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Recently my autobiography ‘Swimming Against the Tide’ was published. Writing the book gave me the opportunity to review my entire life at a glance. It helped me understand how every challenge I faced helped bring out my unexplored potential. I also found that the higher the severity of the challenge, the greater was the innate potential realized by me. Of course, to see the results we must move forward in life without giving up our determination. In support of this, let me share a few examples from my personal journey.
I was born in a remote village in what is now Telangana state in a modest family and was the youngest among five siblings. Life was normal until I was affected by polio at the age of seven months. My entire body below the shoulders was paralyzed, excluding my left hand. Though God gave me such a big challenge in life, He was kind enough to give me a loving and caring family that supported me in all my efforts to overcome it. I cannot remember a single incident where I felt left out by my family due to my disability. They always ensured to take me along with them to any place they visited.
I was a very good student and was ambitious to pursue higher education. I was a voracious reader and always loved to socialize with people. But after grade 10, I could not go to college due to lack of accessible facilities there. I started appearing for exams privately. But to maintain contact with the external world, I decided to take tuitions for students in mathematics, which is my favorite subject. The challenge I faced from educational institutions made me realize my potential to study on my own without having a regular college life, and simultaneously gave me the confidence that I could lead a financially independent life.
After facing a few more challenges, I finally got a job in a public sector bank. When I began working, I developed a lot of love for my job. I concentrated on acquiring more professional qualifications and greater exposure with regard to work, so that I could extend better service to our customers. In spite of my qualifications and brilliant performance, I was rejected for promotion due to the Interview Board Chairman’s preconceived assumption that it would be difficult for me to perform my duties at a senior level considering my severe disability. At the next opportunity, with the intention of not giving them any reason to reject me, I prepared even more rigorously. That vigorous preparation helped me to compile a book to help other aspirants for promotion in public sector banks and also to reach to next level in my career. The silver lining of this experience was that the same official who had rejected me for a promotion later said while introducing me to our customers that the bank needed committed and passionate officials like me.
At a later stage in my career, I moved to Chennai to work in an MNC. Things were going well but after a few days, I started to feel a severe pain in my spine. After consulting the doctor, I was told that my life span would be only one year, during which I would become bedridden with multiple health issues due to severe spine compression. When we asked if there was any cure for it, the doctor suggested spinal surgery, but considering my age, chances of success were minimal. This was the biggest challenge I had ever faced in my life. But, once again, this challenge opened many opportunities in my life through hydrotherapy.
Though I entered water solely for the purpose of therapy, my love for water drove me to become a swimmer. Here also, the coach was not ready to train me – as he had no idea of how to teach a person with disability to swim. My experience of studying on my own helped me once again as I learnt to swim on my own.
Later, I participated in the swimming competition held at Corporate Olympiad. All throughout my swim, I was cheered by the crowd and after completion of the lap, I was received with euphoric adulation. This incident had a great impact on me. I realized how much I benefited from hydrotherapy and the joy I felt by participating in a sporting event. I decided to spread the word about it.
I started a movement called ‘Yes We Too Can!!!’ (YWTC) to encourage my fellow persons with disabilities (PwDs) to participate in sports. To forward the mission of my movement, I have been giving talks at various forums, giving interviews to print and electronic media, liaising with government institutions and corporates. I approached the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu officials to support sports for PwDs. Later, the Tamil Nadu government issued G.O.s in support of adaptive sports as a result of our efforts and constructed a hydrotherapy pool with all-inclusive facilities as well.
Reading my interview in The Hindu daily, like-minded people approached me and we formed the Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu. We trained three other swimmers and all four of us took part in the National Para-Swimming Championship 2011 – Kolhapur. We won a total of 8 Medals – 4 gold and 4 Silver. I won 3 medals and was a National Champion in my category. This event brought me into the limelight, and I used this opportunity perfectly to raise further awareness. With a lot of hard work and convincing, we were granted permission to organize the 2012 National Championship in Chennai. This helped us create even more awareness about para swimming in Tamil Nadu. By arranging many camps and events, we could introduce swimming to more than 300 PwDs in Tamil Nadu.
I was then approached by a UK NGO to partner with them to promote wheelchair basketball sport in India. After observing the benefits from the camps arranged by us, along with a few well-wishers I co-founded the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India. We went to different states and introduced this sport to more than 700 PwDs in 24 states/UTs by arranging training camps and tournaments. We encouraged the formation of many state associations to promote the sport at the grassroots level.
My complex health issue showed me the way to become a national para swimming champion, sports administrator, fitness advocate, public speaker, and today an author.
At present, I am concentrating more on our YWTC Charitable Trust activities to empower PwDs through various initiatives. Recently, we partnered with Khaitan & Co, a leading legal firm to publish a ‘Handbook on Rights of Persons with Disabilities’. We sincerely hope this effort will play a big role in empowering PwDs.
I see my life as an example of how the decision to ‘keep moving forward’ can turn challenges into stepping-stones and bring about positive change – in your personal life and in society at large.