If you look at my resume, you'll find that I'm an Associate Vice President with a multinational corporation (MNC) Bank group, a former national Paralympic Swimming Champion, the founder General Secretary of the Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu and founder President of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India. But behind this impressive resume, is my story – a story of an ordinary woman who decided that I would not be defined or limited by society, by what was inaccessible to me, or even by my own disability.
My story started in a remote village called Sathupally, on the highway between Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam in the erstwhile composite state of Andhra Pradesh. My father, Mr Pardhasaradhi Raju, was working as a school teacher and my mother, Mrs Varalakshmi Devi was a homemaker. With four elder siblings, three sisters and a brother, I was dearly cherished from the cradle – the darling of the family.
A massive polio attack when I was seven-months old left me paralyzed below the shoulders as polio vaccination was not popular in those days. Living in a remote village meant little accessibility to hospitals and medical care, which would have actually lessened the impact of polio. Undaunted by the severe challenges, my parents set out to ensure I was educated and got the best quality of life they could afford.
As a child, I loved playing with my friends very much. But as I grew it became increasingly difficult to play with them. Initially, my friends used to carry me in their arms and tried to include me in their games. But soon it became strenuous for them to carry someone of their own age. I started keeping myself away from sports, partially out of concern that players might fall over me accidentally and cause injuries to me. At that time, I thought sports and Madhavi were two different worlds.
In those days, there was no accessibility to wheelchairs in my village. My parents would carry me to school every day. Till I completed college in 1989, I lived in this assisted state, till I was able to get a walker for myself. Today I use an automatic wheelchair that I bought in 2009.
From inaccessible higher educational institutions to dismissive authorities, I had to fight a battle in every step to complete my learning. I completed higher education by appearing privately in an effort to be financially independent. I had little knowledge of my rights as a citizen. By sheer determination and perseverance and the unfailing support of the family, I not only graduated but even completed several certifications later in the field of banking.
But my impeccable work ethic as a banker began to have an adverse effect on my health – as I sat for long hours and didn't do much exercise.
After a devastating report from a doctor who declared that I had only a year left to live, I found a new lease of life in physiotherapy and hydrotherapy. When my physiotherapist Mr Anand recommended hydrotherapy, I couldn't believe my ears. For years I had longingly looked at the oceans and rivers during trips and wished I could just be surrounded by the waters.
At this time, I was in Chennai. After much practice, I was finally able to swim unassisted in the adult pool. Before I knew it, I found myself registering for a corporate Olympiad, where I swam against able-bodied swimmers. With the "Most Encouraging Sports Person" award under my belt, there was no holding me back.
In spite of inaccessible buildings in many places, I started my work in creating awareness among disabled children about hydrotherapy and its positive effects.
Inspired by Barrack Obama's Campaign Slogan "YES WE CAN", I named my movement as "YES WE TOO CAN" as many people expressed doubts about the abilities of the disabled in doing certain things. Today YWTC is a trust and I continue to do talks and conduct events.
Friends began to encourage me to participate in the Paralympic Swimming competition. Along with me, I wanted to take our swimming team to the Paralympic Swimming Championship. In that 11th National Paralympic Swimming championship, our team won 8 medals. I won 3 gold medals and became a National Champion at the age of 40 years! I couldn't believe it myself!
We formed the Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu. In the very first year of our association, we hosted the National Championship. 19 swimmers participated in the Nationals from Tamil Nadu. In 11th National, we had only four swimmers from Tamil Nadu. Over the years, the association has supported over 300 persons with disabilities in Tamil Nadu to learn swimming and to participate at state/National/International competitions.
In December 2013, I was invited for an International Conference by Choice International, a UK based non-profit organization, along with their partners. They contacted me and expressed their desire to promote wheelchair basketball in India and asked if I'd like to partner with them.
Till that time, I was working for swimming which is an individual sport. Wheelchair Basketball was a team sport. I felt that it would be a great opportunity to inculcate leadership skills and team spirit among the disabled through this sport and also it would give an opportunity to youngsters with disabilities to channel energy and showcase their dynamism.
In July, 2014, our YWTC Trust and Choice International, UK in partnership with SDAT arranged 7-day wheelchair basketball training camp. Following the success of this camp, I took the initiative to form the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI) along with Kalyani Rajaraman, my physiotherapist Ananda Jothi and other like-minded people.
Our Federation is affiliated with International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF). In association with the Govt, ICRC/Cognizant/RRD/Star Health Insurance/Hanon and many other Corporates, Universities and NGOs, we have organized 6 National Wheelchair Basketball Championships successfully.
Through these events and training camps, WBFI has been able to introduce the sport to over 650 persons with disability and the Indian men and women teams have represented the country in Asian and Paralympic qualifying events in Thailand. We could also arrange courses for coaches/referees/classifiers with the support of ICRC & IWBF.
In 2019, a team of wheelchair basketball players, coaches and administration accompanied me on a visit to the US, under the Sports Visitor programme, organized by the US State Department in collaboration with US Consulate in Chennai. This trip greatly enriched our knowledge with regard to the inclusive environment for the disabled.
Today, I continue to talk at various events and also address government administrating officers (IAS officers) to advocate sports for the disabled. I've consistently worked with Govt officials to issue orders to support sports for the disabled and to make the infrastructure facilities accessible, etc. and have also approached several corporates to include parasports in their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) Agenda.
Now my phone is always flooded with the messages from our players informing me about the talks they are delivering at various places and the recognitions and awards they are receiving.
My biggest lesson in all this has been to initiate the first step towards the goal, realizing once I start, many will be there to walk the journey with me.
Mine is a story of finding my true identity in a society that loves to label people. My dream is that families and society would come together to support the cause of the disabled – so that EVERYONE has a chance to live a life of fulfilment and make a meaningful contribution to society.
Note: This series #SheLeads is in collaboration with the US Consulate General Chennai as a commemoration of Women's Equality Day on August 26.
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