July fourth, 2009. A Saturday at ISNA in Washington D.C. on an Independence Day morn. But not just any Saturday at the ISNA bazaar in Washington D.C., where my family and I manning a booth for HelpHandicap Foundation, a non-profit organization enabling people with disabilities in India. It was a Saturday that would mean so much to my family and I, and, I think, also to various Muslims with disabilities who would attend it and go home with a spark of hope amongst them.
It was the day the first panel discussion on disability would take place in ISNA history. There would be four speakers, one of whom would be my father, Mr. Mohammed Yousuf. Also featured would be, a psychiatric doctor, Mona Amer, who had done research on the inclusion of Muslims with disabilities, the general topic of the panel, the distinguished Imam Zaid Shakir, and Mr. Mobin Tawakkul, who had written with my father a chapter in a book about the lives of people with disabilities, along with Ms. Isra Bhatty, who would be serve as the moderator in the discussion.
My brothers, my mother, and I were really excited about the discussion. After handing out brochures all of Friday, and having trouble getting to sleep out of over-excitement, we were up in a flash Saturday morning. My mother and father had given me camera-duty. At first I thought, â€œOh, what a snap this will be, only five-ten minutes here and there.â€ Later did my mother tell me that I had to videotape the entire discussion, which would last for two-hours plus, when I noticed that maybe my task would not be such a delicious piece of cake.
Well, my five- and nine-year-old brothers and I took our seats, three rows down from the stage. When asked why, I merely told the older of my brothers that though my hand may ache, I would not like to crane my neck. I turned on the camera before the panel started; in fact, I started it when I spotted my father talking to one of the speakers. Enjoying myself blissfully, I did not notice the time left on the camera before the memory was full.
The discussion startedâ€”finally! I thought. Of course, I couldnâ€™t wait to hear my father speak, as I am sure neither could my brothers nor my mother. The first speaker was Dr. Mona Amer, and I really liked the way she started off. She asked the audience why most of them had come to the discussion: because they, someone they know, or someone in their family has a disability, knew a speaker in the discussion, were interested in the topic, or had just heard about the discussion; or because they were interested in the topic or had heard about the discussion.
Though I am not an adult, I wanted to be a part of the panel, too, so I raised my hands for the first two reasons. As I had predicted (Iâ€™ve always understood human feelings, and this I could feel in the crowd), most hands were in the air for the first reason: because they themselves had a disability or knew someone with a disability. From that moment, I was hooked in the discussion as I watched it through the screen of the camera.
Halfway through the doctorâ€™s speech, my hand ached to be in another position. By this time I was so into the panel that I was only thinking, seeing, hearing the panel, and nothing else. Well, I did also notice my throbbing hand. For a second I thought, â€œWell, when you take pictures, you can turn the camera sideways and the pictures come out vertical.â€ Flipping the camera, I said to myself, â€œBy the way, the video looks better vertical.â€ So I kept on switching the camera every five minutes or so.
Imam Zaid Shakir started his speech then, and he, along with the doctor before him, really started emphasizing and I really started to think, not just listen. Why was I here? Was I a part of this? How could I, an ordinary preteen from the mid-north of America, work towards the â€œinclusion of disability in North Americaâ€, when I was only a child? What could I do to change my corner of the universe? Now wait a minuteâ€¦â€¦change the universe? Ha! That was long-term! How would I even begin to change the lives of those with disabilities? Moreover, what could I do? Could I, a single kid, amend the way the common society overlooks these people with disabilities???
I, an eleven-year-old, sat there amongst the couple hundred of people in Conference Room D in the Mount Vernon Place Convention Center, in Washington D.C., thinking.
Next, a video was to be played about the issue of including people with disabilities. I shut off the camera while watching, and I can tell you that though my brain was working, my face was totally frozen, struck by awe. In the movie, a part was entitled to the problems in the masjids in their local areas. One brother stated that yes; his masjidâ€™s bathroom was made into an accessible bathroom for wheelchair use, but had been turned into a storage area for janitor supplies and boxes! To myself, I think: why is this happening, happening that the masjidâ€™s handicap features are being changed?
It was like the video sent me flying. Thinking I began about everything in the video. How could I help? Donations? Articles? Words? Actions? HOW?!?! Answers I needed, not questions.
I turned the camera back on for my fatherâ€™s speech. The projector screen displayed the image of cupped hands holding rich brown soil in which was growing a s mall, two-leafed, lime-green plant, about the size of your average thumb.
My father explains that those with a disability in our community are like this plant. Tender, small, totally dependant. It needs sunlight, water, and air.
Now I completely understand what my father means. Those hidden in our communities need sunlightâ€”love and attention, waterâ€”knowledge to nourish them, and airâ€”friends, people around them.
Who can give them these three necessities of basic living? Who? Who is responsible for this amongst us?
We are the ones responsible. We can change the way Muslims with disabilities are excluded in their local masjid and our societies. We can try to include them in every way possible. Youâ€™re the one who can change your corner of the universe. You, yes, you!