In India, the rights of the disabled are almost non-existent, whether in terms of access to public facilities or educational and professional opportunities.
However, a few women have dared to venture into the world, despite their disabilities, to ensure that their community’s voice is heard and their rights granted.
The following are a few who are bringing inclusivity for disabled people across sectors.
Despite exceptional credentials, Deepa – who suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) - was denied employment opportunities because prospective employers could not promise a disable- friendly workplace for her. Although she started working as a freelancer, over the years, she was able to find a job in marketing at EMC, an international software firm.
Currently, she is the Diversity and Inclusion Head at Dell EMC and was instrumental in starting ‘Profound Disability Internship Programme,’ the first-of-its kind in the corporate sector. (DellEMC now employs more than 100 differently-abled people.)
Deepa has pioneered many innovations to help the differently-abled communities working in the corporate sector, for almost a decade now. As a well-known champion for the rights of the differently-abled, Deepa advocates for all public spaces to be easily accessible – not just by providing ramps but by assistive technologies, like screen reading software (for visually-impaired persons) and elevators with voice control systems.
Hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Arunima is the first female amputee who climbed Mount Everest, in 2013.
A former national-level football and volleyball player, Arunima lost her leg in a tragic train accident in 2011 when she was travelling to take the CISF examination. Media turned her story in national news, and the public imagination reduced her to either a victim or an attempted suicide case. To reclaim her voice, she decided to climb the tallest mountain in the world. After 18 months of rigorous training at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, she went on to set the record.
In 2014, her book Born Again on the Mountain: How I Lost Everything and Found It Back was launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2015, she was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award in India. She now runs an NGO called Chandrashekhar Azad Khel Academy to mentor underprivileged handicapped children.
At the age of 17, Preethi Srinivasan led Tamil Nadu women’s cricket team into the national championships. Also a state-level gold winner in swimming, Preethi became a quadriplegic after an accident, at the age of 18.
Though she was restricted to a wheel chair, she became the voice of other spinal cord injury survivors. She founded a charitable trust in Tamil Nadu, called Soulfree, which helps out people suffering from severe disabilities. In 2017, Preethi was honoured with the Kalpana Chawla Award for courage and daring enterprise from the Tamil Nadu government.
Through her NGO, Preeti aims to uplift the disabled sections of the society by creating awareness about these injuries and potential employment opportunities. Instead of the term ‘differently abled’, SoulFree employs the term ‘positively-abled’ for those suffering from a disability. The NGO also provides training for various professions such as radio jockey, audio books’ recording artists and so on.
Ira was the UPSC topper in 2014-15, and the first disabled woman to top the civil service exam in the General category. Suffering from Scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine which cannot be cured, Ira cannot move her arms. However, she was determined to win the most competitive exam in the country, and topped it in her fourth attempt, at the age of 31, and also won the President’s Gold medal for topping IAS.
An engineering graduate with an MBA degree, Delhi-based Ira Singhal is now the Assistant Collector of the capital city. She has been open about the bullying she has faced due to her disability, and is vocal about the need for inclusivity in schools. Ira was part of building the CBSE examination policy with regard to disabled children, and is the brand ambassador for Department of Disability, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India.
Confined to a wheelchair never stopped Nirmala from fighting for the basic rights of thousands like her. To make public transport more disabled- friendly, she filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport in Mumbai, asking them to implement the Person with Disability Act (PDA). This eventually led to 30 disabled-friendly buses in the city.
For the past 12 years, Nirmala has been working to empower the lives of disabled people. Among other achievements, she has managed to get confirmation from HPCL and Indian Oil to build one disabled friendly toilet each in their new projects on major highways across the country.
Not one to let go of her dreams due to disabilities, Nirmala has travelled 19000 kilometres in 84 days around India as part of Incredible India tour project on promoting tourism for disabled. In 2013, Neenu participated in the first ever Ms. Wheelchair India Beauty Pageant.