Mrunmaiy Abroal celebrated the 2017 Christmas with her friends. She returned home and showed some of the pictures to her parents. Her mother beamed when she saw one picture and said: “You have blended so well with the others. It does not look like you are in a wheelchair. This picture makes your disability invisible.” For Mala Abroal, her mother, the picture is still very special as it blends her daughter with her friends. Inclusion … that’s all that people with spinal cord injuries ask for. The injury may have hampered their ability to walk, but they are still the same from within. It may have put restrictions on them, but it does not change their ability to love their better-halves, parents, and children. A spinal cord injury does not mean they should put their lives, dreams, ambitions, and aspirations on hold. No, they are not “different”.
I have known Abroal since college days. Some friendships are meant to last. It was that. Though we were not always living/working in the same city after we graduated, we stayed connected. In 2011, one Saturday, she invited me to her place to stay over. While gazing at the sparkling lights of Mumbai from her 10th-floor apartment, we chatted until the wee hours of the morning and even planned a trip to Turkey.
Two weeks later, a phone call at 10 pm informed me that her car had met with an accident while she was returning from Nagpur back to Mumbai with her parents. A few days later, I was informed that she had an ‘SCI’. I had no idea what that meant. I googled and read about spinal cord injuries (SCI). However, it was only after I visited her in Nagpur a couple of months after the accident that I came to know the exact nature of her “permanent” injury – quadriplegia … paralysis of all the four limbs and torso.
What’s incredible is the way she has handled the life-altering crisis. Today, when I see her chasing her goals at her workplace, travelling like she used to before, and finding time to pursue her hobbies like scuba diving and parasailing, my heart swells with happiness.
I have met her multiple times in different cities in all these years, mostly at high-end cafes that are wheelchair-friendly. And yet, we have had people stare at us when I would sometimes feed her, while she would manoeuvre her wheelchair around, or when her helpers would physically lift her and shift her in her car.
Unlike some of the countries in the Western part of the world, in India, because of attitudinal barriers, persons with disabilities continue to grapple with the challenges of access, acceptance, and inclusion. To sensitize people, September is dedicated to spread awareness about spinal cord injuries. We spent the whole month talking to those who are living with a spinal cord injury.
Our series, ‘Unbound’, is an attempt to bring to you their incredible journeys. Each story is an inspiration — some found strength in sports, others in academics, while a lot of them are busy looking after their children and managing their families and at the same time being financially independent. Inclusion and acceptance … that’s all that they are asking for.
Mrunmaiy Abroal is a communications professional, who is presently working with Amazon in Bangalore. In 2011, she suffered an injury in her spinal cord, which left her in a wheelchair. In this story, she shares her journey of recovering from the accident, getting back to work, and the challenges of working in an office
Picture this. Persons with disabilities (PwDs) form less than 0.5% of staff in India’s top firms. This, when as per the 2011 census (updated in 2016), there are 2.68 crore persons with disabilities in India, which is 2.21% of the whole population.
Because of the lack of support and access to the right tools and opportunities, majority of persons with disabilities don’t manage to find employment. Those who do, face serious difficulties at workplaces as most offices continue to remain inaccessible or are not very inclusive when it comes to accommodating persons with disabilities.
The problems are manifold, but the most important one, according to Mrunmaiy Abroal, 39, a communications professional, who is presently working with Amazon in Bangalore, is sugarcoating the definition of ‘persons with disabilities’.
“We live with our realities. I live with my disability day in and day out. I am aware of what my body can or cannot do. Glorifying the situation and addressing us as ‘people with special abilities’ or ‘divyang’ is incorrect. People think that it will make us feel good, but it does not. Words like disabled, visually challenged, hearing-impaired and the one closest to me, wheelchair-bound, have negative connotations. Just call us ‘people with disabilities’, which is the most appropriate, politically correct, and globally-accepted term,” she said, and added: “I am a daughter, a sister, a team leader, a travel buff, a Bollywood fan, and also a wheelchair user. I’m so many things. My disability is not the only thing that defines me.”
In June 2011, Abroal’s life changed forever. She suffered an injury in her spinal cord after a road accident, which left her in a wheelchair. In this story, she shares her journey of recovering from the accident, getting back to work, and the challenges of working in an office. Most importantly, she sheds some light on how persons with disabilities should be treated at a workplace and things that companies should keep in mind while hiring a person with a disability.
Injury and recovery
“We were on our way from Nagpur to Mumbai. I have no memory of the exact moment when the accident happened in the wee hours of the morning, but I remember opening my eyes in a hospital and not being able to move any body part except for my eyes and eyebrows. I was told I have an injury in my spinal cord that had resulted in quadriplegia — paralysis of all the four limbs,” she said.
It was only after she moved to the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in Delhi for her rehabilitation that she came to know the exact nature of her injury and that it was permanent. “It was shocking and depressing. But I had to accept and move on. The experience at the rehabilitation center was both, helpful, and frustrating. The transition from ‘I can’t do this anymore’ to ‘Okay, I can at least do this’ wasn’t easy. However, I met many positive therapists and befriended others with spinal cord injuries. They all guided and motivated me, and I never felt alone or lonely,” said Abroal.
Quadriplegia meant she was dependent on others for basic things like brushing her teeth, getting up from the bed, and drinking water. “It was frustrating. I would often go into a shell. People around me told me not to cry or overthink. But I couldn’t help that. It was an emotionally draining phase. There were people who went away without saying good-bye. I would often let sadness take over,” said Abroal while talking about the initial days.
