Action, not words — J&K judokas shine at Deaflympics through 'bleak future' clouds
Not understood by most, a trio of deaf Jammu & Kashmir judo players have defied odds to shine on the world stage. Will this performance lead to an education system more suited to special children? Parents ask.
Little did Jammu and Kashmir's Bashir Ahmed Dar dream that there will come a day when his daughter, Rakshinda Mehak's future will be anything but bleak after she and her brother were born with complete hearing and speech impairments.
Yet flash forward the years and the 25-year-old Rakshinda served as a key participant from India in the judo team at the 24th Deaflympics, currently being held at Caxias do Sul and more importantly, was agonisingly close to winning a bronze medal from the event.
Bleak future because of a supposed drawback? Not anymore.
The feather-in-cap moment for Rakshinda and her family arrived when she finished a glorious fifth in her event, the Under-78kg category, losing the bronze medal match narrowly to Turkey's Yadigar Talahyan.
"None of them got any medals perhaps but they are still bringing back laurels and I am proud of my daughter," Bashir Ahmad Dar, father of Rakshinda, mentioned to The Bridge, still in disbelief to see this day come true.
However, this wasn't the first time Rakshinda had caused Bashir and the whole of Jammu and Kashmir's heads and hearts to swell with pride. In 2021, Rakshinda became a household name after winning the bronze at the World Deaf Judo Championship held at Paris Versailles, France.
Not only that, Rakshinda, a student of Indira Gandhi National Open University currently, has won at least 13 gold medals in judo competitions at the national and state levels already and had the honour of being named Best Judoka at the Deaf National Judo Championships in Lucknow in 2021.
If we are to delve deeper, Jammu and Kashmir's tryst with nurturing judo is not unknown and a quiet subculture of earnest and enthusiastic judokas have blossomed in the Valley through consistent efforts from the government.
Therefore, it was hardly a surprise to see that three - Rakshinda, Vishal Khajuria (Under-60kg), and Rakesh Singh (Under-66kg) out of the eight judokas who went from India for the Deaflympics hailed from the Northern state of Jammu and Kashmir.
In fact, they are all alumni of Jammu's School for Speech and Hearing Handicapped, which is run by the J&K Samaj Kalyan Kendra, a well-known NGO, where they learnt their first rungs of judo under Suraj Bhan Singh, the Senior Judo Coach of the J&K Sports Council.
Overcoming the odds
Even though Rakshinda was born in Kulgam, in South Kashmir, she and her family had to relocate over 190 kilometres away to Gujjar Nagar in Jammu where a special school existed, so that they could receive the right education.
"Shortly after they were born, we discovered that our daughter and son were unable to speak or listen, so we decided to shift to Jammu, where a special school for such children existed," Dar, who recently retired from the Education Department, explained.
Upon arriving in the summer capital of the state, Dar got them admitted to the Samaj Kalyan Kendra School near Shaheed-I-Chowk in Jammu.
At first, Bashir was sure that his children's future would be bleak. They hardly understood anything and comprehension was the biggest challenge they had to overcome as a family.
"Due to a lack of connection between them and us, I felt that nothing much could perhaps come out of them in the future," Dar confessed, quickly admitting that he didn't give up hope, however.
"We couldn't comprehend them, and they couldn't understand us. It became a little easier to converse with them after they learned to write," he recalled.
Similarly, judoka Vishal Khajuria, who hails from the Shahpur Brahmana area of Jammu also had similar troubles growing up. Vishal's mother, Babita spoke to The Bridge and mentioned, "It was very difficult to communicate with him initially as he wouldn't understand us," she said.
Meanwhile, for Rakshinda and her brother, the journey with judo was sparked at the Samaj Kalyan Kendra School where Vishal also began his training in 2013 and so far, has won 10 gold medals despite having an 80% hearing disability.
"Rakshinda was in seventh grade in 2012 when judo instructor Suraj Bhan approached us and said he would coach her; her fate changed when coach Suraj Bhan taught her judo," Dar gratefully, added.
"Principal of the Samaj Kalyan Kendra, Roshan Bhan, introduced the deaf students to the game of judo and gave logistical support to them and their coach which pushed our children into the sport and changed their lives," Dar mentioned.
With consistent efforts from Suraj Bhan Singh and the school over the years, the trio of Rakshinda, Vishal and Rakesh have become an inspiration to many specially-abled adolescents, proving that if one is strong enough, one can overcome numerous obstacles, including physical limitations, and transform adversity into advantage, turning fortune in their favour.
Having fathered two special kids, Dar has also realised that, "Nothing is impossible with devotion, discipline, and hard work. And nothing will seem to stand in your way of attaining your goals then," he stressed, jubilant on seeing her daughter and son do so well, despite the obstacles.
No less than a 'normal' person
All said and done, even though the trio of Rakshinda, Vishal and Rakesh are currently shining, it goes without saying that there is a lot required to be done to promote people with hearing and speaking disabilities in the state, and all across the country.
"Specially-abled children are gifted, they are active learners. They talk about everything, even discuss politics in their sign language. My son, who is also a national-level judoka, watches international news and told me about what's going on around the world and I was stunned," Dar mentioned, explaining his point.
Conveying to The Bridge that the government should take steps by arranging sign language teachers, building schools, and implementing a job policy for these children who are specially-abled, Bashir and Vishal's mother, Babita harped on similar points.
"I am conveying a message to all the parents of physically-challenged children, especially females, that we are no less than any other normal person. We need people to understand that these children are no less than normal children," Dar stressed.
The intervention of the government at this juncture, therefore, is crucial and one hopes that Rakshinda's fifth-place finish at the Deaflympics will act as a boost for them to take fresh initiatives and promote these athletes.
Dar mentioned, "The government should also develop institutes for providing training to the parents of specially-abled children, to understand their wards and make this already challenging aspect simpler."
As for sports, coaches who are aware of sign language and qualified for the job should be brought in so that the specially-abled children can gain confidence, despite their disability and not feel any lesser, both Dar and Sharma feel, having spent a major part of their lives watching their children go out there and compete at big events and make a mark.
With this performance at the Deaflympics by the Kashmir judokas, one hopes that a change is closer now and no parent has to think that their child will have a 'bleak future', just because of a disability.