The Lockdown ensuing Covid-19 pandemic had discontinued our on-field engagement with children and youth which had a disproportionately large adverse impact on their mental well-being. There was no dearth of research and reports on the ill effects of the heightened sense of isolation, loneliness, and lack of purpose in life of adolescents caused due to lockdown. The situation was much more alarming when it came to the deaf participants of Slum Soccer’s DeakKidzGoal project. Since the inception of the program, the sessions had become a preferred coping mechanism and a cathartic experience for its beneficiaries. Suddenly, everything had ground to a halt.
It was, therefore, imperative to address the challenges and constraints brought about by the COVID-19 lockdown in order to safeguard the physical and mental well-being of deaf children and young people. Rather than waiting for schools to reopen to resume our engagement with them, Slum Soccer’s DeafKidzGoal Team reached out far and deep into various communities in Nagpur and started to engage the deaf youth and children through educational football activities in playgrounds close to the communities while maintaining COVID safeguards.
After about 3 months of activities, Slum Soccer organized a football tournament on December 17, 2020, where 29 deaf youth and children (aged between 13-20 years) hailing from about 8 communities gathered to play their first-ever football tournament amongst themselves, network with their peers and also experience what it feels like to play with the hearing counterparts.
During lunchtime that day, one tall solitary figure remained on the ground trying out kicks and headers with the football. When she would get tired, she would just cradle the football, stand smiling under the sweltering sun, wipe her brow with her sleeve and, having got her breath back, continue playing. For her, football took precedence over lunch. That’s when we decided to get better acquainted with Tayyaba Ansari, a 17-year-old, and know a bit more about her life.
Born in a staunchly patriarchal, misogynistic, and conservative community where the role of women is restricted to reproduction and household work, Tayyaba is one amongst 6 daughters and a son of uneducated parents staying in the slums that dot the fringes of Reshimbagh, Nagpur. In her socio-economic setup, poor education, early/child/ forced marriages, marital violence, lack of awareness of reproductive health and menstrual and hygiene are par for course for girls. Not to speak of sports being considered taboo because it is considered unsafe and a corrupting influence. To make her cup of misery run over, she was born profoundly deaf. How unfair life is when your own parents and family members make no effort to communicate with you using signs you understand? The only silver lining in her world of darkness and gloom was when a good Samaritan got her admitted to a local deaf school. She is now studying at 11th Standard.
When we commenced our football sessions in Reshimbagh community of Nagpur we came across Tayyaba, a forlorn, isolated, and utterly devastated girl. The ill effects of lockdown had worked havoc on her physical and mental health and had rendered her more vulnerable than ever before. While other participants were boys, she was the only girl who came to play. For the first few days, her enthusiasm for playing amazed the Slum Soccer coaches. However, it later transpired that when the news of her playing reached her parents, given their conservative background and gender unequal society, they immediately put a stop to it. Knowing her eagerness to participate, Slum Soccer coaches counseled her parents over multiple visits. Her determination and ambition to participate in physical sports were unshakeable. After much cajoling, convincing, and counseling by Slum Soccer coaches and seeing her persistence, she got her family’s permission to play. Tayyaba was now well set to create new pathways of gender equality and inclusion for herself and her deaf peers.
It was during one of the visits to Tayyaba’s place that Slum Soccer coaches were shocked to learn that there was practically very little communication taking place between Tayyaba and her family. On inquiry, Tayyaba’s father admitted “ I have 2 girls who are profoundly deaf and Tayyaba is the younger of the two. The elder one is married and has a child. Since none of our family members have any knowledge and awareness about deaf’s language (Indian Sign Language), we have often avoided talking to Tayyaba.” Having come to know of this, the Slum Soccer’s DeafKidzGoal team of deaf coaches, shadow coaches, and ISL interpreter decided to take it upon themselves to establish essential communication bonds between Tayyaba and her family.
Since Tayyaba started participation in DeafKidzGoal sessions there has been a paradigm change in the way the family has started bonding and communicating. Her father seems to have discovered his sense of humor when he says, tongue firmly in cheek “ I never imagined my daughter would take me to task by complaining to her coaches Chhaya and Shiba about my not communicating with her sufficiently and for ignoring her needs. Now, she is also interested to know how we make ends meet.”
