My eyes can’t see but I dream, My lips don’t speak I want to scream, I can’t move my feet but my mind is in no prison, The strength of my will second to none, To fall I will never be shy, My eyes will not leave the sky, I face my fear without a blink, I know my hope will never sink, The dark is no more a scare, I will find the light of my share, Some may say I am a sin, But I know I can win.
Poem by Ashwin Karthik, speaker at the India Inclusion Summit, 28th & 29th November, Bangalore, 2014)
Till just the other day, I used to think, I have to confess, that people who are called ‘disabled’ were really what the word suggests—rendered incapable, because of a physical or mental condition, of doing much in life. But attending the India Inclusion Summit in Bangalore last week changed my perception entirely. The Summit, brainchild of V.R. Ferose, co-author of the best-selling book Gifted: Inspiring Stories of People With Disabilities, brought together several dozen people who are ‘disabled’ in different ways—mentally and physically—who demonstrated to a spell-bound audience that despite the immense challenges they are confronted with, they are capable of leading fulfilling and joyful lives. Faith in the Divine, the love of friends and family, and sheer determination to accept reality, rather than escape it, have made them role models for just about everyone. And it isn’t just that. Because they know what intense suffering means, these people are also working for others who are placed in similarly difficult situations. They are, I discovered, actually amazingly able in many ways, able of triumphing over traumatic odds that many of us just wouldn’t be able to handle.
Preethi Srinivasan from Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, was one of the more than three dozen speakers at the Summit. This cheerful young woman was once a champion swimmer. At the age of 8, she became the youngest ever player in the Tamil Nadu women’s cricket team. She studied in America, found a place in the US students’ ‘Who’s Who’ and stood in the top 2 percentile of the US student population. An accident, leading to spinal cord injury (SCI), changed her life completely, paralyzing her below the neck and forcing her into a wheelchair. Some people said she was condemned to be a ‘vegetable’ for the rest of her life.
“Earlier, people used to admire me, but after the accident they looked at me with pity,” Preethi explains. “I just couldn’t take that. I had to find myself. I had two near-death experiences, but I faced no fear. Instead, I experienced a wonderful peace. From that peace came purpose. I was inspired to start working for many others like me. There are thousands of women in India with SCI who are told they are a burden, and that it is better that they die. Sometimes, they have just two options: suicide or being thrown out on the streets. I was determined to help them.”
That’s how Preethi started Soulfree, a charitable trust through which she reaches out to fellow victims of SCI. “SCI victims don’t get medical insurance. There are no long-term rehabilitation centres for them. We’d like to set up a place where people like us can live together, get an education, earn a decent livelihood and lead a life of dignity,” she says.
Ashwin Karthik was born with cerebral palsy, which affected all his limbs and made him wheelchair-bound. But that didn’t stop him from becoming a computer science engineer. This winner of the ‘Best Employee with Disability Award’ from the President of India remarks, “I don’t see why people who have some or the other challenge should be considered misfits. They need empathy, not sympathy.”
27 year-old Rachit Kulshreshtha was struck with cancer at the age of five, which led to the amputation of an arm. But he is still fired with great enthusiasm for life. “Everyone has some issue or the other, and if you laugh it off, half of it can be overcome!” he explains. “Life works on the basis of duality. Nothing can be really that bad or that good. If you really want to do something, nothing can stop you. It’s simple thought-manifestation.”
Navin Gulia, an ex-army officer, is confined to a wheelchair after suffering a spinal cord injury at the age of 22. But that hasn’t diminished his passion for adventure, including para-jumping and rock-climbing. A decade ago, this Karamveer Chakra winner created a world record by driving non-stop for 55 hours to reach the world’s highest motorable mountain pass, the Marsimik La (18632 feet), in Ladakh, a record that stands unbeaten. Gulia now runs an organization in Gurgaon that works with children in need.
Another great adventure enthusiast, Sanjeev Gohil from Gujarat suffers from low vision in both eyes. This started when he was doing his graduation, forcing him to opt out in the second year. But he still goes off on nature trips and works as an educator in nature education camps. “Life comes with difficulties,” he says, “but there’s also so much reason for joy. I regard my low vision as a challenge, not a disability. And so, I am able to do things that I love even now, by making necessary adjustments. Earlier, when I used to go rock-climbing, I used to see the rocks. Now I can feel them. I could see birds and identify them by their colours. Now I can do the same thing by hearing them chirp. I can’t see a sloth-bear in the jungle now, but I can still identify it from the sound it makes while drinking water. I’ve learnt to go with the flow, and I enjoy that.”
Ankit Jindal is a marketing manager with Wipro. Being visually-challenged has not stopped this man with an angelic face from rising high in his career. Knowing the insides of the corporate world, he stresses, “We need more people with physical challenges to work in companies, but they should have faith in themselves, work hard and not aim low—as many of them do. Why not aim high? I’d love to become a CEO!”
He has the effective use of just one hand but Sharath Gayakwad from Bangalore is an ace swimmer, and winner of many medals. He broke the legendary PT Usha’s record for most number of medals by an Indian at any multi-discipline sports event. “Others have to know that people like us can do things. Everyone has talent,” he insists, echoing the Summit’s logo: ‘Everyone Can Do Something”.
This truly inspiring event was rounded off by a scintillating musical performance by Roshan and Rithvik Rajan, two brothers, both visually-challenged, who work as artistes with All-India Radio, Bangalore. The duo sang old Hindi songs that celebrated the joy of life amidst all odds.
That amazing day of unlearning and learning—definitely one of the best days in my almost 50 years—forced me to ask myself, “Would I have been able to so courageously face the daunting challenges that these people have? Aren’t they, then, definitely more able, in a major way, than I am?”
The people I met and heard that day compelled me to realize that all of us are able as well as disabled in different ways, and that each one of us, no matter what condition we are in, has a unique and equally indispensable role to play in the grand cosmic scheme of things.
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