Before I begin, let me take you back to how I used to be a decade ago:
- Despite the mental ability and knowledge, I couldn’t speak up in public.
- I wanted to make friends but shied away from approaching others to start a friendship.
- I loved spending time with family but always avoided big social gatherings.
All because I had a cleft lip and palate, and I didn’t want anyone to enquire about or comment on why I looked or sounded different.
I am Ashim Garg, an alumnus of IIT Delhi, working as a Head of Sports at a Bengaluru-based start-up. Throughout my studies, I developed an interest in sports and travel and became passionate about helping others. Believe it or not, motivational speaking is actually something I enjoy. Yes, you heard it right! I love talking to people about cleft and sharing my journey to support them improve their quality of life.
My Childhood of Social Isolation
Although I had undergone several surgeries at an early age, I still had difficulties speaking and the shape of my lip and nose had always made me stand out in class. My childhood days were hard – I used to get bullied and singled out for the way I looked and talked. By virtue of being born into an army family, I had to shift cities every alternate year while growing up. Cities changed but the bullying continued, both in-person and virtually on social media. By the time I entered my adolescence, an air of hopelessness had wrapped around me. People used to twist my phrases because of unclear speech, which is one of the biggest issues of being born with a cleft.
My Journey of Self-acceptance
After enduring years of torment throughout my teenage years, I started looking at things from a different angle. I was confident enough to get through IIT, and that is when I learnt that hard work is an important part of self-discovery and growth. Looks do not matter and it is possible to go from interrogation to appreciation for how you were born. This was a turning point in my life. It was then that I also came in contact with the Smile Train India team. In the last four years of my association with this organisation, I have met so many people who have shared a similar journey to me.
Cleft surgery can fix functional and aesthetic aspects but only a cleft patient can understand the emotional turmoil we go through every day. With the motivation and support of Smile Train, I have created a network of young Cleft Warriors with the purpose to support and learn the art of self-acceptance from each other.
My Dream to Create a Better World for Cleft Warriors
Although I have moved past the challenges of growing up with cleft, I am very aware of the social perceptions and misconceptions that still exist for clefts. People often fail to draw a line between sympathy and empathy and end up asking insensitive questions. Only more awareness can end all curiosities and break the stigma around clefts.
I salute the efforts of Smile Train and particularly their efforts in raising awareness; the Cleft Con India platform that they have launched is commendable. I am determined to do my part in igniting the spark of self-acceptance in every young Cleft Warrior so that they can be spared the embarrassment experienced by so many of us.