Not long ago, I started to read about Turkish-born artist, Esref Armagan, the person I got to know about through an unrelated Google search, when an article about him caught my eye. Using colors, perspective, shadow, and light, Esref attracts many people and amazes even more. I was struck by his work with paints. He has an elusive capacity to create an astonishing art and that is sufficient to make him exceptional, if you took disability out of the equation. Esref Armagan is visually impaired since birth. He had no direct visual experience but is able to paint sky, birds, and ocean. You may wonder how did he learn about colors and draw his paintings as he has never been able to see around. Beyond his sight limitation, he possesses an exceptional intellect which is beyond comprehension.
On 29th June, 2019, I was scheduled to visit Binae welfare institute. The objective of this visit was to meet with Safira Bibi, an inspiring public speaker and a student of mass media, Safira is now utilizing her learning to enable others to find their way. “I’ve always been passionate about to work for the personal development especially of those who are visually impaired that is why I leaped the opportunity when I’d been called by Binae” She tells me during the course of our interview.
Safira has lost 95% of her sight due to degenerative eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) which affect the retina, cause vision loss as the light sensing cells of the retina gradually deteriorate. But it surely doesn’t contribute to her identity. One could possibly assume that she may not be able to conduct her daily life by herself and need a sighted person always, she may be incapable of reading or writing independently. But if you have a stereotypical assumption that she can never live a productive life, then that’s the wrong way to go about her. “I was the first blind student from Pakistan to attend the yearlong Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program in USA” she tells me. “From where I’d learned to accept myself the way I am and I committed myself to share what I’ve learned”
“I belong to Yasin valley of Gilgit Baltistan. I was born blind and was registered sight impaired when I was seven years old. Being legally blind I could not attend any regular school because back then, there were no such facilities available for children with special needs. My parents brought me to Karachi in 2005 for the purpose of getting medical treatment where I’d been diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) which is an incurable, hereditary eye disorder and that was the most difficult time of my life”
She felt discouraged, demotivated and shattered but despite having gone through the school of hard knocks, Safira started her schooling from Ida Rieu School for Blind and Deaf at the age of 11 “Which brought meaning to my life” She said. “Another door opened after my matriculation, when I’d been selected for youth exchange program in USA in 2012.” Safira was admitted to School for the blind & deaf, located in Kentucky, US and had to live with a host family there. “Language was the only hurdle I faced there, I knocked it down after two months of learning and practicing” She took part in different activities to learn about American society and help people learn about her country and culture. “While representing Pakistan I saw the light and realized why my parents named me Safira which means an ambassador” her eyes were glistening and a hopeful smile lighting her face. Safira came back from USA in 2013. After completing her intermediate from St. Patrick’s college, she joined University of Karachi and currently enrolled in an honours degree program in Mass communication.
How I Learned to Accept and Value Myself
Finding your feet socially never comes easy especially when there is a social belief that you can’t make the grade if you may lack a certain set of physical and mental attributes. This evokes a sense of self-doubt in one’s personality which contributes to a person’s lack of confidence which also caused by judgments which have usually been made about the person by the society. “The way I felt was extremely difficult to brush off, there was a point I couldn’t see how I could ever pick myself back up again” she said “During my days in USA, I’d been taught to find ways of growing and moving forward but to tell myself that I can do it was the most valuable lesson I’d learned from there.”
Other than the way people with special needs are accommodated in public places in the developed part of the world, there is a mindset towards including them into social and economic mainstream. Here, in our country, Inadvertence is apparent on state level as well as in public attitudes and all such people are accustomed to receive is indecipherable stigma and pity.
“I’d learned to accept and actually like who I am, they looked beyond my disability and gave me a chance to contribute what I have. I began to value myself and aimed to break down the stigma surrounding disability obstacles that is why I’d chosen to change the way currently people with blindness are marginalized in our society” she continued “Since last 6 years, I’ve been involved with different NGOs, managed different projects and conducted workshops for personal development especially for those who are vision impaired, to help them to find their own voice through the process of self-realization and self-worth”
My Walking Stick
Family or parents are the people we always look up to, and expect them to pick us back up again when we may not feel our best. Either vision impairment or any sort of disability not only affects the person living but it also left its mark on those around him/her. It’s natural to grieve and express your emotions for what you think disability takes away from your children but it is equally essential to focus on what your child can do rather than dwelling on what he/she can’t. It’s about encouraging his/her interests and talent, finding ways of making them accessible. There may be a lot more your child still be able to do. Some of your concerns are undeniable, but deprivation of liberty in the name of care is no answer.
“Parents have an important role to play. Especially being a girl child, my family had some fears of letting me do things independently but my mother played an incredibly important role to give me strength to move forward. Her unconditional support helped me to survive the most difficult of times. Even now when sometimes I feel demotivated by the challenges, she always stands beside me and say:
“Safira tum karskte ho, aur mujhy tum pe bharosa hai“
I’m More Than My Disability
Blindness is an obvious way that such people are different from most of others and any difference can create some challenges. But one of the things that cracks Safira up is when people don’t understand how much she can do and how much she wants to do for herself under the pretext that “she can’t”.
“I’ve seen a lot of people to struggle with just having confidence because they’ve frequently been told that the world is just too complex for a blind person to deal with. I’ve been frequently asked about how do I travel alone, or use my cell phone, how I am going through mainstream education, How I am doing my Job, and then I have to be confronted with unsolicited advises and assistance. In spite of my lack of sight, I am able to do most things just like everybody else. I can go to work, socialize and volunteer and many other people who are blind can do as well. Doing all our work on our own gives us a huge sense of relief, and that’s what make us feel comfortable and confident”
She winded it up with a message “Whenever you may come across with someone having vision impairment or may just want to help them, don’t just grab their arm and pull them along. That could be more disorientating and frightening for them. That actually prevent them from being independent. If you want to help, make them feel that they have all the skills and abilities it takes to live fully and independently in this world”
Vision Beyond Sight
Safira is challenging the societal notions about the limitations imposed by blindness and putting them to rest through her work by helping many people finding their independence. She has a firm belief that our vision is something beyond our sight.
“Your vision is your mind’s eye, which is something much bigger than your sight. With vision, even If you can’t see, there is hope, expectation and drive to achieve what you can see in your mind’s eye. Turning off the lights will make you unable to catch sight of anything around, no matter how much clear-sighted you are. Your vision then will help you to see the challenges and the solution that reside within you. Make your vision clear and look beyond your eyes to see the possibilities.”
With an exceptional vision, Safira is overcoming her sensory limitations, preparing others to learn to survive their life normal. Beyond her perception of present, she has a faith in future. Despite her impairment, she has a story that shines beyond her sight impairment.