It’s hard not to smile while speaking with Naa’il Mohamed.
At 20, he is friendly and confident, willing to talk about his favourite activities, or food, with anyone around him.
Naa’il has Down syndrome and while he isn’t shy about his condition, he doesn’t allow it to define him, as he has competed in swimming heats for the Special Olympics, sings, recites poetry and is enrolled in the woodworking programme at a vocational centre.
Speaking with Newsday at his St James home last Monday, Naa’il and his father Abu Walid Mohamed spoke about their experiences, challenges and hopes for the future of those with special needs in TT.
“Life is going good. I’m in class, I do reading and work on my numbers skills and counting. ,” said Naa’il
“Sometimes I even watch Netflix shows and listen to music.”
While he has faced hurdles during his life, Naa’il maintains a cheery disposition and chooses to see opportunity rather than problems in his life.
Like most parents of special-needs children, Abu Walid said while his son has brought a sense of fulfilment to his life, it can be nerve-wracking, especially when he thinks about his future and the world that awaits him.
Recalling his thoughts after finding out about Naa’il’s condition hours after his birth, Abu Walid said he was emotional as he did not know what to expect at the time.
Despite this, he said he is grateful for the support of his family, especially Naa’il’s mother Sara and older brother Taarik.
“I came home from the hospital and was on the bed.
“Taarik was about six or seven at the time, he realised something was wrong with me and he asked, ‘Papa what happened?’
“At that young age, I remembered I was crying and telling him that Naa’il was different.
“He didn’t understand what I meant by different, so I explained to him.
“From the beginning my older son was aware of what’s going on and I remember telling Taarik, ‘Once I am alive, Naa’il is my responsibility, and I will take care of him but the day my eyes close. he becomes your responsibility,”
While this sense of unease is natural, Abu Walid insists people with Down syndrome are capable of looking after themselves once they are given the chance to show that they too can contribute.
He said from an early age, he noticed Naa’il’s sharp memory and ability to develop routines.
Beginning his education at the Lady Hochoy School for special needs children, Cocorite, Naa’il enjoyed reading and writing.
Naa’il’s time at the Lady Hochoy School has not only sharpened his academic abilities but also helped develop his skills as an athlete as he was exposed to competitive swimming, paricipating in events locally.
Sara said she is proud of her son’s achievements and encourages his involvement in activities to give him a full experience without treating him differently, staying true to his name Naa’il which means winner, or achiever in Arabic.
“We tried to get him involved in everything that everybody does, if we go to the grocery, we go with him, if we go to the beach, we go with him, on family outings and everything we take him with us.
“Because of that he has grown up around cousins and peers, everybody’s interactions at the mosque, and everything he has been there right through.
“Moving towards an inclusive society, people are now starting to realise there is a benefit in interacting with him.
“He was very active in the Special Olympics and won medals and so on, and I always pictured him going abroad to compete but with covid19 now that’s all gone, but I am still hopeful it can happen and I think once he gets his reading skills fine-tuned, I see him as being an advocate in public-speaking because I think he is best able to describe how he interacts with people, and he loves to talk.”
Abu Walid said while it takes Naa’il longer to grasp certain concepts, he has a passion for learning which has led him to woodworking.
Naa’il said he feels a special attraction to woodworking as it allows him to use tools and fix and build items on his own.
“Sometimes, I use the hammer and the screwdriver goes into the screws to tighten it and then to take it out again.
“It feels good being able to do these things. I really enjoy it.”
Abu Walid said this sense of accomplishment is vital in building the confidence of special-needs children as it empowers them to take the first steps towards supporting themselves.
Abu Walid has his own company producing building materials and said while his son requires more time to learn, he is pleased with the pace of his development and includes him in certain tasks under the guidance of other workers.
“So far, he is learning, it’s slow but sure in terms of his motor skills because that’s what we really want to develop.”
He also said there is great potential in training the disabled and that there is a willingness among the business community to provide programmes for employment, and suggested a project that would not only be environmentally-friendly but also beneficial to those with special needs.
“Tyres are a major problem in our country to dispose of them.
“You take tyres, take about three or four of them and stack them, bolt them with three bolts at each level which doesn’t take much technical ability to do and you have a bin.
“You have the centre down in San Fernando, you have here Lady Hochoy, you create a place in Central and these young people can go to these locations and gain employment, yes those bins will have to be bought but we have a Green Fund that can sponsor it and those are monies will be useful because it will help clean the environment for the municipalities and county councils.”
Outside of his intellectual and athletic abilities, Abu Walid said he has seen his son’s capacity for compassion.
Two years ago, Abu Walid fell from scaffolding at his home seriously injuring himself.
Naa’il, who was at home, was one of the first people to come to his aid, caring for him during his recovery in the months that followed.
“He helped with everything from helping me shower to helping me get dressed because my back was damaged.
“He stood with me when it was time for me to do my exercises as part of my recovery, he helped pull me back up.
“It’s the responsibility he showed me over those two or three months, he was there very consistent.”
Naa’il also remembers the accident.
“The bannister was shaking and it was going as if you were going to fall then I came and saw him flat on the floor.”
Naa’il said he takes pride in being able to help and comfort others and cares for relatives when they are ill, and prays for their recovery.
As a Muslim, he recites religious songs, prayers and has even tried fasting for Ramadan.
“He fasts like for half a day because he doesn’t make joke with his belly,” his father joked.
As his family and friends continue to treat him as a normal adult, they are still concerned that society has not yet fully accepted people with Down syndrome, and believe visibility is key to creating a more inclusive society.
Abu Walid said while much more work has to be done, he is pleased that perceptions about the disabled are improving which he said was evident during a visit to a store in St James years ago.
“There were some young children from a secondary school and they would look at him and make fun of him because they realised he was different.
“As a parent I was about to intervene but I didn’t have to, two of the other boys began to scold their friends and pull up on them and say, ‘What you are doing? You don’t see he’s different? Don’t be acting like that!’
“They really picked up for him and that gave me hope, because a major concern I have is that I don’t want my child to be given any negativity when he goes out there.”
While concerns over the future for their children may be natural, Abu Walid said having hope is important as it encourages parents, and the public, to work towards being tolerant.