“When I was young I loved sport. I used to go to watch the village cricket teams and, after the games, I would really want to shake the players’ hands and congratulate them...
…but they didn’t even want to touch my hand. No one wanted to be touched by me.”
Talking to the young man who says these words, it is hard to imagine how anyone could feel quite this way or treat him with such brutal heartlessness.
But that is to disregard the fact that the young man in question, Janak Singh (pictured above), was born into an environment where being disabled is to be excluded from society and to expect the taunts of his peers around him.
Janak is one such disabled young man.
And so, despite being remarkably polite, well spoken and manifesting a passion for sport that has put him within touching distance of racing at the London Paralympics this year, Janak was forced to suffer this inhumane treatment day after day.
As a young boy, Janak, now 19, was struck down by polio, a debilitating illness that can cause the paralysis of limbs, and consequently suffered the loss of use of his legs from an early age. In as much, and through no fault of his own, he was left to live his early life fighting for acceptance along with the rest of India’s stigmatised disabled community.
On this treatment of the disabled, Janak goes on to say: “The situation is worse in India than any other country. If I was still in my home village… I would be treated as nothing.”
Luckily for Janak, which of course can not be said for every young disabled person in the country, he was identified by the SKSN youth sports project IMAGE, which is supported by Laureus, at an early age.
It was here that his passion for sport was both nurtured into talent and focused to help him become the confident young man he is today.
Of his experiences at the community sports project, Janak says: “IMAGE gave me the confidence to think that I could do something with myself.”
And as of 2012, from such disadvantaged beginnings, he has certainly achieved just that.
Last year, Janak’s talent for wheelchair racing was rewarded with a once-in-a-lifetime trip to London, England to take advantage of the facilities available and further his chances of racing for India at the Paralympic Games later this year.
Experiencing the rigours of training in London was challenging for Janak, who says he had always relied on natural talent for his success on the track.
But the impact of this was entirely positive in terms of his lasting feelings for finding success in his sport.
Janak says: “It was only at the end of my time in London that my interest in the sport had become so great that I realised I would never be prepared to give up.”
And this passion was made all the more necessary just a few months ago when Janak found out, through no fault of his own, that his place in the Indian Paralympic team was under threat.
Earlier this year, Janak was shocked to discover that despite racing at official events, including the British Wheelchair Championships, he had not been registered by the appropriate body back in India, which was needed in order for his classification to be fully completed. He was devastated.
Since then he has been racing against time to secure registration before it is too late.
And the young athlete’s thoughts on not racing at the Games, not reaching the dream he has chased for so long, give an incredible insight into the kind of person he is.
Reflecting on this possibility compared to the other hardships he has faced, Janak said: “The fact that I became disabled is fine, I could deal with that. But what I have to put up with now, with my family and friends knowing what I have been trying to do but not finally doing it… that is much more unbearable than dealing with becoming disabled.”
The impression is of a young man unaccustomed to having his fate anywhere but in his own hands. The trials of living with a disability were placed before him to tackle as best he could and he did so to inspiring lengths.
Now he and his supporters from the IMAGE project are doing all they can to make sure he can race, but they know this could end up relying on factors beyond their control.
Sneh Gupta, a leader at the IMAGE project who has worked with Janak for many years, said: “[This process has been] a maze, and so difficult to understand. What about those Paralympic athletes who don’t have anyone to back them up. How do they do it?”
But it is these very people, those who haven’t benefited from the kind of support afforded to him, whom Janak dreams of helping in the future.
As a testament to Janak’s maturity and natural leadership abilities, he now speaks of how he longs to open a sports centre for the disabled in his home country one day, regardless of whether he reaches London.
Janak said: “I want to have a centre where any disabled person can come and work with me.”
But for now, he appreciates how top-flight success at the Paralympics might help him secure this goal.
“If I’m successful in wheelchair racing, maybe that might encourage others to follow me and help start a place where any disabled person will have an open door.”
For now, let’s hope the doors leading him to such a point remain open for Janak as well.