Javed Abidi was to the disability movement what Mahatma Gandhi was to the Indian freedom struggle and Virat Kohli is to the Indian cricket team.
Javed Abidi. Credit: Facebook/Javed Abidi
It was the early 1990s. I had just started getting involved with the disability sector. In the course of visits to schools for the blind across the country, I had been shocked to see how blind young people with lesser visual disabilities than me were literally struggling with their lives. Then, seeing a group of blind children play cricket with great skill and passion at the National Institute for the Visually Handicapped (NIVH) in Dehradun gave me the idea to promote cricket for the blind – not only as a vehicle to build ability but also as a platform to project it. In fact, I was intent on promoting the sport as an event to be sponsored, since I believed sponsorship recognised ability while charity was a response to disability.
After organising three national tournaments, I had announced my plans for a World Cup, and was looking for funding support. The late Lal Adwani, one of the early stalwarts to work in the field of disability – he was responsible for setting up the NIVH – advised me to meet Javed Abidi, who was then working with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.
I still have a vivid memory of my first meeting with Javed at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, in Delhi. He had a youthful personality and was warm and welcoming. As I shared my ideas and plans with him, I could sense the excitement in his response. Javed agreed with me that the focus had to be on ability if people with disability were to make it to the mainstream. Though nothing concrete came out of the meeting at the time, despite Javed’s best efforts, it was the beginning of an interesting association. To discover a person with a similar mindset and thinking was the biggest gain for me.
Javed was a man on a mission – to have society and the state acknowledge the disabled as bonafide citizens. When he spoke of rights and equal opportunities, his views resonated not only with me but also with people with disability across the country. He reached out to all disability groups, believing in the strength of a united front. Simple as the idea may sound, it was anything but, for the disability groups were operating in silos at the time. The visually impaired people were perhaps the best organised and had done some campaigns on their own.
It was at that juncture that Javed launched the Disabled Rights Group as a cross-disability platform. This bore immediate results as people with diverse disabilities, NGOs as well as the government, responded positively. I can still feel the energy of that time – each day brought forth new hope, fresh thinking and with it a new action plan. The paradigm had changed. The conversation shifted from charity to self-determination. This was perhaps the first time that there was talk of people with disability as a ‘sector’. Javed was a man on the move and wanted to shake up ossified patterns of thinking, and policy. Some even felt that he was a man in a hurry, such was his passion.
He was a great communicator, organiser and a highly skilled advocate. I had the privilege of working closely with him on several campaigns, particularly in the early days. A man of action, he did not simply believe in talking about issues, he wanted to bring about change. I was part of numerous press conferences, candle light vigils and dharnas that Javed organised to get the attention of the authorities. He was articulate, forthright and extremely focused. He brought in a kind of professionalism to the movement. All his campaigns were well-researched, planned and organised. While there were a large number of people who bought into his ideas, there were many who dropped out too. Javed was a straight talking man and did not tolerate any kind of inefficiency or sluggishness. Just as he had a punishing schedule, he expected those around him to be equally active too.
What Javed brought to the disability sector was dynamic leadership, a definite direction and a momentum that had hitherto been missing. He had become the go-to person for disability for all concerned. Until he stepped in with his perspective of advocacy, the sector had been mainly engaged with the idea of providing services, such as establishing schools and vocational training centres. His efforts have resulted in securing a voice for people with disability, whether with the government or in the media. He succeeded in shifting the disability discourse from charity to rights. In fact, moving forward I do not see anyone in the horizon who could replace him in leadership.
Javed’s untimely death is a huge shock and setback for the disability movement in India. His vision and his ability to make things happen will be missed. I personally believe that Javed was to the disability movement what Mahatma Gandhi was to the Indian freedom movement and Virat Kohli is to the Indian cricket team. He was a high impact campaigner. He truly was a game changer.
George Abraham is a communicator, motivational speaker and a disability activist. A pioneer of blind cricket and project Eyeway, a one-stop knowledge resource for living life with blindness, he is the CEO of Score Foundation based in New Delhi.