Gradually, acceptance happened. She started celebrating small victories and achievements like moving her hand, to be able to sit to the count of 100, and relishing chicken after months of liquid diet to keep herself motivated.
“Living life at a slow pace allowed me to spend time with myself, to think, to ponder. I loved the quiet moments. I had enough time to watch squirrels make their way from one tree to the other, bask in the sun, experience the complete cycle of trees shedding their leaves, and coming back to life again,” she said.
Getting back to work
Although Abroal started working three months after the accident, it took her around two years to accept the new way of living and gain her confidence back. “When I joined work after the accident, I wasn’t the same anymore. I couldn’t work like I used to before. I would compare myself with the old me. Anxiety took over. Being a communications professional, my work involved meeting a lot of people. Initially, I wasn’t very comfortable meeting my clients in a wheelchair. There were times when I had to give demos about our new apps, but I couldn’t use my fingers. At times, my cousin would help me while I did the talking. At times, the journalists would take over the demo part, while I explained things to them,” she said.
Taking one day at a time, Abroal took charge of her life and career. In the initial years, she had the opportunity to work from her home in Nagpur, however, she started travelling for work after a year of the accident. Work kept her motivated. “My work gives me immense satisfaction. It’s the only thing I can do on my own, so I give my 100% to my career. I don’t make long-term plans, but I definitely set up higher, short-term goals at my workplace,” she said. In 2017, when a very good opportunity presented itself, she shifted her base from Nagpur to Bangalore. It was a big shift for her, and for her mother, who moved along with her.
“You need not lower your bar. Be inclusive”
It often happens in a workplace that employees are not sure about how to deal with a colleague with a disability. When asked to comment on this, Abroal said: “Let me tell you a little secret. People with disabilities are also humans. Just approach them like you would approach a colleague or a new employee in the office. You could use the same conversation starters that you would use with the others. Just be kind, patient, and understanding.”
As per Abroal, there are little things that employees must keep in mind if they have persons with disabilities working in the office. Firstly, empathize, but don’t go overboard. “For instance, if you see a person with a disability struggling to get into a lift, approach him/her, and ask if he/she needs help. In all likelihood, he/she may not. But don’t just jump to help the person. Let me give you an example. In the office, I use a motorized wheelchair. At times, I am not able to maneuver it smoothly when the passages are too narrow. It often happens that suddenly someone will come from behind and start pushing the wheelchair in order to help me. The wheelchair weighs around 100 kgs. Even if you try pushing it manually, it will not move, and this act of people causes me a lot of inconvenience. Just ask first,” she said.
She, however, says there is a thin line. At times, persons with disabilities hesitate to ask for help. “I’ve been with my team for quite a few years so I’m extremely comfortable asking them to take out my medicine from my bag and give it to me every day at 1 PM and 5 PM. When we go out for lunch or dinner, it is assumed that the person on my left or right will help me. When I am around strangers, I look for a friendly face; someone who makes eye contact and ask that person for help. But there are many who hesitate”
According to her, small acts go a long way in building trust and creating a work environment wherein each person is comfortable because they are accepted as they are. “Do everything in your power to be inclusive. If you are going out for lunch or for coffee, don’t assume that we would not like to join you. If you are taking a coffee break, don’t avoid taking us along thinking it would be inconvenient for you,” she said.
At times, at workplaces, disability per se does not limit persons with disabilities, but the infrastructure around them makes things difficult for them. “I cannot walk, so use a motorized wheelchair. I cannot type with my fingers, so I use the dictation software. But infrastructure is beyond my control. For instance, one of the floors where my team shifted had only turnstile entrances. It was difficult for me, but my facilities team was inclusive enough to replace them with the regular doors. It would really help if workplaces ask persons with disabilities about their specific requirements and be accommodating. For instance, even before I joined, I informed my team that I would prefer a desk whose height could be adjusted as I work sitting in my wheelchair. They were kind enough to oblige,” she said.
When asked if there is any advice that she would like to give to workplaces that are open to hiring persons with disabilities, she said: “If you are hiring a manager, you must look for a person who best fits the role. However, if one of the candidates happens to be a person with a disability, you don’t have to lower your bar. Don’t judge him/her based on the disability. Also, while calling someone with a disability for an interview, be sensitive towards the kind of disability he/she has and make appropriate arrangements.”
“Don’t put your life on hold”
Abroal has always been an outdoor, adventure-seeking person. She loves trekking and has participated in car rallies. Her weekends were reserved for travelling, exploring, meeting friends and making new ones. This was before the accident. With the spinal cord injury, she felt as if someone had clipped her wings. “However, meeting others with spinal cord injuries helped. They all are incredible and doing some amazing work, personally and professionally. Some are into sports and adventure. They helped me realize that I need not put my life on hold. I can still pursue my passions. Thanks to them, I could go scuba diving, parasailing and even participated in the 30th Karnataka State Para Games 2020. Winning a gold medal was truly special.”
Travelling is another thing that she is passionate about. “A lot of things are not the same anymore. For instance, now I have to hire a car that has enough space for my wheelchair, depending on where I am travelling to, I have to decide whether to carry my manual wheelchair or the motorized one, the hotels have to be carefully chosen and flying isn’t as easy anymore. But thanks to my family, my extended family, and my support staff, I have managed very well so far. I don’t restrict my outings to work-related travel. I make sure to explore new places wherever I go. I write about the places I visit so that people know which places are wheelchair-friendly and which aren’t,” she said. To know more about her journey and read her travel blogs (Wheelchair Wanderer) visit her website mrunmaiy.com.