Story of a deaf youth’s quest for leadership
Since its inception, Slum Soccer has worked with missionary zeal to encourage, educate and empower underprivileged children, without any discrimination whatsoever, to reach their fullest potential and inculcate leadership skills in them using the glorious game of football as a teaching tool. Taking our mission forward, we decided to turn deaf accessible and include deaf children and young persons (CYP) in our activities. Towards this, we designed and delivered a unique and innovative program ‘DeafKidzGoal’ in partnership with DeafKidz International, (www.deafkidzinternational.org) of United Kingdom and with the support of Comic Relief (www.comicrelief.com). Under the program, football skills and football-games-based life skills lessons are being delivered to deaf children and young persons (CYP) of Nagpur in Indian Sign Language (ISL).
With our courage of conviction that all CYP, including persons with disabilities (PWD), have their unique traits and capabilities, we encourage, educate and empower them to reach their fullest potential. Towards this, we organized a Youth Leadership Training Program (YLTP) for building character and confidence of the deaf youth and to imbue in them positive leadership skills and traits like interpersonal and communication skills, discipline, teamwork etc. so that they can also serve as ambassadors to promote sports amongst deaf children.
This is the story of our protagonist, Vijaydas Dasariya, a 20 year old, who was one of the beneficiaries of the YLTP and has since been applying his learning from the program to inspire, encourage and motivate deaf children in his community to play football and strengthen their mental and physical wellbeing to face the emerging new normal post-COVID19.
Vijaydas hails from Kelwad, a remote town 50 km from Nagpur city. Both his parents have not attended school beyond 7th Standard. His father, who is the only earning member in the family, is a daily wage worker earning about 4 USD on days he gets work. This isn’t enough to provide 2 square meals to his wife and 3 grown up children (Vijaydas has 2 elder brothers, both deaf too). It was unfortunate for Vijaydas’s parents, a hearing couple, to have all their three children born deaf that too in a place where people are totally ignorant about parenting and nurturing deaf children. Moreover, no one in the village had any idea of Indian Sign Language (ISL).Born in such circumstances, it was almost certain that the 3 children would have been forced into child labor (instead of receiving education) so that their earnings would help the family to eke out a survival. But then every dark cloud has a silver lining. The fact that their children were deaf, forced Vijaydas’s parents to send them away to a Government-run Deaf School. This proved to be a boon because it is here that the three brothers learnt sign language and got an education. More importantly, they learnt to communicate well amongst themselves and developed close bonds as siblings.
Vijaydas joined as participant of the DeafKidz Goal! program on coming to know about Slum Soccer’s community football sessions for deaf CYP in October 2020 after the relaxation of lockdown restrictions. Vijaydas used to travel over 10 km by public transport to attend the DeafKidz Goal! football sessions at Savner. Many times, on not getting public transport, he would bicycle his way down in scorching sun or pelting rain. Noticing his active participation as well as his dedication and determination to learn and progress, Slum Soccer coaches selected him to undergo the YLTP held in Slum Soccer Academy at Bokhara, Nagpur in August, 2021.
Vijaydas was amongst 19 deaf youth who underwent the leadership training course specially designed for them and delivered in sign language. During the training not only did he impress everyone with his enthusiastic participation in all activities and his eagerness to understand various leadership concepts that were taught, but he also encouraged and supported his colleagues to participate whole heartedly and benefit from the training. He was invariably the first to seek clarifications and answer questions; he would willingly assist the coach or faculty in handling props and equipments; he would volunteer to lead in group activities. By the end of the training it was clearly evident from the zeal and confidence demonstrated by Vijaydas that we were witnessing the emergence of a youth leader who was ready and determined to lead and guide deaf children in his community at the end of the training. What we did not anticipate was the speed at which he would apply his skills in his personal life and among the deaf CYP of his community.
On returning home, he first exhorted his brothers to join DeafKidzGoal! Sessions. He convinced them the benefits from attending the session far outweighed the time and effort of ardous to and fro travel. He then went on to rope in other deaf children from his community to participate in the football events and activities.
The delight and pride of Shyam Raghuvanshi, Slum Soccer’s deaf coach in charge of Savner community sessions knows no bounds as he narrates (he signs, actually) the reason behind it, “When we started Savner sessions, there were times I had to go to the participants’ homes and call them for the sessions. At times I had to wait for as much as 30 minutes for them. On couple of occasions I had to even return without delivering the session. Ever since Vijaydas has returned from YLTP there is a sea change in him. On advice of Slum Soccer team I asked the participants to volunteer to assist me with the session. Vijaydas came forward and others agreed. There couldn’t have been a better choice than Vijaydas. Within a month I started to see changes in the participants. I wondered what had happened to them and how they had become more responsible? On enquiring from them I came to know that Vijaydas rounds them up and keeps reminding them well before the scheduled time to reach the venue punctually. He is the one who brings the kit bag and does all the preparation for the sessions. He also shares my load of maintaining communication with parents for keeping them informed of various activities and developments. ”
When we approached Vijaydas to know his perspective for the story he was a bit overwhelmed at the attention and importance. He told us that he wanted to pursue sports but his parents did not permit it partially because of their financial constrains and partially because they thought he was incapable due to his disability. Vijaydas has tears of happiness in his eyes when he tells us, “But for DeafKidzGoal I would have wasted my youth. Attending DKG sessions helped me immensely to recover from the trauma of isolation and uncertainty and engage in meaningful pursuits for improving my physical and emotional well-being. It gave me a new hope and a reason to look forward to the future. YLTP boosted my confidence and developed my self-worth. I realized that I have it in me to inspire and motivate many who, like my earlier avtar, had lost hope and lacked confidence to do something productive in life. Above all, I am thrilled that after being equipped with knowledge and skills of leadership, I have got a new identity. The word ‘LEADER’ is emblazoned on my jersey. With my new role as a leader in DKG sessions my sign name has changed to ‘LEADER’ and all my friends and colleagues refer to me by that sign name. The best part is that even my parents have started signing ‘LEADER’ when they want to draw my attention.”
When asked his plans for the future, he replied with gravitas belying his young age, “I want to prove to the society to vest faith in our abilities and give us opportunities to learn and prove ourselves worthy. I would also like to continue encouraging more deaf children to adopt an active life, help them break the barrier of disability and bring new perspective in their parents mind.” That is when we realized that we have created a worthy ambassador and a role model for the deaf who will inspire them to lead an active, healthy and meaningful life for shaping a better tomorrow for themselves. We wish him Godspeed in his life journey.
Our take: Vijaydas’s story has reaffirmed that though communication is an essential characteristic of a good leader, it should not be confused with ‘inability to hear’. It is high time mainstream society draws a distinction between disability and inability. Based on our experience of conducting YLTP, we can say with certitude that not only can deaf communicate and express themselves clearly; they can match or even surpass their ‘hearing’ counterparts in other leadership characteristics like integrity, delegation, gratitude, courage, empathy etc. Like Vijaydas, there are thousands of deaf youth whose capabilities are lying dormant; lying untapped. It is high time society realizes this and takes urgent steps to integrate the deaf into the mainstream.