“We only ask for a level playing field that fulfills our basic right to equal rights in education and employment”

In 1998, Preethi Srinivasan went on a college trip to Pondicherry. A freak accident left her paralyzed below the neck. Life has been a constant struggle after that, but the sportswoman in her is always determined to take each problem head-on. If you are a girl/woman, you must read this story

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The only child of Vijayalakshmi and Srinivasan, Preethi had a blessed and blissful childhood. She was an exceptional student in school. At the age of 8, she was a swimming medallist, and at 17 she was the captain of the Under-19 Tamil Nadu women’s cricket team. She led the state team to the national championships in 1997.

Her father’s job required him to keep relocating, so in 12 years of school, she ended up attending nine different schools on three different continents. Though it was difficult to be the new girl in school, she is now grateful that she got exposed to various cultures, traditions, and lifestyles. Her decision to come back to India after completing her schooling in the USA had surprised many as at that time everyone in India was desperate to study in the US. However, she wanted to represent India in cricket, so she came back to Chennai and took up a consolidated five-year MBA course. “My life was perfect, and the possibilities seemed infinite,” said Srinivasan, 41.

After completing the first year of her MBA, Srinivasan went to the US to be with her father. That holiday was special as together they drove through the length of California. She returned to Chennai on July 7, 1998. Just three days later, on July 11, her life changed forever.

Srinivasan (then 19) went on a college trip to Pondicherry along with her friends. Post lunch, they went to the beach and played cricket for a while. It was too humid, so the boys decided to go for a swim. The girls too joined them. They were holding hands in about thigh-deep water. Just then a wave ate the sand under her feet, and she stumbled. But being a seasoned swimmer, she dove into the water. As soon as her face went underwater, she felt shock-like sensation travel through her body, and instantaneously she could not move anything. She tried to stand but couldn’t. She held her breath and waited. Initially, her friends thought she was playing a prank, but when they realized something was wrong, they immediately pulled her out. From that moment, she is paralyzed below the neck.

Preethi with her parents. Image: Mrunmaiy.com

Rehabilitation and the battle beyond

Srinivasan went to the Rehab Institute of Chicago for her rehabilitation. She met very positive and encouraging therapists at the rehabilitation center. However, soon after that, she suffered a setback when she tried to enroll in a distance education programme for a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “As I was in the top two percentile of the entire American population who had graduated from school and was bestowed with ‘The Who’s Who amongst America’s Students’ award, I could have easily joined any of the top universities in the world. However, I was denied admission into a long-distance programme. I was told by many universities that the course included practical classes and as there were no lifts or ramps, they asked me not to join,” said Srinivasan. 

She was devastated by this rejection and couldn’t understand why she was discriminated against. “My father bought me many books, but from 2002 until his death in 2007, I did not pursue any formal education. Later, I completed a Bachelor’s in Medical Sociology, as it did not have any practical classes. When I wished to join Master’s in Counselling Psychology, I was again rejected as the prerequisite for that was a Bachelors in Psychology, which was denied to me earlier. The media highlighted my case and eventually, they were forced to offer me M.Sc Psychology,” she said.

Celebrating her birthday. Image: Facebook

“Give us a level playing field”

Srinivasan worked full-time for close to seven years as a writer with a movie-based website using speech activated software. In December 2018, she started pursuing her Ph.D. in Humanities and Social Sciences from IIT Madras. She is also the founder of  Soulfree, a charitable organization that was born out of a dream to provide hope for the severely disabled, especially those with spinal cord injuries. “I’m very proud to say that I’m able to provide for my family and am not a burden to anyone, but this transformation has required years of introspection and penance,” she said.

Unlike the developed world, in India, because of attitudinal barriers, persons with disabilities continue to grapple with the challenges of access, acceptance, and inclusion. “An effort must be made to fundamentally change perspectives about disability in the mainstream society,” she said, and added: “The patriarchal, ableist thought process is so deeply entrenched into the psyche that system actually encourages young mothers to abort children who ‘may’ be born with ‘abnormalities’. This is not so far removed from sex-based abortions which are still prevalent despite laws against it.”

Soon after birth, children with disabilities are faced with exclusion, isolation and stigma. They are denied a right to basic education. In India, less than 10% of children with disabilities have access to education and this abysmal figure is even worse for girls. “Education is a great leveller. If every child with disabilities is given the opportunity to attend a ‘mainstream’ school and wheelchair-accessible accommodations are made to ensure equal rights, it would make a world of difference over a period of time. We do not ask for sympathy; we only ask for a level playing field that fulfils our basic right to equal rights in education and employment. The government has several quotas for persons with disabilities, but most of these are not being implemented,” said Srinivasan.

“Stop feeling sorry. Raise your voice”

She was instrumental in setting up functional ramps at the Distance Education building (IDE) of Madras University in Chennai when she was studying there. Unfortunately, nothing much has changed since then. The infrastructure in most of the educational institutes is not designed keeping persons with disabilities in mind. What should be done to change this?

“I think it is time for persons with disability to join hands, raise their voices and demand to be accommodated. An informed government that shows positive intent towards fulfilling the framework of the Convention on Rights of Persons With Disability that it has signed by providing universal accessibility to all public space and government buildings, educational institutions, as well as equal opportunities in employment, India will certainly lay a good foundation towards reintegrating persons with disability into mainstream society,” she said.

She believes that the best way to do this is by encouraging persons with disabilities to enter corridors of power and become the change. She cites an example and says that if a person with disabilities is given employment as the differently-abled district officer, he or she would be able to understand the needs and grievances much better than an “able-bodied” individual.

In December 2019, Preethi fulfilled her mother’s dream by taking her on a pilgrimage. Image: Facebook

Women with disabilities don’t have it easy

“In India, just being born a girl is considered a curse, a sign of misfortune and a burden. It is not hard to imagine the plight then, of a girl who is born with a disability or sustains one later in life. It is certainly a double burden that is tremendously difficult to bear,” said Srinivasan.

She feels it is the duty of the government to provide financial support to ensure that a girl child is not malnourished or stigmatized, create rehabilitation centres in the districts to maximize independence and self-sufficiency, ensure primary and secondary education, ensure that all mobility aides and other accommodations are made available to enable access to education. The government should also ensure appropriate employment at the right age or vocational rehabilitation or entrepreneurial options for self-reliance and financial independence and provide opportunities for representation in government offices and the political arena with appropriate quotas.

When asked if there are moments she cherishes, she mentioned about her all-girls trip to Mahabalipuram as, for the first time in 20 years, she spent one night away from her mother and got a sense of independence. “The second trip is closer to my heart. In December 2019. I planned a six-day trip and we travelled more than 2,000 km. It was a beautiful pilgrimage through Karnataka, into Kerala visiting many temples that my mother had wanted to see for a long time but never had the opportunity. I was fulfilling her dream and that gave me such a sense of joy. Also, I sat next to the driver and used Google Maps to navigate the entire six-day stretch and was really proud of myself!” said Srinivasan.

This is Part 5 of our series ‘Unbound’– a spinal cord injury awareness series. Read Mrunmaiy’s story, Ishrat’s story, Rafat’s story, Garima’s story Suresh’s story, Kartiki’s story, Ekta’s story.