Fight Against Disability Has Become Personal in Kashmir

Mohammed Haneef, a resident of Pattan area of district Baramulla in north Kashmir, has become a new hope for the specially-abled people of Kashmir.

Haneef lost his vision in 2007 due to a reason he does not wish to mention. Since then, the resilient man never looked back and strived to turn his disability into strength.

He worked as an electrician before joining Voluntary Medicare Society (VMS), an organisation working for the welfare of the disabled people of Kashmir.

Even after joining VMS, Haneef continued to repair electrical fittings and appliances in the office, setting up an example for the rest of the staff members.

When the pandemic lockdown held everyone captive inside their home, Haneef visited disabled people with an ambulance and driver. His critical visits helped his brethren to face the trying times that human race had witnessed in decades.

“Disability leads to depression and the pandemic lockdown deteriorated the already distressed mental state of disabled people of Kashmir,” he said. “As someone wearing those shoes, I tried to motivate those people through counseling and consoling conversations.”

Apart from his comforting visits, he spent 25 per cent of his salary on the needy. Recently, Haneef said, he helped a poor visually-challenged person to get a cornea transplant. The total cost of the operation was around Rs. 2.50 lakh. Out of which, Haneef got the assistance of Rs. 1.50 lakh from the VMS. He paid Rs. 50,000 from his own pocket.

“I’m just playing a small part in lighting peoples’ lives,” he said. “It’s not a big deal. That’s how a human being has to be—helpful and considerate.”

With the same human quality, Haneef lately came to the rescue of a handicapped couple. He boosted their morale as well as helped them monetarily. “Sometimes these people just need an act of kindness, like a consoling talk,” he said. “I’m happy I could counsel and comfort the couple.”

For his community welfare works and crisis-management, Haneef has become a “messiah” for the disabled people in Kashmir. As a familiar figure now, he gets distress calls and addresses them curtly. And to sustain his Samaritan cause, the society is now throwing its weight behind him.

This silent activism worked wonders during the pandemic that devastated the already fractured life in Kashmir. The restrictions imposed by the authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 had cast a spell of uncertainties around. While an ordinary person was struggling for some normalcy, it was the people with disabilities who were grappling with isolation and helplessness. Among them were the specially-abled children.

Though the speed of the internet was very slow in Kashmir back then, students were somehow trying to cope up with their studies. But, it was the children with visual and mental disabilities who were facing the brunt of the lockdown. “For such students,” said Bashir Lone of VMS, “only offline class was possible.”

During those virulent times, the VMS was arranging Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) kits for the educators who went to the homes of various special children for teaching. “Since attending the online classes was tough for those specially-abled children,” Lone said, “we had started home visits at various locations. Something, I believe, was better than nothing.”

The education centres for special children were not able to provide classes to all the students back then. The restrictions had forced those children to stay at home. The special educators of various organizations working for the cause of physically and mentally disabled children conducted online classes from time to time but the slow speed of internet marred the dedicated efforts put in by these teachers.

“The visually-impaired people needed timely medication and education and we provided door-to-door services to them,” Lone said.

On the risk of special educators getting infected with the virus, Lone said, “We were not sure how much these PPE kits would protect our educators but still we needed to pull it off in those special circumstances.”

According to Lone, behavioural changes were seen in the mentally-unstable students who were away from schools for quite a while. Prolonged stay at home had caused psychological disorders and bedsores to many disabled people. “Children had become more aggressive and if they didn’t get to talk to teachers for any longer, it might’ve gotten worse.”

At that point in time, Lone said, parents’ cooperation saved their day and efforts. “They were very encouraging and wanted their kids to learn.”

One such parent was Muzaffar Ahmed, the father of Khabib Muzaffar. Ahmed’s 12-year-old son was coming under severe depression because of being locked at home. “The three-month therapy he got at the special school helped a lot, but things had deteriorated again during pandemic,” he recalled.

Back then, many educators were reportedly harassed by the forces even after having the movement passes. “We had to request the office of the Deputy Commissioner to issue movement passes but those passes had a validity of only 2-3 days.”

However, in order to educate the specially-abled children, ambulances were being used to ferry the special educators from one place to another. “It helped our collective cause of educating specially-abled children during those challenging times,” Lone smiled.

Apart from education, the survival of the specially-abled community of Kashmir is equally crucial. This is where the likes of Lone are working quite unassumingly and effectively. The duo is working for the better wage-structure for their battered brethren.

“People with disability get a meager amount of Rs. 1000 as a disability pension,” Lone said. “This amount is not enough to end their miseries. They struggle to make ends meet.”

Working for the welfare of people with disabilities for many years now, Humanity Welfare Organisation Helpline is also

organisation based in southern Kashmir and is. The founder of the organization, Javed Ahmed Tak says, “We send audio material on Whatsapp to the children with visual impairment and our special educator go to the homes of mentally challenged children twice a week.” But, he continues, a majority of students are unable to get an education, since they live at far off locations.

“The visually challenged students are somehow still managing to study using the available technology, mentally unstable children are not finding it easy at all.”

Tak says that the children are becoming more attention-deficit day by day. He complains that maximum families of such children do not have android phones and the stigmas attached to COVID-19 are preventing their neighbours to give them their phones. Tak further says, “We are not allowed to enter red zones and police is also not cooperating. Even after having a pass, our special educators are beaten up.”

Visually ad mentally disabled children are not the only ones who are margenalised, people with physical disabilities are facing similar situations. Irfan Rasool Lone became wheel-chair ridden after getting injured in a car accident in 2008. Lone did not move out of home for four years. He says, “I started rehabilitation at VMS, and now I play basketball for disabled at the national level.” Lone came back came from Chandigarh during this Ramzan. He adds, “I came by bus and it was not accessible for persons with physical disablities. Lone left Chandigarh on May 08, 2020 and reached a quarantine centre in Baramulla on May 11, 2020. To Lone’s dismay, there were no ramps at the quarantine centre and the washrooms were also not accessible for physically disabled persons.”

Irfan Ahmed Mir, a national level visually challenged cricketer, was stuck in his hostel in Dehradun for many days. He argues, “If they can arrange the flights for students stranded abroad, then why could not they arrange flights for persons with physical disabilities. Mir argues that in Kashmir, there is no hope for visually impaired people.

Mir took a 40 hours journey from Jammu to Srinagar, which usually takes eight hours. Mir complains that while the convoys of security forces were allowed to pass, common people were forced to stop at multiple locations for hours. “Now because of COVID-19, everyone hesitates in touching visually challenged people to help them in crossing the roads. The government did not take any measures for them, he adds.”

A few days ago, Haneef helped a handicapped couple from Hajin sonawari village. The poverty had forced the couple to live with their children under a tin shed. Haneef says, “During summers, the tin shed gets very hot, and it is impossible to stay under that during the daytime.” Haneef conveyed about this situation to VMS, and along with the organization, he helped the couple to build a small house. To this also, Haneef contributed from his pocket.

Haneef was partially visually impaired since birth but lost his sight completely in 2007. The loss of vision did not become a hindrance in overcoming his weaknesses; rather he chose to show the world light through his eyes. “During this lockdown,” Haneef says, “I teach them to maintain themselves, using available technology.” Haneef also motivates visually challenged people to not to stop learning and writing using Braille script.” Haneef wants to open a training institute to teach electrical work to visually challenged people, but the paucity of funds forced him to withdraw hands. He says, “For this kind of investment, one needs a huge investment. I neither have land nor types of equipment to start this.”

“My sole objective is to help disabled people to fly shedding their disabilities,” concludes Haneef.

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