At first glance, Javed Tak would seem like a man with a disability, a man who has resigned himself to a life of pity and regrets. Arshid Dar reports on how this man refused to settle for societal labels, and created a life for himself, inspiring others in the process.
The scars of a wounded Kashmir run deep. Two decades of conflict in Kashmir have deeply affected the lives of people, their health, economic status, access to education and work. Such adversity often brings out the best or the worst in people. Javed Ahmed Tak, however, turned his adversity into ambition.
On the intervening night of 21 and 22 March 1997, Tak, 21, was injured and maimed in a shootout by unidentified gunmen in his relative’s home. “Bullets pierced through his spinal cord, liver, kidney, pancreas, spleen and intestines,” says his brother. “His right kidney, spleen, part of his liver and intestines were removed.” The spine surgery he underwent did not change much, and he was left paraplegic and bed-ridden for over three years.
After a period of severe depression, Tak started free tuitions for poor children in addition to pursuing his own studies. “He kept himself busy tutoring children of his locality for hours,” says his father. “That helped him overcome his depression and trauma to some extent.”
Tak enjoyed teaching and wanted to pursue it further. He enrolled for two distance education certificate courses through Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU)—Human Rights and Computing. As he gradually gained more confidence, Tak began working for the rights of the physically and mentally challenged.
“For the poor and disabled in my locality, life is quite difficult and miserable,” says Tak. “Disabled people mostly depend on social security. There are no provisions for them to be gainfully employed and live with dignity. So, I decided to make a living on my own.”
Tak studied Social Work at Kashmir University. While he was a student there, his struggles compelled university authorities to place ramps at the entrance of seven buildings—including hostels, the administrative block and the examination block. “Javed has that enthusiasm and positive energy that usually people born with disabilities lack—because of the societal stigma that they have to carry with them all their lives,” says Shaheel Mohammad, Coordinator for the Special Cell for Physically Challenged at the University of Kashmir, and Tak’s friend.
When Tak completed his degree in Social Work, he began working for welfare and rights of disabled people. In addition to seeking support from community leaders, Tak filed public interest litigations in J&K High Court. The PIL led to the government services recruitment board to implement reservations for the physically challenged. “We wish we could get our due so that we could prove ourselves as real contributors in the development of our state. But there are constant obstacles in the road towards our empowerment, and that is hampering the integration of disabled people into mainstream society,” Tak explains. “Even for a 4th class appointment, the basic criterion is Matric pass—regardless of if one is normal or disabled. How can we expect empowerment in such a situation,” Tak complains.
Tak established “HELPLINE-Humanity Welfare Organization,” a center for people with special needs, including those affected by militancy in 2003. His persistent efforts and struggles made it possible for him to create the organization, with the help of the students he would tutor for free. Despite having no background in such affairs, they came together with the common desire to serve poor children. They started collecting used books, uniforms, and stationery. Finally, the group worked for disability issues, as their mentor—Tak—was disabled.
“The amount he received as ex-gratia relief against his disability was spent on the first activities of the organization. Today, the group is registered under the Registrar of Societies in Srinagar,” says SajadTak, project holder and Javed’s brother. “We advocate the rights of the vulnerable and marginalized sections of society. So far, we have succeeded in filing a PIL in the J&K High Court, which resulted in formulating the policy for physically challenged, and provision of 3 percent reservations in employment and education. Scholarships for academic and professional courses were all included in the policy. We organize workshops on child rights, disability rights and women empowerment,” he adds.
What started as the only organization in Jammu and Kashmir catering to people with special needs has blossomed into an umbrella organization supporting several causes.
Among the first missions of the Humanity Welfare Organization was running a computer center for the poor, physically challenged and orphaned individuals for Rs.100, and free of cost for those below the poverty line and those orphaned due to militancy. “We started with a single computer, and today we operate a complete lab with 14 computers and certifications from DOACC and NCPUL,” says AadilVaid, project coordinator for the cell.
Additionally, the HWO operates Samanbal, a women’s center in Anantnag, in collaboration with WISCOMP. Samanbal provides education and computer literacy to girls from families that live below the poverty line and empowers them to face life’s challenges.
With all the optimism Javed could muster, he carried on, but life was never easy. In 2006, he started raising funds for the rehabilitation of disabled people. He received around Rs. 17000 in the first years, which later grew to Rs. 1.5 lakh a year. Tak established a special school called the ZaibaAapa Institute of Inclusive Education, in 2007. All expenses came from his ex-gratia relief. The school is the first of its kind in the rural areas, where 40 disabled children from this area are provided education completely free of cost. “We have a vision of making it an inclusive school, where everyone can benefit,” says Tak.
Today the school’s education system includes the Braille system of education and vocational training. “The school was first started with only visually impaired children, and later on children suffering from hearing impairments, orthopaedic impairments and mental retardation were added,” says Musarat Andrabi, principal of the special school.
“All of this started in 1997, when Saima, a girl with a partial vision, dropped out of a school. After rapidly losing her vision, her parents gave up on her education,” says Feroze Bhat, rehabilitation therapist and Braille expert at the school. But now, Saima, who studies in 5th standard, says she enjoys her studies. “Now I can teach others Braille,” she says proudly.
Three buildings make up the school in this small town. A few changes like constructing ramps have been made for the benefit of differently-abled children. “We are fully supported by public donations. We are paying an annual rent of over one lakh rupees, fuel expenses of about one and a half lakh, and salary for the staff from the collections,” says Sajad Tak. “When the school started gaining popularity, a Delhi-based NGO called CRY (Child Relief and You) helped them with Rs. 7 lakh every year. This accounts for the salary of the project and other expenses for events that we hold,” he added.
“We run classes and even take care of the special needs of these children,” says the school principal. “We have engaged physiotherapists, rehabilitation therapists, vocational trainers, sign language and Braille experts for the school. We also take the services of a computer instructor, music instructor and other part-time faculties.”
“The specially-needed equipment for this type of school includes simulation physio balls, sprints and weight cuffs,” says SaimaNarchor, a physiotherapist at the school.
“Currently, we are providing transport facilities to the kids so we can pick them up and drop them home from school, as most parents are not willing to invest in a child who is differently-abled,” says FerozeBhat. “We have vans donated by the Indian Navy and the Jammu and Kashmir Police for this purpose.”
The Governor of the State presented Helen Keller Awards-2011 to a hearing-impaired student, Irtiza Nisar, for excelling in academics, and to a special instructor of the Institute, Feroz Ahmad Bhat, for his outstanding contribution in imparting Braille education to the physically challenged children. The Governor also presented a cheque of one lakh rupees to the Zaiba Appa Institute of Inclusive Education towards the education of the physically challenged children.