A blind student overcame all odds by becoming an England footballer and competing in the Euros – all before he graduated university.
Azeem Amir, 20, from Rochdale, has been blind since birth; he has no sight in his right eye but light perception in his left, and he admits his opportunities were limited growing up.
That hasn’t stopped him though, with the 20-year-old following his passions to play football from a grassroots level to becoming a member of the England squad, all in just a few years.
Azeem attended a mainstream school rather than a school for the blind, admitting he often felt as though he was the one person people had to think about in terms of how he was going to play sports or get involved with the other students.
The 20-year-old is upfront about the barriers he’s faced. He has struggled finding a balance between studies and football, but has remained determined throughout, passing his A-Levels last year and currently studying Business and Management at the University of Salford.
Not only that, but Azeem is now part of England’s national blind football team, getting called up to the squad just a few years after he started playing the game at 15.
Blind football is an adapted format of 5-a-side with four outfield players who are completely blind and a fully sighted goalkeeper on each team. The outfield players will wear patches and a blindfold to ensure an even playing field, and the ball has ball bearings within its panels to create a rattling noise when shaken.
Azeem says one of the main reasons he started playing football in the first place was to prove to people blindness wasn’t holding him back.
Speaking to UNILAD, the international footballer said:
I think a lot of people pre-judge based on their own barriers of disability which you can’t do realistically. It’s something that I feel is changing but it’s still an underlying problem within society, never mind just sport.
I think sport is a good way to kind of change that kind of thought process that people might have. People just think of what they see and like I said, it’s not just being blind or being partially sighted, it’s everything – like being deaf or in a wheelchair, do you know what I mean?
Azeem noted if he’s walking with a stick at the airport, people usually feel sympathy for him and assume he needs help when, in actual fact, he’s travelling all over the world to play football.
One of Azeem’s life mottos is: ‘just because I can’t see, doesn’t mean I can’t do’. As well as attending university full time and travelling around the globe to play football, the 20-year-old has been visiting schools to spread his inspirational message to others.
The student wants to convey that just because he’s visually impaired it hasn’t prevented him from achieving everything he wants to in life. So rather than treat his blindness as a disability, he wants people to know you can do anything you put your mind to.
Just because a person can’t see doesn’t mean they go about their day-to-day life not being able to beat the barrier, Azeem says, so why do people still have this perception that people with disabilities can’t achieve the same things as everybody else?
At just 20 years old, the student has already achieved so much – and he doesn’t look set to stop anytime soon. From passing his A-Levels with two A*s to excelling at university, Azeem also gives TED talks to school children – and that’s not even touching on his athletic side.
The 20-year-old also holds a world record for the youngest blind person in the world to complete one of the world’s toughest obstacle courses, Tough Mudder, in aid of raising money for charity.
Azeem explained how he structures his talks:
The branding of being blind or being visually impaired is very official, so to make it register more with children I’ve been going to schools and doing a lot of talks.
I start by saying ‘I’m not blind, I’m not visually impaired, I’m not partially sighted, I just can’t see’. And it just makes it really really simple, like just because you can’t see doesn’t mean you can’t do.
It doesn’t mean you go around with your day-to-day life not being able to beat the barrier.
The footballer says that sometimes he can’t believe the questions he gets asked, with one person even querying if blindness means your guide dog can read the bus numbers for you.
These type of questions, although they make Azeem laugh, prove there is lack of knowledge and understanding around the subject. His mission though is justified in the process; by being an active, successful footballer at such a young age, he’s showcasing he is in no way held back by his visual impairment. Especially because he’s talking about it so openly.
Having already travelled the world to represent his country, the footballer also recently appeared in the FA’s ’21 Days of Positivity’ campaign – where he appeared alongside Jesse Lingard and Toni Duggan.
The campaign is all about promoting an equal playing field as well as positivity – not just on the pitch but off it too – and encouraging a positive mindset. Azeem describes being chosen as part of the campaign and to play for his country as an ‘honour’.
— England (@England) January 21, 2019
This year, Azeem is travelling to Argentina with the rest of the England squad in preparation for the European Championship in September, where he hopes his team will receive a set of gold medals.
So far, the team haven’t been able to win a major competition but Azeem’s hoping 2019 is their year:
Genuinely, we just want to win something for England which was something that our squad might be able to do.
So far we haven’t been able to win any of the major competitions but we’re feeling good about September. We just hope we can go that one step further and get to a final, yeah I just want a gold medal for England.
If his squad finishes in the top two of the European Championships, it would see them qualify for the 2020 Paralympic Games.
Having only started playing the beautiful game at 15, and having had no idea about how blind football worked prior to this, Azeem is an example to us all. Chase your dreams.
Not only has he become a successful football player and played a key role in many FA positivity campaigns, he’s also a record-breaking inspirational speaker who is hoping to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics.
Azeem has overcome all odds to achieve his dreams and has demonstrated that anything is possible if you put your mind to it – just because he can’t see, really doesn’t mean he can’t do.
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A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).