Posted by Peerzada Anjuman Tabasum, Anantnag, Kashmir
We are honoured to have Javed Ahmad Tak as our esteemed guest. Javed sahab has been awarded Padma Shri in 2020 for his inspiring social work in Kashmir. On behalf of Lockdown Voices, Anjuman Tabasum speaks to him on his life and lockdown experiences.
Lockdown Voices: What was the turning point in your life that led you to dedicate yourself to social work?
Javed Ahmad Tak: 23 years back, I was pursuing B.Sc degree in a local college at Anantnag, when my life took an ugly turn. My cousin was a politician and active member of National Conference. I was staying in their house, when some armed masked persons barged inside. They tried to kidnap him. Politicians were being threatened to leave political activities or bear the consequences. After heated arguments, one of the armed persons fired a bullet and it hit my spine. That led to a spinal cord injury. I am unable to walk and am bound to a wheelchair.
After one year, I was back home from hospital and living an idle life. My sadness wiped out the smile of my family. I then, offered children free tuitions. In few months, a huge number of children began visiting my home. I started a book bank where children could deposit old books and get books of new classes. I personally visited some schools and motivated the headmasters to collect used books. Thousands of students got benefitted. That was how I got into social work.
LV: Taking tuitions must have been fulfilling. How did you decide to start an NGO?
JT: The poor students still needed financial support. The group of young boys who helped me, wanted to collect some donations for this. I didn’t agree, as it was risky to accept donations without proper receipts. Then we came to a consensus to register as an NGO. Thus, Humanity Welfare Organization Helpline was formed in 2003. The process took more than two years, as police and other security agencies issued non- involvement certificates, only after the relationship of the each member was verified. In the meantime, we enhanced our activities and started giving computer trainings against a nominal charge of 100 rupees per month.
JT adds: Our NGO organised a small census in 6 villages of our educational block. This gave a bleak picture of children with disabilities. Children with mental disabilities were tied like animals. Those with blindness, hearing issues, speech disabilities dropped out of school, due to lack of appropriate teaching-learning material, special educators etc. Insensitivity towards special children was rampant. All these miseries motivated us to establish an inclusive school for children with mixed disabilities. Zaiba Aapa Institute of Inclusive Education, was setup in 2006 and registered in 2008.
LV: Over the years, you and your organisational team have faced various challenges including natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. How different is the situation during this pandemic?
JT: Kashmir has been a risky area since 1989 when the armed conflict started. It is always a challenge to work in Kashmir. Current pandemic is a huge threat to life for Kashmiris. The COVID-19 lockdown has stopped all educational activities and interventions for children in need of developmental and physical therapies. Earlier during risky situations, we used to visit the children in morning or evening hours. Use ambulance for visiting the houses of the identified children with disabilities. But we can’t do that now. The families restrain us from visiting their houses for intervention. Our staff also feels insecure. Outings for the school children, medical and sports camps, which were earlier organised, have come to a halt. Earlier parent-teacher meetings were routine and now such meetings cannot be organised. Children are missing their jolly time in school and are becoming aggressive.
LV: What were the initial steps you and your team took when the lockdown was announced?
JT: When the PM announced lockdown, we felt that after restrictions for 15 days, we will get relief from the problem. So we didn’t devise any long-term strategy. But when it was extended due to worsening pandemic, we started conference calls using Zoom and Google Meet. Finally we requested the parents to upgrade their phones with WhatsApp and video call facilities. We had meetings with district administration and offered our volunteers, our ambulance services and nutritional support. Our focus was on the low-income families having children with disabilities and families headed by persons with disabilities.
LV: Besides nutritional support, what were the other initiatives taken by your team?
JT: Our team mobilised resources for persons with high support needs like catheters, urine bags, diapers, disposable sheets and dressing material for managing pressure sores. Some children with mental illness and autism were not getting medicines and facing issues. They were given medicines. Around 15 wheelchairs, crutches and hearing aids were distributed among people having dire need of such appliances. We helped persons with disabilities who were stuck in different places, reach home. Sanitisers and masks were distributed among patients, doctors and children in Maternity and Child Healthcare hospital in Anantnag.
