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JOURNEY that is EVERYTHING SPECIAL (on the occasion of Down Syndrome Awareness month)

A Mother's perspective about a girl with unlimited possibilities.

Special! What does it actually mean? Different, unique, full of surprises, exciting, joyful, amazing, awesome and so on…

Born Special! Does this also mean the same? Yes, indeed! But, the meaning of each of these adjectives takes a turn of its own in ‘Special borns’. Especially in our country, it is difficult to come to terms as the society has a label attached to it. So in most cases, it becomes quite stressful for parents to initially accept their ‘special’ child. Some families may even be in denial and don’t even look for resources to gain knowledge about the possibilities. Many families just lose hope and finally they accept it as their fate and close the door to all the amazing possibilities each special child can step into if they are well nurtured and supported to excel in the skills and potential they are born with.

For Riza our daughter, who is now 23 and diagnosed with Down Syndrome, it would have been the same if her family hadn’t taken the right step at the right time. Having said that, we can’t deny the fact that there were a few areas which were not addressed at the right time due to lack of awareness and information. Hence, finding solutions felt difficult initially and at that time, the overall societal mentality around Down Syndrome was that it is just fate without much hope for a child with Down Syndrome. By God’s grace, we could feel the positivity around her always and we kept our hope alive and decided to give the best we can.

The best thing we did as a family for Riza is bringing her up as any other child, the same way her elder sister grew up. She was given exposure to everything and was not over protected. Because of that, she gained confidence in building her personality, learning social skills without any fear and this helped her get over her developmental delays to a great extent. She was given mainstream schooling to the level she could manage and then switched to Special education and life skills training to make her independent. Academics was not her area of interest and so her skills and talents were tracked and exposure was given in those. She never let her condition take over her likes, strengths and her enthusiasm, to reach places where she wished to step in and make a mark for herself. Instead, she turned it to her strength by being open about it and advocating it as something unique.

Riza says, “You may think I am being very boastful when I tell you that I am a special individual. But that’s exactly what my parents were told by the doctors, when I was born 23 years ago with an extra chromosome and the condition was diagnosed as Down Syndrome. But I, don’t give credit to Down Syndrome for making me special. It’s everything I have achieved despite the diagnosis that makes me a unique and beautiful woman.”

She had her kitty of challenges to deal with at different stages of life, the most challenging being a serious spinal injury almost to the extent of a paralytic stage. She fought victoriously through that stage and recuperated well with God’s blessings and medical intervention. Once in her childhood, she even fell into a fish pond filled with 5ft water and gave us the shock of our lives. But the way she reacted when she was pulled out of it amazed us. She was looking at us with a giggle as if nothing had happened, with a look that said “why are you people looking so pale when I am in front of you giggling at you!!” We learnt that we are a blessed family to have her in our lives.

Opportunities in Theatre

Riza loves Entertainment, Fun, Fashion and was always very dramatic in her walk and talk, a ‘Nautanki’ who is exploring her abilities in Theatre these days. She is being trained along with other individuals with special Needs by Ms. Diana Tholoor, renowned Dancer and Theatre personality.

Opportunities in Modelling

Riza has been selected as the only person from India this year to walk the ramp in-person at the ‘Be Beautiful Be Yourself’ Fashion & Modelling event to be held in Colorado, USA in November, 2022. The event organised by the ‘Global Down Syndrome Foundation’ is the largest Down Syndrome fundraiser in the world. Riza went through a virtual audition process before she was selected as one of the 22 models with Down Syndrome to walk the ramp along with many other renowned celebrities and experts like supermodel and actress, Amanda Booth, ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ star Eric Dane and athlete David Egan in attendance, among Ambassadors and Self advocates of the Down Syndrome Community across the world. We are looking forward to seeing her represent India and its Special Needs community on a global stage and it’s a great feeling of pride and joy to see Riza achieve her dreams on a global platform. We always believed in her immense potential and are now happy that others recognise it too.

Mia By Tanishq Ad campaign

Selection of Riza to the ‘Be Beautiful Be Yourself’ fashion show in Colorado, USA had huge media coverage and we were also looking for collaboration with organisations and corporates which could benefit Riza in the long term and that’s how the modelling assignment with Mia by Tanishq happened. The Titan Group of Companies have always tried to bring a change in the mindset of society to look beyond set standards. Through this Ad campaign called “This Is Me”, they have created a space for pure inclusion and acceptance of abilities, strengths and beauty in every diversity.

From the time of approach, through the selection, meetings, communication and the entire shooting and the release, it was an amazing experience for Riza and us as a family. We feel really proud to see her picture in Print media, billboards and in Digital platforms.

Riza was made to feel comfortable through the shooting, taking care of every need and she was made to feel relaxed and happy by the entire crew, fellow models and staff. Encouraged and appreciated for her efforts all through, Riza’s confidence and the ability to catch up with every communication and instruction was well applauded by the entire team. They always showed the right attitude towards Riza while communicating and they considered her equal to any other model and at no point of time through the shoot they felt that Riza was a first timer in the field. They gave her freedom to express and enact according to the requirement of the script and they wanted her own self to be in front of the camera as exactly the Campaign title says, ‘THIS IS ME’.

In Riza’s words, “I enjoyed this new experience and learnt a lot of things around the shoot and this has definitely helped build my confidence and improve myself towards further goals and progress.”

Message to go across

The opportunity to represent the Differently abled community and the entire nation at a renowned global event and the opportunity to model for the popular Brand ‘Tanishq’ are the result of undeterred effort and determination to succeed in life come what may. Challenges are there in everyone’s life, but facing those with grit and vigour is the ultimate victory and that is what Riza Reji is showing, rather teaching us.

Talking about these great achievements, we want to make society and all the parents of children with different disabilities aware of the great potential and possibilities they are born with. Academic goals are not always the ultimate. They just need to be nurtured at different ages with appropriate methods and interventions by taking advice from experts and giving maximum exposure, and opportunities without blocking our own minds with limits and inhibitions. Limitless are their abilities.

Written by:

Anita Reji

(Mother of Riza Reji and Co-Founder/Trustee of Bengaluru-based NGO ‘Beautiful Together Foundation’, a start-up dedicated to the empowerment of the differently-abled by engaging them with an income generating activity to make every differently abled individual financially independent and a contributing member of the society.)

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