The family is overwhelmed by the transformation they are witnessing in Tayyaba’s personality and confidence. Her father seems to have rediscovered a long-lost daughter and cannot stop sharing further details like an excited kid with a new toy, “Her DeafKidzGoal sessions start at 7 am but every day she wakes me at 6:00 am and asks to drop her to ground (we take that as his mocking counter-complaint). Ever since she has started attending football sessions she has become more active, engaged, and focused in her life. She even demands that her mother explain household work to her so that she can assist her. Every day, on her return from the session, she gathers everyone and shares her learning with us. She has also warned me to quit tobacco addiction. I am now scared to chew tobacco in front of her. “
December 17th, 2020 will remain etched in her memory forever. As her vehicle entered the Slum Soccer Academy gates, the shades of green hues of the turf and trees took her breath away. She was at ease as she competed in her first-ever football tournament on the Slum Soccer’s Diversity pitch. Then came the opportunity to play against hearing counterparts. It was something that she had been dreaming of since the day she joined the DeafKidzGoal program. For her, it was a means to integrating with the mainstream society and establishes her individuality in an equal and inclusive society meant for all irrespective of their ability or gender.
Initially, when she was called in to play with hearing players (most of her opponents were Shakti Girls program participants of her age group who are sensitized to engage with deaf persons) she was the most scared and reluctant. It all changed in a jiffy when the game began and the glorious game of football worked its magic on her. She got carried away by the spirit of the game. As the game proceeded, her perspective towards hearing counterparts underwent a change. When she was called back for substitution she insisted that she be allowed to continue on the field, not ready to let even a minute of this golden opportunity wasted. When the game ended, she sought out each hearing player and interacted with them at length gaining confidence every step of the way (Need we remind you that many of our Shakti Girls can fingerspell in ISL and know enough basic sign language to make deaf persons comfortable?) Her eyes lit up like stars when she learned that few of her hearing opponents had represented Maharashtra State in the Under-19 Football Nationals. She singled them out and insisted that they teach her how to keep the football juggling in the air using feet and head.
Tayyaba is invariably the first participant to reach the session venue and the last to leave. We wondered what makes her so punctual. She lets us into the secret, “The DeafKidzGoal sessions conducted by Coach Chhaya (Slum Soccer’s deaf coach) along with Coach Shiba Markas (Slum Soccer’s Shadow coach who is equally adept in ISL) give me confidence, improves my self-esteem, and revitalizes me. I get to learn not only football but so many life lessons in Sign Language, something that doesn’t happen even in my school. Due to lockdown I was feeling helpless, lonely, isolated, and ignored. The uncertainty of the future was causing limitless anxiety and mental trauma. The shutting down of schools was a cruel blow to the sole coping mechanism of deaf children as it caused abrupt disruption of our learning journey as well as the social interactions of deaf children, especially girls like me who already restricted access to mainstream society. I want these sessions to carry on and on”.
After obtaining firsthand experience of what she calls “the transformative power of football” she has convinced her deaf friend Lakha Gosavi to shed her fears, inhibitions, and introverted nature and joins the sessions. Tayyaba enjoys being mother-hen to her and shows off her football skills while insisting on Lakha to bring in more of her deaf friends.
We ask Tayyaba about her future plans. Her top-of-the-mind answer is ‘Keep playing football.’ Goaded further she comes up with a wish to start a deaf girls football team. We want her to think further into her future. After deep silence, the penny drops as she signs that she wants to be a DeafKidzGoal coach. Early days yet.
Slum Soccer’s unstinted intervention of spreading the footprint of its DeafKidzGoal program activities beyond the school boundaries has enabled the deaf children and youth to resume physical activity and recover from the trauma of isolation they suffered during the lockdown. It has strengthened their mental as well as physical health and readied them to face any challenges and uncertainties with courage and renewed determination.
Coming back to Tayyaba and her journey, what are we witnessing at our Reshimbagh DeafKidzGoal Community Centre? A new dawn for Tayyaba, bringing with it hopes for a brighter future? Or a dysfunctional family’s relationships and communication channels on the mend? Or, on a still larger community level, a social transformation starting to take place by creating a more inclusive and gender-equal society? Bring on the jury, please.