For a group of deaf and mute sportspersons in Kashmir, the apathy from ‘normal’ people was routine. Practising their sport in isolation, they were reluctant to respond, and shy of their disability, until Arwa Imtiyaz came into their lives, and completely changed things.
There was always the feeling of being different; the inhibition and the frustration that comes with this, and the need like everybody else to be accepted and have friends.
And they felt defeated among people who are blessed with the power of speech and hearing. In Imtiyaz, they found a friend, a confidant to whom they could communicate their dreams and challenges.
“They share their problems with me, take me to their homes and ask me to talk to people there and make them understand what they feel or what they want to convey,” she says.
Imtiyaz, a resident of Nowgam, says she got the inspiration to assist deaf- mute people from her home as her mother and her uncle, Mohammad Saleem Wani, are hearing and speech impaired.
Though Imtiyaz has mastered the art of sign language, she is not professionally trained.
Imtiyaz’ uncle Wani has been running the Jammu and Kashmir Sports Association for the Deaf since the past 15 years. They have brought together deaf and mute sportspersons playing cricket, badminton, football, chess, skiing and volleyball among other sports.
It was he who initially introduced Imtiyaz to the players at the association six years ago and from there the journey began.
In 2018, she helped a group of hearing and speech impaired badminton players win medals in local tournaments which gave them new zeal and confidence. This brought her to the forefront.
Since then, players from the association have won medals in badminton, chess, volleyball, basketball, cricket, and skiing. Her uncle also won an award in Italy in December 2019 for assisting the players in skiing.
However, things were not smooth from the word go. The players initially found it hard to socialise even with each other. But with Imtiyaz, the association members began to understand their needs better. The coaching improved and the sportspersons were more comfortable to open up and even began to enjoy their times together.
Now, Imtiyaz meets them at the association during their weekly meetings and also at some of the events in which these players participate. She spends 4-5 hours a day whenever she meets them.
One of the constant challenges was that the association does not have full-time coaches as Wani can’t afford them. But this hasn’t deterred the players from honing their skills by watching coaching videos online, with some help from Wani. He also travels ahead of events to take care of all the organisational requirements.
The communications blockade in Jammu and Kashmir that lasted over five months also severely impacted these players as they used to talk or chat through messages on their mobile phones. “The blockade post August 5, 2019 sent these specially-abled persons into isolation as they depend heavily on technology for coaching and communication,” she says.
Choosing this way of life was not easy for Imtiyaz. In fact, her family comes from humble means. Her father is an auto rickshaw driver, mother is a housewife, elder brother is also an auto rickshaw driver and her youngest brother is a class V student. Yet, they support her fully in her endeavours.
She gets paid Rs 2,500 per month as a token amount for her services. But she is dedicated to her work and wants to work for humanity. “We have suffered economically a great deal as my father’s earning is as low as Rs 200 per day. When I am travelling for the job my uncle pays the bills. I always think that one day I will become successful and make them happy and will fulfill their every dream,” Imtiyaz says.
The parents of these sports people show complete gratitude for Imtiyaz and what she has brought to their children’s lives. One of the sportsperson’s mother, who did not wish to be identified, says, "Earlier all these kids used to be isolated. All they did was practice individually. They didn't even socialise with team mates and other association members. But since Arwa (Imtiyaz) joined them, we saw a drastic change in their approach towards the game and towards each other."
Imtiyaz also helped them get comfortable with technology. “Now, they all carry mobile phones and communicate with each other unlike before,” she says.
Imtiyaz believes the society lacks conviction in appreciating the struggles of the specially-abled. “People should come forward and break the shackles because the physically challenged people also deserve a normal life,” she says.
Her contribution has given these players an identity. “They are recognised everywhere and the government has also shown support for them. This has been possible because of Arwa,” Wani points out.
Someday, she dreams of starting her own institute for the speech and hearing impaired so that she can make a meaningful contribution. Till then, she is dedicated to her work with the association.
Musaib Mehraj, a freelance journalist from Kashmir, contributed to this story.
(Wasim Nabi is a Srinagar-based freelance multimedia journalist)