S. Ramakrishnan, advocate for people with disabilities, says the only way to face oddities in life is to get on with your life.

“My body does not work. I have no sensation neck down. But I am still me.” After 37 years in a wheelchair, S. Ramakrishnan, founder-president of Amar Seva Sangam (ASS) in Tirunelveli, smiles when he tells the story of his life. That smile reveals his inner convictions and proves that life does not end with a grievous injury.

“I didn't want to belong to the dead,” he adds. “The Almighty and the people around me believed that I could take care of myself.”

And he did. After a near-fatal accident when he was barely 20, he learned to live all over again. Today he heads the country's largest establishment offering services for the differently abled in rural areas. The Sangam rehabilitates and empowers people with physical and mental impairment. In its three decades, it has embraced 330 villages in four blocks of Tirunelveli District touching a population of six lakhs.

Just back from Mumbai after receiving the IBN7 Super Idols Award for Lifetime Achievement-2012, Ramakrishnan says, “Life is all about choices. The ability to succeed is a direct reflection of the ability to try.”

“The date was 10th January, a cold winter morning in Bangalore in 1975.” Ramakrishnan's razor sharp memory battles daily with his limp body.

He remembers names and faces, every minor and major date and incident in his life as if it happened yesterday.

The youth from Ayikudy, five kilometres from Tenkasi, had left for the big city to live his dream. A Fourth Year mechanical engineering student at the Government College of Technology in Coimbatore and an NCC cadet, he was enthusiastic about a career in the Navy.

Ramakrishnan recalls the gruelling rounds of interviews and endurance tests spread over four days. In the final round on the last day, he was asked to negotiate 10 obstacles in three minutes. In the fourth obstacle he had to leap 15 feet from a tree on to a platform and another 10 feet to the ground.

“I was in a hurry and fell on my back. Obviously God had other plans for me,” he says. There was no external injury but the crash dislocated and fractured his cervical spine. “I remember telling the guards who lifted me that my hands are missing and to search for them in the grounds. They lifted and showed me my hands still attached to my shoulders. The loss of sensation was instant.”

The battle begins

He battled medical complications for 19 months at the Air Force Hospital in Kirkee, Pune. As his batchmates came to visit him before the start of the academic year, he realized he would not finish the course.

At the hospital, he found his guide and friend in orthopaedist Air Marshall Dr. Amar Singh Chahal, after whom, six years later, he named his Sangam. “He taught me to acquire wheelchair independence. He prepared me to understand that I will have to live the rest of my life with a dysfunctional body and never be able to do any of those things I took for granted earlier.”

Once Ramakrishnan returned to his village, he began learning to live with his disability. He developed leg spasms. He couldn't lift his hands even to slap a mosquito. His sweat glands became non-functional and he became intolerant to variation in temperatures due to profuse sweating. The initial years were tough but his parents, siblings, friends, neighbours, relatives and later his wife stood by him.

“Once I realized there was no denying my condition, I was keen to know what was in store for me. I wanted to continue living life to the fullest.” Ramakrishnan toyed with the idea of starting a printing press or a match stick factory. And there were times when he was depressed. “But I couldn't have even committed suicide without anybody's help,” he laughs. The radio was his constant companion, and it was during the International Year of the Disabled in 1981 that some programmes and the advice of a relative sparked off a dream.

He started a school for children with disabilities on a piece of land gifted by his parents, with five students under a thatched shed.

He simultaneously launched health awareness camps in the villages and started gaining recognition among the locals.

Publicity helped

Sivasankari's article on ASS in a magazine earned him public trust and support. A friend's father wrote about ASS's work to the then President of India and to cricketer Vijay Merchant. Merchant then invited him to Mumbai, where another newspaper article made his work known.

Today, the ASS's comprehensive services are spread over a campus of 30 acres supporting more than 300 families who have physically or mentally challenged kids. Ramakrishnan's self-rehabilitation, spirit of service and sense of independence attract people to him who willingly offer their services. One of them is S. Shankar Raman, currently the secretary of ASS, who has muscular dystrophy. The other is his wife, Chitra, who was earlier a teacher at ASS. “I did not take sympathy on him but fell in love with his spirit and commitment. I look after him, but he looks after so many disadvantaged others,” she says.

The organization and its founder have won many awards. “It is the recognition of my team's work,” says Ramakrishnan. A dedicated band of teachers, doctors and other staff teaches skills in daily activities and provides education and vocational training.

The students get free shelter, food, clothing, transportation, mobility appliances, physiotherapy and medical attention. As a result, they are daring to dream. Many are also living their dreams.

What Ramakrishnan dreamt as a young boy did not happen. “But what I had not planned has also happened. Nobody leads a predictable or problem-free life. It all depends on how we react to every situation.”

“God keeps my spirits up,” he says. “And I am blessed to have helpful friends and family as support system. In my next birth, I wish to help all those who helped me in this life.”