn't always a swimmer.
Behram, who lives with a learning disability, used to attend a reputable private school in Karachi before joining Special Olympics Pakistan (SOP), a non-profit organisation working towards development of children and adults with intellectual disabilities through sports. He is one of the many special athletes training at KMC Sports Complex as part of SOP.
"I liked going to school, but they expelled me because I was failing in my exams," says Behram.
Sensing his pain and struggle, Behram's mother Afsana who is by his side, wraps him in her arms and asks him to focus more about his favourite sport.
Behram's ugly encounter with mainstream education is common among those living with a disability in Pakistan. And like a member of every oppressed group, their struggle for equity and inclusion begins at home.
"You see, the first hurdle a child with a disability faces comes from home," Afsana says. "They just want to be accepted."
"Once you do that, you will see your child improve with leaps and bounds, and grow into a wholesome, independent adult," the special athlete's mother adds. Afsana says Behram's learning disability only surfaced when he started going to school. Ever since then, the mother of two makes sure Behram receives as much of her attention as possible.
Bringing inclusion to schools
Twenty-year-old special athlete Ali Sohail may have trouble speaking, but his sentences are full of meaning. He shares his love for school and dribbling a basketball. Tall and confident, Sohail boasts nobody is as good as him in the basketball court.
Having cleared matriculation ─ albeit in three attempts ─ and failing first year intermediate exams, Sohail's willingness to improve despite his learning disability persists. In few words, he manages to express his desire to continue studying, get a job and integrate into society.
But can an unforgiving mainstream education system like Pakistan's help a person like Sohail to achieve their goals?
"I personally think inclusive education can make the biggest difference for those living with disabilities," says Daniyal Alvi, who leads the Unified Sports programme of Special Olympics.
Inclusion needs to become a part of the educational infrastructure so children with all kinds of talents and abilities get to study, learn and grow together under the same roof, the advocate says. "When a child without a disability grows up in an environment with a classmate who may have one, they would hopefully grow up to become better, kinder and more compassionate adults," Alvi shares.
In addition, there is also a need to implement policies to keep both public and private sector schools in check, says special educator Shaheen Atta.
Atta is a volunteer coach at SOP and teaches swimming to special athletes like Behram. Having spent more than 20 years in the field, the impassioned teacher is exasperated with the system.
"I have been sacked from schools and a lot of times, I have left out of frustration. Behram's story is very common," Atta tells me, adding that schools exploit the situation as well.
"They take advantage of parents who care," Atta divulges – a lot of schools in Karachi charge a hefty monthly fee to accommodate a special needs child. And the cost is even more damaging for girls.
"People here don't believe in investing in their daughters' futures as it is," Atta says.
Parents hide their daughters with disabilities in homes for long periods of time, she says. "They do it to keep their condition hidden. It's a tactic to get them married as soon as possible, and it's rampant."
Do awareness campaigns work?
Blue Band Pakistan recently launched a special campaign for differently-abled children. Titled Acchai Barhnay Do, the initiative aims to create a more inclusive environment for children with disabilities across Pakistan.
Blue Band collaborated with SOP and organised the "Both Buddy & Me" race where regular children between ages of 8 and 13 were paired up with differently-abled children to finish an obstacle course together as a team.The event in Karachi was attended by over a thousand people, including many leading celebrities.
But do feel-good gestures by people not living with a disability make a tangible difference in the lives of those living with one? In short, yes.
"Campaigns are a great medium to highlight the need for conversation around disability rights," says Alvi.
Alvi, who has been in the field for almost 12 years now, feels optimistic about initiatives such as the Both Buddy & Me race.
"We say this quite often in Pakistan that youth is the future of this country, which is why I think such initiatives are a great way to engage the youth," he says.
This content has been independently produced by the writer and Dawn.com. Blueband Pakistan has sponsored this content.