NJ's a game changer
Focused on his computer screen, intent on beating his competitors, Nishit, known as NJ, or by his online alias INSPIRIT, is a formidable opponent.
His talent and passion for gaming have catapulted him to the top level in his main game Overwatch. NJ is also profoundly deaf, though determined it won’t hold him back – in anything!
“There was no newborn hearing screening in India where NJ was born,” says mum Monika. “At four months, I noticed he didn’t respond to noises – like the phone ringing. Specialists sent him for hearing tests, then told us he was deaf. My husband and I were devastated, worried whether he’d ever speak or pass exams.”
Hearing aids helped NJ, and Monika spent hours practising speech and language therapy with him, teaching him to lip-read the Hindi language. NJ was four before he spoke his first words – Hindi for ‘brother’ when his new baby brother arrived, then ‘Mum’.
“Nurseries and schools had no facilities for deaf children, but I sent NJ so he could observe other children,” says Monika. “I coached him with speech therapy, taught him singing rhymes. His teacher taught him to write, and he began speaking more.”
They moved to the UK when NJ was five. With a Special Educational Needs (SEN) statement (now known as an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan in England) and attending a school for deaf children, he thrived. Monika learned and taught him British Sign Language (BSL), then both his parents coached him for the 11-plus exam.
“His school said it was too difficult, but he got a place at grammar school – everyone was shocked,” says Monika. “Cochlear implants at 15 helped his speech and school progress too. He went from grade three in English to a nine in his GCSE!”
Now chasing top A-Level grades in Chemistry, Economics and Product Design, NJ’s also excelled in extracurricular activities; he’s won swimming galas and awards and passed guitar exams with distinction. NJ credits these achievements, and passing his 11-plus, with boosting his self-confidence and belief.
“I’d think, ‘I’m deaf, it’ll be impossible,’ but these achievements showed me it wasn’t, unfixed my ideas and freed me from thinking being deaf would hold me back,” he explains.
Then two years ago, NJ discovered gaming and, despite the challenges deafness presented and having poor vision in his right eye, he discovered another talent.
“I tried many games, found I was really good because I was passionate about playing,” says NJ. “There’s a steep learning curve getting to know the game, the process and concept; that’s part of the enjoyment.”
NJ uses a standard headset and PC equipment. “There are headsets that vibrate when people in the game are nearby but they’re expensive,” says NJ. “There are challenges being deaf. Background noise and music make it hard to hear audio cues, like footsteps or gunshots behind you.”
As NJ uses his eyes more than his ears, he’s more reliant on the visual aspect of gaming and says: “I tend to have faster response times in catching people that my teammates will miss, and I’ve developed an incredible game sense. I’ve sharpened my tools of mechanical skill and awareness through practice and watching top players.
“When you get really good, other gamers watch you online, how you’re playing, ask questions – you’re basically coaching them.”
NJ is now ranked in the top 4% of players in Europe. He’s aiming for the top 1% (around 500 people) of gamers in Europe and the USA, and moving into other games too. He also creates content, live streaming gaming on Twitch (a kind of gaming social media platform), where he has a large following. He happily fields questions on there about how he can hear, wear headphones and speak, given that he’s deaf.
“I want people to see that ‘this deaf guy’ is doing really well against ‘normal’ people, that disability doesn’t prevent you achieving difficult things,” says NJ. “It’ll take time but it’s not impossible. Deaf people are not included. I know some deaf players with no cochlear implants or hearing aids – I have so much respect for them.
“I want to educate people, spread deaf awareness amongst the gaming community and others, and in particular to educate and work with game developers about improving accessibility for deaf people. The aim is to make sure we can play competitive games to a level where having voice communications is not a necessity and audio visualisers are available so other deaf people can see the audio on their screen. I want closed captions, BSL and other sign languages simultaneously – in gaming, YouTube, everywhere.”
Last summer NJ featured on a YouTube video promoting deaf awareness in the gaming industry which got 80,000 views. He has big ambitions for the short-term in gaming and for his long-term career, which he plans on discovering by trying out lots of things.
“I predict soon I’ll be a partnered content creator,” says NJ. “It’ll boost my content creation, I’ll start on YouTube and other platforms. There’s no limit to my ambition. I’m also interested in music production as a possible path, making an increased presence of disability in several communities.
“I’ve not always been included – in my family, in school meetings. Even when people try hard, they get tired of relaying information. I want all deaf children and young people not to be left out, especially in gaming.”
“To think we worried he’d never speak or pass any exams,” Monika adds. “Now look at him! We tried to give him every chance. Now his destiny is in his hands. The sky’s the limit.”