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Sports as a lifeline for Kashmir's disabled population

October 02, 2022
tags:#Kashmir, #accessibility, #Persons with disabilities, #Mental health
by:Nusrat Sidiq
Over half a million people with disabilities live in Jammu and Kashmir. In the absence of adequate support mechanisms, some have turned to sports as an outlet.

Editor's note: this article contains references to mental health disorders and suicidal ideation. 

Insha Bashir, 28, tried to calm down a visually-impaired boy who was raising a ruckus in the corridor of a rehabilitation centre in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.

For over a year, Bashir has been working with the non-profit Voluntary Medicare Society to help people with disabilities in the region, providing them counselling and moral support.

In addition to working as a warden with the NGO, Bashir is also a basketball player and captain of the Jammu and Kashmir women’s wheelchair basketball team.

She shared that in Kashmir, wheelchair basketball is bringing hope to many disabled people: a chance to feel "more alive" and, above all, equal. 

Physical disabilities can trigger anxiety, depression

Bashir has been wheelchair-bound for nearly 12 years now after falling off the balcony at her home in Central Kashmir’s Budgam District.

The accident damaged her spinal cord and, despite having gone through multiple surgeries, she could never stand again.

"It was written in my fate, how could I have changed that?" Bashir said. She added that she is keen to excel in sports and offer support to those around her.

"I am happy that I choose to be equal," she said before expounding on the struggles she faced following her accident.

Being wheelchair-bound was incredibly traumatic for Bashir initially. Feeling like a "liability" to her parents - a sense that was reinforced in conversations about her disability - took a heavy emotional toll on her.

"After the accident happened, people started to talk about how I will live - I will be bedridden, a burden, who will want to marry me," Bashir said. "All these talks impacted me a lot."

"Slowly I was dragged to an extremely depressing state for six years," she went on, "and then I wanted to take my own life."

Her depression had forced Bashir to remain isolated. She didn’t talk much, had lost her appetite and grew physically weak. "It didn’t matter to me what was happening around me," she said. "I felt like my life was over."

Mental health experts in the region say that physical disabilities can often trigger anxiety and depression in people, which may then lead to suicidal thoughts.

This is particularly evident in cases where a person acquires a disability through an accident or some other incident at a later point in life.

"A person who becomes disabled by accident is more prone to mental health issues than a person who is by birth disabled, as he or she has developed more resilience," Dr Yasir Rather, a consulting psychiatrist at a mental health institute in Srinagar, told FairPlanet.

According to a study conducted by Kashmiri sociologist Dr Bashir Dabla, there are more than 600,000 people with disabilities living in Kashmir, with almost 50 percent of them having permanent disabilities.

Tacckling barriers 

Bashir said that since the outbreak of the pandemic, she's received many distressing calls from people with disabilities, particularly women, who found it hard to sustain themselves in the absence of family and societal support.

"I received a call from a [disabled] woman who told me she needs sanitary napkins and some food for her survival during the pandemic," she recalled. "It was heart-breaking and at the same relatable to me to understand how difficult it is for us to have accessibility."

In 2018, a petition was brought before a court in Kashmir to implement the rights of disabled persons to have accessibility in government buildings, schools and hospitals.

Although the court had passed a number of the stipulations, the situation on the ground remains the same.

Bashir rarely the rehabilitation centre. For her, to reach any destination requires crossing multiple barriers. Public transportation, including buses and auto rickshaws, are not accessible for her.

Like Bashir, people with disabilities across Kashmir face serious obstacles to participating in daily activities like going to work or shopping for groceries or attending school, a gathering with friends or cultural events. Even visiting a doctor is a struggle.

Dr Suhail Ahmad, a consulting physiotherapist at the Voluntary Medicare Society, confirmed in a conversation with FairPlanet that inaccessible buildings and public transportation vehicles in Kashmir impede independent navigation and the participation of people with disabilities in society.

"Sometimes, just reaching the rehabilitation centre requires these people to overcome different barriers which must be minimised for making their lives smooth," Dr Ahmad said.

A 2013 survey conducted by the Jammu and Kashmir Handicapped Association found that - at the time - there were 418,000 disabled people living in the region, and that more than 100,000 of them had sustained their disability due to the ongoing conflict.  

For decades, conflict-torn Kashmir constituted a source of contention between India and Pakistan, with both nations laying claim to it. The two countries have fought three wars over the Muslim-majority region since the partition of India in 1947.

Dr Bashir Lone, one of the administrators at the Voluntary Medicare Society, told FairPlanet that 20 to 30 percent of the disabled people they admit at the Rehab Centre - particularly those suffering from mental health disorders - end up there due to the conflict. 

Commenting on how what he believes needs to happen for circumstances to improve, he said: "We are trying a bit from our side, but the government also needs to play a reformative role in safeguarding the rights of disabled persons."

Finding hope in sports

In Bashir’s case, the chances of her being able to stand again are slim. But despite the angst she felt, she refused to give up and ultimately decided to seek help.

In 2017, she visited the Shafakat Rehabilitation Centre in Srinagar. Part of the Voluntary Medicare Society, the Centre was established in 1970 and dedicated to the care, treatment and rehabilitation of persons dealing with physical and mental disabilities.

There, Bashir received medical treatment as well as a pathway to a building a new life. 

"Coming to this place gave me hope and strength," she said, "it was here where I started to learn how to play basketball. It is also this place where I saw many people like me fighting for their survival." 

"Playing basketball somehow releases that anger and frustration in me," Bashir said, adding regrettably that there are many people out there who do not have the luxury of playing games or engaging in uplifting activities to heal their inner-trauma.

Bashir went on to represent India at the wheelchair basketball championship in the US March 2019. She also attended the Indian championship in Mohali Punjab that same year as captain of Jammu and Kashmir's women’s team.

The team reached the quarter-finals for the first time. For this, Bashir was declared Player of the Year in 2019.

Now, she wants to win gold at the Paralympics, but says it remains a "faraway dream" for her.

Dr Lone of the Voluntary Medicare Society said that for over five years they have been trying to reach government officials and pressure them to select athletes with disabilities from Kashmir for the Paralympics, but never got a response.

Since 2015, the non-profit has been running a dedicated sports club for persons with disabilities with the primary goal of ensuring their well-being.

Nuzhat Gull, Jammu and Kashmir's Sports Secretary, did not respond to FairPlanet's request for comments.

Image by MontyLov.

Article written by:
Nusrat Sidiq
Embed from Getty Images
It is estimated that more than 600,000 people with disabilities live in Kashmir today.
© Yawar Nazir
Embed from Getty Images
A 2013 survey found that more than 100,000 of Kashmir's then-418,000 disabled people had sustained their disability due to the ongoing conflict.  
© Yawar Nazir
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