I have been a volunteer with Special Olympics for more than two years now. As a youth leader, I work closely with the athletes of Special Olympics to advocate for a more inclusive society in India and around the world. The life lessons I’ve learned in the course of this journey have been invaluable.
One of my greatest teachers is Shrey Kadian, an athlete with intellectual disabilities. Through Shrey, I’ve learned the importance of being patient and understanding. (I can wait in long Starbucks queues without getting restless now!) He’s taught me the value of hard work and perseverance.
I remember the first time Shrey and I had to conduct an orientation together for the new youth volunteers of Special Olympics Bharat. We were both really nervous. In the beginning, I couldn’t stop stammering, while Shrey struggled to speak English. As the session proceeded, we got more comfortable with each other.
For similar sessions after that, we would spend days rehearsing our talking points. Shrey helped me control my stage fear. Anxiety used to hit me hard when I had to stand in front of large audiences. Shrey said to me, “Simran, there is one thing you have and they don’t, and that is you are confident enough to at least stand in front of them and try.” That one statement from Shrey helped me a lot. We work as a team. Whenever I stutter, Shrey takes over and effortlessly starts explaining the concepts.
I have also helped him improve his English. I used to spend hours asking him to read sections from the local newspaper. In the beginning, he would take almost 30 minutes to read just a short paragraph but he never gave up. It took persistence, but the result has been more than worth it.
Today, Shrey speaks English fluently. He is an athlete leader who advocates for the rights of people with intellectual disabilities. He is an inspiration to all of us. He speaks confidently and excels at holding the attention of a crowd.
I remember a recent incident when we were conducting an orientation session with 200 students. We got back to the presentation soon after an ice-breaker and the crowd was distracted. As I was trying to get people to settle down and listen, Shrey came to me, took the microphone from my hands and with complete confidence and authority, he settled the entire room.
Shrey and I have both developed our leadership skills through Special Olympics, and we have become firm friends. He scolds me when I am late and congratulates me on my achievements. He is always there to console me when I’m at my lowest or argue with me when he disagrees with the way certain things are done. I feel so accomplished when I look back at our journey together.
Working with Shrey has helped me realize that true inclusion and growth occurs when we help each other develop. We should consider everyone’s point of view and not just our own.
When I decided to volunteer with Special Olympics almost three years ago, I never expected this journey to turn into a lifelong love affair. Special Olympics is like a one-way door. It gets embedded in your soul.
I have since been involved in organizing numerous orientations and events in India, including the National Youth Summit and a community event in India called Pratishtha, where thousands of people with and without intellectual disabilities gather to celebrate inclusion. But the most satisfying part has been witnessing the growth of youth and athletes into leaders for inclusion.
The future I see for people with intellectual disabilities is a simple one. I imagine them going to school, getting good training, staying healthy, getting good jobs, getting married and living their best life.
I will not stop working for the cause until I see people with intellectual disabilities working in different professional fields and being self-sufficient. I’m committed to transform this society into not just an integrated one, but an inclusive one.
This article first appeared in Human Race