While most teenagers spend their every waking moment grappling with the imminent problems of their age, Shubhankar Jain’s choices and unexpected circumstances he faced, led him in a different direction. At the age of 16, Jain who is currently a high school student in Cupertino, California has a lot more on his mind than just good grades and girls. He has a younger brother, Paras, who very early on was diagnosed with autism. An unpleasant encounter while travelling with his autistic brother, got this young Indian origin student thinking and thus was born his foundation for people with disabilities, WorldWeDream. Determined to do the most he can for people with disabilities, Shubhankar’s foundation is just a few months old but already making headway.
At 16, most teenagers your age are busy battling grade grief and peer pressure, you choose to be a force of change. How did it come about?
My little brother Paras was born in 2000. 18 months later, he was diagnosed with autism. As he grew older, my family and I saw the communication and behavioral difficulties that he faced. We were blessed to find organizations in our area that helped Paras overcome these challenges. However, our family encountered many difficulties when outside, among society. Many people would sometimes become outraged when my brother’s behaviour wasn’t the best and we were the ones to hear the sometimes nasty comments. The moment that actually sparked my desire to incite change in our community came when we were on a flight back home after a vacation. A passenger in the seat in front of my brother was annoyed that my brother had been kicking his seat. We had been trying to calm my brother down but he didn’t understand and was still very anxious on the plane. We also explained that my brother had autism and it was difficult for him to understand. However, my brother still continued to kick the passenger’s seat. Then the front-seated passenger threatened us that if my brother did not stop kicking his seat, he would complain to the captain. At that point we were very scared but it also came to my attention that people weren’t aware of people with disabilities and did not accept them for who they are. From that point forward, I took it upon myself to educate communities about people with disabilities and hopefully change the world’s perception of these special people. One thing that I learned along the journey was that one should always say “people with disabilities” or “people with special needs” rather than “disabled people” or “autistic brother.” This is because everyone is a human being and people with disabilities are people first and then they have a disability. They should not be known by a disorder that they have but by the person who they show themselves to be.
Did you have trouble with people taking your seriously?
In the beginning, I had some trouble with people taking me seriously. People didn’t think that a 16-year old would actually do what I was doing. Fortunately, I met people who did take me very seriously and after a newspaper article in the San Jose Mercury News, our local newspaper, all community centers and organizations understood that I was actually trying to make a difference.
How did your parents react to World We Dream?
My parents were very supportive of my initiative. They completely agreed with WorldWeDream’s mission statement and help by driving me to talk with the directors of organizations and to other places where I give presentations and spreading the word about what WorldWeDream is trying to do.
As an older sibling, did you immediately understand what autism was, when Paras was diagnosed?
I was six at the time, so I did not completely understand it. To me, my brother was normal and if he did have any disorder, I didn’t see it. I was simply glad to have a younger brother. As I grew older, I did understand what autism was but my perception of him didn’t change. Instead I learned from the challenges that he, my family, and I faced and understood other people with disabilities better and definitely attempted to tell people not to behave nastily towards people with disabilities if I saw something wrong.
What have you learnt about the condition through this?
Through WorldWeDream, I have learned so much about the world. Although I didn’t learn much further about Paras’ diagnosis, I learned many other things about other people and their disabilities. Whatever I know about autism is through my own volunteering, through my experiences with Paras at home, and my presentations.
Have you got a lot of support from the Indian American community in your hometown?
We have got a lot of support from the Indian American Community here. I have been in a couple of Indian American Newspapers situated in America and am in the midst of appearing on an Indian Radio show and Indian TV Channel in America. Also, many Indian Americans in my community have helped me by spreading word about WorldWeDream and contributing to the cause as well.
What is your relationship with Paras like?
My relationship with Paras is like any other relationship siblings have. The only difference is that we never fight. We play together, talk, help each other, and care for each other. Sometimes we get frustrated with each other but we never fight. We both love each other unconditionally.
What is your aim with World We Dream?
With WorldWeDream, I hope to educate the communities in the world about people with disabilities and teach them how to behave with people with disabilities; we need to help them achieve their potentials as humans while treating them normally. In the future, I hope to create a mentoring program where community members act as mentors for people with disabilities helping them get their dream job or get accepted into their dream college. Through this mentoring program, I want to help the people with disabilities fulfill their potential. I also want to be able to create an online job portal through which employers can hire potential employees with disabilities thereby ascertaining that people with disabilities are fully integrated in the community, contributing to the community. Ultimately the community is much more efficient and every human is contributing to a more wholesome community. However, it’s necessary to start with awareness of people with disabilities first to demonstrate that limits should not be implanted on people with disabilities.
Does Paras know and understand what you are doing on his behalf?
Paras doesn’t quite understand what I am doing with WorldWeDream. Also, I am not doing this on his behalf but for everyone with disabilities in the world. Many have been treated poorly and have been limited and my goal is to eradicate this kind of treatment around the globe.
What drives you to keep this going?
My drive comes from the moments and incidents and stories where I saw and heard Paras and others with disabilities being limited and being treated poorly by people.
What would you say to someone who discovers they are faced with autism in a family member?
I would tell them to take this as a blessing. Paras is definitely someone who has taught me several things about life: acceptance, compassion, motivation. All people teach each other things but I believe that people with disabilities teach the most to the world. Instead of denying or hiding such a family member, accept him/her. In fact, they are your relatives; treat them how relatives should be treated.
When you finish high school, what’s next?
After high school, I will continue to work with WorldWeDream while attending college. WorldWeDream has a mission and I will continue to work for it. I want to achieve the future goals of a mentoring program and job portal as well as create several other programs with WorldWeDream.