A graphic artist who was born with Down’s syndrome but grew up to make his illness work for him
By Usman Ghafoor
An image of Lady Gaga on the advertising panel of a moving bus — only a person with something extra ‘cool’ about him could envisage converting it into a collage. Case in point: 29-year-old Fazal Shafique (“Faduli” to his loved ones), a graphic artist who was born with Down’s syndrome but he grew up to make his illness work for him. No wonder he calls it “the coolest extra gene”.
In a rare exhibition, titled ‘I Love New York,’ held recently at Taseer Art Gallery, Fazal showcased some of his creative pieces — images of NYC that he had clicked with his Nikon DSLR while he was visiting the city November last year and then manipulated them using different filters to enhance a certain mood or effect.
A total of 24 pieces were displayed on the occasion. These varied in size; most of them were black&white with a spot of colour.
People from different walks of life and age groups showed up at the exhibit which went on famously for a week. Students, teachers, friends and family members were there to cheer Fazal who was also able to sell a good few pieces. ‘Lady Gaga’ was one big favourite with the crowd and got Fazal lots of orders of reprints.
Seen in a broader light, this little exhibition is actually a giant step for people like Fazal — towards self-fulfillment. In this case, though, the contribution of Fazal’s family can simply not be overlooked.
Being the only boy child — and the youngest — in a family of eight, Fazal was raised like a normal kid. That, says his mother, was the “plan.” God knows it was well thought out and not likely to backfire.
“We decided that Fazal shall not be enrolled in a special institution,” she says, in an exclusive chat. “In Pakistan, people isolate such a child; they do not integrate him into the society at large. We didn’t want that to happen.”
“When you are born with Down’s syndrome, there isn’t much that you can do to check it,” adds Yasmeen, Fazal’s elder sister, a graphic designer by profession. “But you have to intervene very early.”
Consequently, Fazal got admission in a regular school that offered a special education class with 2-3 teachers in attendance. He was taught with special focus.
At home, he had tutors for Maths and English.
A privileged family background came suitably in handy. Fazal was allowed to cultivate his various interests, such as photography and music. Today, he can play piano by the ear. Besides, he was made to participate in all activities of community life.
Raising him “made us more sensitive to and more accepting of the difference in human beings,” writes his mother who is a half-Turkish, in a specially compiled (not for publication) book on Fazal. The idea was to “share my experiences with parents [of similarly diseased children] so that they can know the challenges as well as the rewards of it.”
A genetic ailment, Down’s syndrome occurs when an individual gets a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21. People who are born with it possess varying degrees of cognitive delays, from mild to severe.
“In countries like the US, when such people become adults, they are encouraged to live on their own. Here, it’s quite the contrary,” says Yasmeen. “So we had to create opportunities to keep him busy.”
He learnt how to drive a car and has been a gym regular for the past several years now.
He is constantly supervised, though, every time he steps out of the house. A dependable “ghar ka banda” (to quote Yasmeen) is with him everywhere he goes.
A fairly articulate person, Fazal has to only see a speech therapist once a week. That’s it. He is on no other therapy of sorts and virtually no medication.
At the informal chat with the Shafiques at their Canal View mansion, Fazal looked only too happy to flaunt his various photographic pieces as well as the myriad educational certificates mounted on the walls of the drawing and other rooms.
He also spoke fervently of his friends and — a bit coyly — his would-be “girlfriend”.
Having taken courses in photography and graphic designing, Fazal is currently “employed” at his sister’s studio in DHA. “He is treated like the other regular staff. For instance, if he needs a day off, he has to apply for leave in advance.”
All this obviously helps him blend in.
Today, following the success of his first solo exhibit, Fazal has moved on to his next project already. He is also managing a page on Facebook whose stated purpose is to invite young adults with Down’s syndrome “to connect with each other, share experiences, achievements, creations and, most important of all, make friends.”
The page receives traffic from all over the world, chiefly the US where it is believed that there is a greater awareness among the masses with regards to the ailment.
For young and dynamic Fazal Shafique, the page is a reassurance of his faith in the multiple abilities of people like himself. Hence, its title ‘Young Adults with Down’s syndrome: The Coolest Extra Gene.’
Originally published in The News On Sunday — March 16, 2014