I have observed Mohammedhadi Somji, a distant relative of mine, for a few years. I have seen him attending lectures at HIC with an aid of an along-white cane, sitting cross-legged through lectures and ignored by his peers, leaving for home with his parents. He intrigued me. Although I greeted and kidded around with him, I was always wary of his condition. I felt sorry for him, of course, but I also felt that he was unhappy, his life useless, wasted by his medical condition.
Well, nothing can be further from the truth. Mohammedhadi is now a 22-year-old handsome teenager, very independent, able and happy. He can perform tasks that will considerably challenge and put me to shame and insha’Allah, the boy will lead a fully productive and fulfilling life. I had a fun hour talking to him about his life so far, and his just-concluded training at The Louisiana Center for the Blind. I am sharing his story because it fascinated me and will hopefully interest you as well.
Nature being what it is, I was born with scar tissues in my brains, prone to seizures that damaged my optic nerves. The damage to my eyes went unnoticed until I began bumping into things and hurting myself in the process. When I was eventually diagnosed with Cortical Visual Impairment, my parents were living in Tanzania, having moved there from the US. We moved back to Austin, TX in a hurry; the US is much more accommodating and accepting of children with my condition and staying back in Tanzania would have been a disaster, for me.
Unlike the school I attended in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where the teachers did not know what to do with me and relegated me to sit in the back of the class and ignored me, the school in Austin was ready and accepting to my needs. I was made to sit in front and got books with large print; there was no bullying at all.
My family then moved to Sanford, FL where I spent most of my formative young life. At home, sandwiched between an elder sister and younger brother, I was sheltered by my condition, I could get away with mischief and not helping out the house. But Mum was a disciplinarian who gave me no favors, especially when it came to studies, both academic at school and madressa at HIC. At school, I studied with the aid of audio books and learned halting Braille. I sometimes felt sorry for myself and wished I was ‘normal’. But that feeling was fleeting.
Eighteen months into community college, sister Zainab stumbled onto an incredible opportunity for me to attend The Louisiana Center for the Blind. Unlike traditional schools for blind people, where expectations are low, students constantly guided, trays carried for them, food cooked and generally considered ‘acceptable burden to society’, this school is everything opposite.
My parents, especially Mum, were naturally apprehensive, but they let me go. And what a tough and fulfilling adventure it was! Under the Structured Discovery for the blind philosophy, I was blindfolded from 8AM to 5PM, 5 days a week. All the students were treated equal, as if we were all normal. I had to go out on my own, go grocery shopping, cross roads, interstate roads, highways, ride a Greyhound bus, call and ride a taxi, reserve a hotel room, check in, pay the bill, use a cell phone, shower, shave, take a dump – all unaided and alone. My trainers had very high expectations of me. I went through 9 months of this grueling military-style training. There was no question of failure. I believed in myself. The trainers, all blind, were benevolently ruthless. I was told that if I returned without accomplishing all the assigned tasks, the door to my room would stay shut. I learned fast.
In all of this training time, I never panicked, never wanted to abandon the instructions and return home. As confidence building experiences, I visited the Mardi Gra in Louisiana and mingled with the crowds, and went rock climbing in Arkansas,
The first week at the training center, I ate tasteless microwave food. Disgusting. So, I mastered cooking very quickly. Now, I can cook corn with tui, kabas, chicken tikka masala, daal, rice pudding, and much more. I cooked chicken tikka masala for my whole class and they loved it.
Ramadhan was hard! But I did it! My training sealed the survivor instinct in me. No, I did not miss home much because I had to do what I had to do. I could not let myself down.
Mohammedhadi then demonstrates how he uses the iPhone voiceover to make calls. Impressive. He tells me the worst thing others can do is offer to help.
It is born of the soft bigotry of low expectations; after being immersed in an environment where every single person believes in your capabilities and pushes you to grow, it is hard to interact with a public who don’t expect you to be able to do the simplest things.
What about girls, I ask, in jest, of course. Do you meet girls that you like and want to befriend perhaps? Mohammedhadi turns crimson and giggles self-consciously. I immediately feel sorry for him, that was pure mischief in me that brought up the question.
Umh, I want to go to law school and become an attorney. I’ll cross that bridge later?
It is a diplomatic response, politely telling for me to mind my own business. Which is fair enough.
I wish this spunky young man the very best and pray for his unlimited success.