Wheel of fortune

A wheelchair can represent a chance to begin again.   | Photo Credit: MURAD SEZER

I was at a conference last Sunday when a gracefully dressed South Indian woman with a boy cut was wheeled up to me.

Preethi Srinivasan, I was to learn during the conversation, was a young woman who was knocking on the doors of the Indian under-19 cricket team when a freak accident in July 1998 broke her neck, leaving her body paralysed. We went on to exchange notes about the work our respective foundations pursue along with our vision for an accessible country.

It wasn’t very long into our conversation that being the typically distracted millenial that I am, I took out my phone and started browsing through it while pretending to be interested in the conversation. However, Preethi suddenly captured my attention again when she curiously asked “Do you manage using your touch screen phone all by yourself?”. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question. Being on a wheelchair in India, I’m often the victim of a wide variety of questions ranging from extremely bizarre and offensive to mildly hilarious.

I was surprised that someone who was herself a wheelchair user had asked this question. I shrugged my shoulders and answered, “Oh yes, yes. Of course, I can”. “I hope I didn’t offend you,” replied Preethi before adding “I ask because I can’t”. “I’m so sorry” is all I could mutter as for once I was completely at a loss for words. The next speaker had just arrived on stage, saving me from making a bigger fool of myself. I was full of gratitude about my own life and also gutted about Preethi’s.

Yes, I was born with arthrogryposis. And yes, that meant the muscles in my arms and legs hadn’t fully developed because of which I can’t jog, climb a floor of steps or wash my shit myself. However, unlike Preethi, my fingers work almost perfectly and I’ve never thought twice (or asked for assistance) before switching channels on my television remote, sending someone a flirty message or scrolling through my Twitter timeline while pretending to be interested in a conversation. It was then that I remembered two of my favourite speeches and things that had particularly touched me in them. The first is from famous talk show host Oprah at Harvard in 2013. She spoke about Michael Stolzenberg, who nearly died at the age of eight from a bacterial infection that eventually cost him both his hands and feet. A young boy’s life was changed forever as he had become a quadruple amputee.

However, it was this loss that gave him direction and a sense of purpose. He could’ve sat in his wheelchair all day feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he used his prosthetics to learn how to walk and run and play again and was soon in his middle school lacrosse team.

After he learnt that the Boston Marathon bombings of April 2013 had resulted in many new amputees, ‘Michael decided to banish that darkness with light’. Along with his brother Harris, he created to raise money for other amputees.

The other speech I remember was the one delivered by Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005. He speaks in this address about starting Apple in his parents’ garage when he was 20. In 10 years, the company went from two people in a garage to a $2 billion concern with over 4000 employees. But, he was eventually fired by the Board of Directors of his own company. He was gutted and wanted to run away from Silicon Valley. However,he realised that he still loved what he did and decided to start over.

In the next five years, he started a company called NeXT and another company called Pixar. Pixar would go on to create the world’s first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and become the most successful animation studio in the world. As luck would have it, Apple bought NeXT and Steve Jobs was re-inducted as Apple’s CEO. The rest, as they say, is history. In fact, in his speech, Steve Jobs mentions that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that ever happened to him. The heaviness of being successful had been replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again.

My meeting with Preethi was a similar moment of awakening for me. I’ve never really been sad about what I cannot do. I am an eternal optimist who believes he’s the best thing that’s happened to the world. However, on Sunday night, I took a moment to appreciate what I do have. I think that occasionally we all should.

I must add that I’m not trying to be sympathetic towards Preethi. It would be an insult to this woman with an indomitable spirit who is a powerful motivational speaker changing attitudes towards those with Spinal Cord injuries. She dreams of creating a state-of-the-art rehabilitation centre that will house women with severe disabilities and I am sure that one day it will become a reality.

Quoting Michael again from Oprah’s speech when asked about his fellow amputees, “First they will be sad. They’re losing something they will never get back and that’s scary. I was scared. But they’ll be okay. They just don’t know that yet.”.

Nipun Malhotra was born with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder. To read all the tweets he types himself, follow him on Twitter @nipunmalhotra

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2021 12:20:23 AM |

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