Sidra Zahid researches for better education methods for people with intellectual disabilities and fights the stigma they face in her home country, Pakistan. She is the winner of our 2022 Studyportals International Distinction Awards scholarship.
Sidra was 12, standing in line for ice cream at a corner shop together with her dad when a young man approached them. He tried to say something but didn’t have the words. The next moment the shopkeeper came and shooed him away. ‘Pagal!’ that’s what the shopkeeper called the young man. It isn’t a name, but an identity. ‘Pagal’ is Urdu for ‘mad’ in Pakistan and it is how people address others with intellectual or neurological disabilities.
She vividly remembers this episode from over a decade later.
“On our way home, my father explained to us that the person had some sort of neurological condition, that the man was alone, with no means to communicate. Because of his condition, his family abandoned him. I was shocked”.
As she grew older, Sidra came across other people facing the same problem: some were denied entry into public places, some were hidden away in houses, and others were abandoned, wandering the streets.
Volunteered in Hospitals and Social Development NGOs
Sidra is now 25 and she lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She loves the sea, which is why she loves her home city so much. Even before she graduated high school, she decided to spend her time and resources in helping others. She volunteered in hospitals, NGOs for people with disabilities, and animal shelters. By the time she started her undergraduate in Biosciences, she already gained a lot of experience in the field.
Photo: Sidra volunteering at the local animal shelter (Personal archive)
“It’s the way that I've been raised in: not to be the typical ambitious cutthroat that climbs the social ladder, but to be kind and care for other people. However, I’m pragmatic enough to know that if my intention is to help others, I need to have the means first”.
Her parents didn’t initially understand what exactly she wanted to do in her career. They probably expected Sidra to continue on the “standard” path for Biosciences graduates: start working in a hospital or pharmaceutical company. But they supported their daughter’s decision not to do that and got a job at an NGO that takes care of children with Down Syndrome.
Fulfilled when parents feel proud of their children
Sidra works as a Deputy Manager at the Karachi Down Syndrome Program in Early Childhood Intervention and Healthcare. She and her colleagues help kids with both developmental delays and severe healthcare issues. Specifically, they focus on physical, speech, and occupational therapies for children with Down Syndrome. This work is very challenging, and dozens of families, sometimes up to 60 a day come seeking help.
Children with Down Syndrome have low muscle tone, low motor skills, and lower cognition. They can do everything that a typical person can, but they just need to be taught more.
Photo: Working on occupational skills in the preschool at the Karachi Down Syndrome Program (Personal archive)
“As a kid, you might have this instinct to crawl, to lift, to push yourself up by holding onto the edge of a table. Individuals with Down syndrome, and people with motor or intellectual disabilities, need to be taught these skills. We might have to massage their legs as babies so that they learn this feeling of movement.”
Sidra remembers talking to a mom who at first was ashamed to open up to her family about her daughter’s diagnosis. After they talked, after both the mother and the girl's father understood what was going on with their child, after understanding the progress that the little one achieved, they told Sidra they are so proud of their daughter.
“The girl was four at the time. The mother said that she never thought her child would be able to walk, let alone attend mainstream school and deal with typical kids. The child is running, she's playing, she's laughing, she has friends.”
Photo: A meeting to plan for an event by KDSP (Personal archive)
Sidra’s is the only such organisation in the country, and many of their practices were provided by therapists or healthcare experts from the US. They gained experience and now help other organisations build up their expertise. In October 2021, Sidra developed a training programme for an organisation based in Ethiopia, which wanted to provide Down Syndrome support in their country.
Got accepted at a Master’s in Neurodevelopmental Sciences in London
Sidra wishes to pursue her Master's in Clinical Neurodevelopmental Sciences because she believes this programme will enable her to bridge the knowledge gap in Pakistan and gain a prominent position in the field.
“Through my work, I hope to establish a platform for others, not only to inspire them to pursue STEM fields but also to cater to the vast community born as neurodivergent.”
Photo: Presenting the research paper I co-authored at a conference (Personal archive)
Although a lot of universities have Neuroscience or Neurodegeneration study programmes, few have programmes that focus specifically on Neurodevelopment. King’s College in London, where she got accepted, is one of the few.
“I believe that helping people with neurological disabilities from a young age is so valuable because they have their whole lives ahead of them to enjoy what they learn.”
Even if schools have started to open up to people with such disabilities, and the stigma fades away little by little, there is still a lot of work to be done, especially in the later stages of their lives, when it comes to finding a job for people with neurological disorders. The perspective of a fulfilling life for them is what motivates Sidra.
“There are more inclusive schools in Pakistan, but they only accommodate children till about grade four or five. Beyond that, what is the person going to do? He or she deserves to have a career opportunity.”
Photo: Sidra teaching STEM-based curriculum on the wonders of water at a public school with Science Fuse (Personal archive)
Sidra confesses that she also gave a shot at an international undergraduate degree a few years back, but at the time she did not manage to fund her studies, so she moved forward with a local university.
“It was always like my dream to pursue my postgraduate degree internationally. But because of the costs associated with it, I was unable to do it. I actually applied for my undergraduate, I got accepted, but I was unable to afford it. So I ended up pursuing my undergraduate degree at a local university.”
She appreciates the importance of international experiences, she herself had the chance to live abroad, together with her family, earlier in her life. Being in contact with people from various cultures and backgrounds shaped her into who she is today.
As the winner of our 2022 Studyportals International Distinction Awards Scholarship, Sidra won EUR 10,000 to pay for her Master's in Clinical Neurodevelopmental Sciences at King’s College, in London and follow her dream.
Photo: At a friend's birthday party (Personal archive)