Awareness campaigns regarding masks, social distancing and personal hygiene were organised through Childline (operated by us). Presently, the same campaign is going on through posters and other IEC material distribution and our social media accounts.
LV: How difficult was it to reach out to persons with disabilities during the lockdown? Which parts of the state has your team been able to reach?
JT: It was not easy to reach persons with disabilities in far flung areas. We took up the matter with District Administration. Assistant Commissioner Revenue, Anantnag and District Social Welfare Officer, Anantnag, who are operating the district control room for COVID-19 control, gave us permission for four days. We used our ambulance for this purpose. Only three employees were allowed to roam around the area and reach the identified families. Our team went to district Anantnag, parts of district Kulgam and district Pulwama. Demand for help also came from other districts like Kupwara, Baramullah, Budgam, Srinagar etc. We supported these people through cash transfer to their bank accounts.
LV: Zaiba Aapa Institute of Inclusive Education has children with diverse disabilities. How are you keeping them (with different needs) engaged during the lockdown?
JT: We use technology and train parents to engage their children. As the pandemic resulted in human distancing, it created a kind of suspicion among all. The host and the visitor were both in threat of getting infected from one another. In most of the cases, one-on-one intervention was needed. But it was not possible. It took us time to start technology supported classes, online interactive sessions with parents, counselling of parents over phone calls. Now, children are engaged in routine activities of daily living. Earlier parents were not engaging them. It is a kind of blessing in disguise that parents are now sending photographs of their children performing – brushing, watching TV, playing with siblings, doing some outdoor activities, kitchen gardening etc.
LV: Therapies are essential and cannot be stopped for some children with special needs. How are you going about the home-based interventions and therapy programmes during the lockdown?
JT: Developmental therapies, sensory therapies, physiotherapies and occupational therapies need one-on-one intervention. Our staff visited some children and trained their parents to provide the therapies utilising local resources. In addition, videos of physiotherapies were sent to the parents through WhatsApp. In few cases, siblings and relatives are helping out the children. But overall intervention is not satisfactory. The children with mental and intellectual disabilities, who had improved in their behaviour and learning mode, have now come down in their performances. At times, internet closure, other times no response from parents, discourage the staff. But the mission will go on. It will never stop as long as we exist.
LV: What are the emerging challenges now, as again the lockdown has been extended?
JT: The greatest challenge is the maintenance of online intervention, sustenance of the staff members, motivation of children towards studies. The donations are drying up due to financial crunch. Reaching out to children and other actions plans have to be changed or halted due to restrictions on movements. Safety concerns of the staff, internet connectivity is the biggest challenge. It would have been effective to contact students, share videos with them but less speed of internet leads to wastage of time. We have designed volunteering in some villages and the volunteers help us to get connected to the children. They help them connect with virtual schooling activities.
LV: During lockdown, your financial needs would have increased. How did you manage?
JT: Our organisation has been funded by Azim Premji Philanthropic initiative for running school activities. We had some unutilised funds for awareness regarding disability rights, organising medical camps, commemorating World Disability Day and many other outdoor activities. This spare budget was completely utilised for the nutritional help among the families. A number of appeals were made through social media, TV advertisements. Donations collected thus, were utilised for the relief and support.
LV: And what is your vision for people with disabilities in Kashmir?
JT: My vision is to see all of the persons with disabilities living an independent life with dignity – with equal civil and political rights. Participation of persons with disabilities in every developmental process. They should not be underestimated as incapable, but should be recognised as productive citizens. Persons with disabilities should get reasonable accommodation in all fields so that they perform at the highest level. The important tool to empower them is education. Thus, every person with disability should get education in an inclusive approach.
LV: May your vision become a reality! Thank you Javed sahab for giving us a glimpse of the outstanding work your NGO is doing. We wish you and your team the very best in your endeavours. Please stay safe!
Thank you Zahoor Razvi, Peerzada Anjuman Tabasum, Sameer Mushtaq and Arouba Kabir for helping us with the story.
Featured image : Sameer Mushtaq
Story images : Sameer Mushtaq and Humanity Welfare Organization Helpline
Video courtesy : Sameer Mushtaq
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