Saqib was sitting quietly on a bench, watching his peers play during the lunch break. His heart ached as he watched them enjoy playing with freedom. Only he knew how much he wanted to join them. He felt so helpless; he couldn’t run as fast as others. His thoughts went back to the time when he expressed his wish to join them, and someone had answered: “You would slow down all of us”.

Then he remembered an advertisement he had recently viewed on TV where a mother watched her son in wonder when she noticed him doing things using only his one hand and then his friends playing ball with just one hand. A minute later she understood the reason when she saw them call over their friend, who unfortunately had only one arm, to join them.

Saqib wished he had such considerate friends. When he reached home later in the day, he was quite upset and went to his room even without having his lunch. His mother always used to comfort him and lift his spirits. She often told him that he shouldn’t lose heart and focus on his strengths; she told him if a person has one weakness, or what is commonly called disability, it does not mean that he/she cannot do anything in the world.

If one has some disability, God grants him/her some other talent or ability that is better than that of most people. She gave him examples of great people, such as Tamerlane (you must all have heard about Taimur Ling or Amir Timur who founded the Timurid Empire), who, despite his physical shortcomings, achieved a lot.

Saqib was a very bright student and usually stood first or second in his class. But since one of his legs was a bit short by birth, he hobbled rather than walked, and running was almost impossible. And for this reason, he was not only not included in most sports, but often ridiculed. Only he knew how much he wanted to run around with his friends, but he was helpless and no one seemed to care.

One day his teacher, Sir Ahmed, saw a couple of boys teasing Saqib as he slowly made his way to the class after the break. When Sir Ahmed came to the class after the break, he did not start the lecture right away but decided to have a talk with the students. He told them that just as we all do not look alike and have different facial features, and hair and eye colour, similarly all people are not born with the same abilities. Some students are more intelligent than others and some are more physically active and smart.

While we may have different abilities, we should not belittle anyone for any shortcoming or limitation he/she may have. If a person has a problem walking the same way as others do, he may be more artistic, may have a talent for music or be a maths genius. In the same way, if someone has a dark complexion, it is not right to call him any demeaning names that may hurt him. Similarly, if someone is impaired in any way or has a special health condition, we should not consider them as incapable in any way. They have limitations and impairments, but they are not worthless or useless. If they are encouraged and provided the right environment, they can do wonders and lead a successful life.

The same happened with Saqib. His teachers realised that he was good in mind games and had a good memory; whatever he read or was told once, he remembered that. They encouraged him to start participating in scrabble, chess and quiz competitions. With encouragement from teachers, he soon became proficient in these and soon he was winning laurels for himself and his school, and became the school’s star pupil.

When his peers saw his achievements, they realised how wrong they were to make fun of one minor weakness of this intelligent boy, who was making the school famous in so many ways.

They realised that some people have limitations and are differently abled, but they are not less than others. What they need is encouragement and channelising their strengths. The problem is that we, as a society, do not try to integrate with them and include them in our own activities. Rather, we tend to sideline them without giving them the chance to utilise their true potential. When given a chance, the differently abled persons have proven their mettle in all spheres of life.

You must have heard of the Special Olympics; these games are especially meant for people who are physically or mentally challenged or so to say differently abled, but when trained, they can play and compete against their counterparts.

While we can immediately notice that someone walks in a different way or had difficulty using his hands, some problems are not so limiting that it makes them unable to function well in most situations. And we will not get to know what all they are capable of until we interact with them.

For instance, a new student enrols in your class who apparently is healthy and fit. In a few days, you would notice that he is not as smart as other students and has problem understanding and following the teacher, or stutters, or is not writing correctly (he/she may be misspelling words or may not able to distinguish between letters, say ‘b’ and ‘d’). These are usually slow learners or autistic kids, who find it difficult to move at the normal pace but, if encouraged and special attention is given to them, they often improve and manage to learn basic skills like others. But if they are made fun of, their performance deteriorates.

It is estimated that there are about one billion people worldwide who have some form of physical or mental disability. They face problems in inclusion in many aspects of life, mostly because of our attitude and mindset. As a result, they are unable to avail many opportunities in life. For instance, most of our buildings do not have ramps at the entrance or lifts to go to upper floors, which makes it difficult for a person using the wheelchair to enter the building or work in an office that is not situated on the ground floor.

If your school has classes on more than the ground floor (which usually is the case) you can start a campaign to ask the school management to install a lift so that a student who has problem in walking is able to access his class easily. Think it like this: you hurt or sprain your ankle and the doctor asks you not to climb the stairs for a few days, you will have to miss school just because you cannot reach your classroom although you are fit to study.

It is generally thought that anyone with a disability is at a disadvantage, but it is not always true; all people with disabilities are not disadvantaged. Their success and quality of life depends on their living environment and the opportunities they get in terms of education, health and employment.

One way to make differently-abled people feel comfortable is to not point out their disability. Rather it is considered more appropriate not to call them disabled or handicapped, but say ‘people with disabilities’ or ‘people who are differently abled’ or ‘physically challenged’. It is being encouraged that we do not call someone who uses the wheelchair as being wheelchair-bound, rather we should say the person who uses the wheelchair.

Likewise, someone who cannot see or hear should be called a person with hearing impairment or visually challenged person. Similarly, someone who is not mentally sound should not be called mentally retarded/handicapped, but mentally challenged. It not only sounds better, less degrading and more humane, but the person with the impairment also feels good.

No one is perfect. Each one of us has unique abilities and talents, and just because any one of us is different does not mean they cannot fit in with the rest of us. We should embrace each other’s uniqueness and foster an environment where all have the same opportunities to live life to the fullest.

Published in Dawn, Young World, November 28th, 2020

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