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Fatima Rodrigues: Ridiculed for "Low IQ", now a national hero

17-year-old Rodrigues won a bronze for India in basketball at the Special Olympics Summer Games in Las Vegas last month. India won 173 medals at the games.

Feature 23 Aug 2015, 09:52 IST
Once called a “mental case”, now hailed as a hero: Fatima Rodrigues

She is just 17, and Fatima Rodrigues of Kurla, Mumbai, has already been through and achieved more than many could imagine despite the challenges life has thrown at her. The teenager took bronze for basketball at the Special Olympics Summer Games, which were held in Los Angeles, California last month. 

Rodrigues was part of the team, which finished with 37 points to take third place. 

Cruelty to the youngster

Rodrigues was treated cruelly by people in her neighbourhood, who described her repeatedly as a ‘mental case’. Her parents – father Robert, and mum Louiza, who initially took neighbours’ jibes on the chin, decided to see a mental health professional, who diagnosed Fatima as being a special-needs child at the age of 10. 

The family are of modest means – while Robert works as a school bus driver, Louiza is a sweeper at a Mumbai bank and does other odd jobs to be able to make ends meet.

Although IQ qualification scores have been described as ‘somewhat subjective’ by researchers, they continue to remain a test of someone’s mental abilities, and 10-year-old Fatima was classified with an IQ of ‘between 55 and 60’ on the Stanford-Binet test, which is a standard measurement of IQ, but also significantly used to help diagnose intellectual and developmental issues in children. 

Fatima’s score on the Stanford-Binet classifies her as ‘mildly impaired or delayed’, and Robert and Louiza told Mid-Day several pieces fell into place following the diagnosis. Fatima had been attending school like others her age, but the school was not geared to suit the needs of special-needs children. She often “hid her books or threw them away”, says her father. The principal of the school asked Robert and Louiza to withdraw their daughter from the school, following which they approached the Canossa Special Needs School in the central Mumbai suburb of Mahim – the school where Robert works.

Canossa admitted Fatima after she was asked to leave two schools prior – her first, and a boarding school in Panvel to which her parents admitted her.

Her case is different from several others. As Rodrigues has no facial disfiguration as many special-needs children tend to, her affliction was not apparent to those around her, and this led to her not being accepted by several others as even having special needs, says Juanita Rodricks, who teaches Fatima at Canossa Special School.

A long wait

Rodrigues also had to wait nearly a year for her paperwork to come through. She had repeated problems with securing a passport. ““Her documents were not in place. There were spelling mistakes in her name and her parents’ names. The lack of a permanent address only made the task more difficult,” said teacher Juanita Rodricks. 

Sandra Vaz, area director of Special Olympic Bharat (Maharashtra), took on the task with a team of officials who began the arduous task of preparing new documents for Rodrigues and rectifying the errors in her parents’. They had assistance from a neighbourhood police officer, who Vaz says was “very kind” to the group.

People changed

The family went through an immense amount of abuse and shaming prior to Rodrigues’ successes. Neighbours often called their daughter names, abd harassed her to the point that she was afraid to venture out of the home. Robert and Louiza cut off contact with most people they knew and preferred Fatima remain at home to avoid the onslaught she received when she left the home. 

After her victorious return from Los Angeles, however, neighbours sang a different tune. Fatima was felicitated, with church services planned by her neighbours to recognise her achievements. They also intend to put hoardings up in her honour. 

Walking past residents of the neighbourhood, Rodrigues is now congratulated, greeted with smiles and pride – a far cry from the systematic abuse she suffered before. 

India had a staggering performance at the 2015 edition of the Special Olympics Summer Games, which were inaugurated by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. The contingent, many of whom come from modest means, won 173 medals in all – 47 gold, 54 silver and 72 bronze.

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