10 women who are championing the cause of the differently abled in India

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When it comes to inclusion, India still has a long way to go in making way for people with disabilities. From daily challenges to the stigma that the differently abled face, India needs to undergo a complete transformation. The biggest push for change has come from people who have faced the challenges themselves. Though the journey is still marred by ups and downs, a few women leaders, who themselves have suffered disability, are ferociously supporting their cause and creating awareness.

Clockwise, from top left: Arunima Sinha, Malathi Krishnamurthy Holla, Rajalakshmi S.J., Ruma Roka, S.D. Jayasree, Suvarna Raj, Raghavi Shankar, Preethi Srinivasan, Nirmala Kewlani, and Deepa Narasimhan.

Raghavi Shankar

When she was hardly five months old, Raghavi suffered from polio. As a result, she had a tough childhood and youth. Hence, to help other people like her, Raghavi started The Headway Foundation to help, mentor, and encourage the disabled. Working as an HR consultant side-by-side, Raghavi strongly believes in community spirit and learning.

Preethi Srinivasan

At the age of 17, Preethi Srinivasan led the Tamil Nadu women’s cricket team into the national championships. Also a state-level gold winner in swimming, Preethi became a quadriplegic after an accident. Her own trauma inspired her to create SoulFree, a foundation that aims to help Indian youth with disability and mentors them on rehabilitation techniques. Instead of the term ‘differently abled’, SoulFree employs the term ‘positively-abled’ for those suffering from a disability. This year she also received the Kalpana Chawla Award for Courage and Daring Enterprise.

Arunima Sinha

Hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Arunima is the first female amputee who climbed Mount Everest. A former national-level football and volleyball player, Arunima lost her leg in a tragic train accident in 2011 when she was travelling to take the CISF examination. In 2014, her book Born Again on the Mountain: How I Lost Everything and Found It Back was launched by Indian PM Narendra Modi. In 2015, she was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award in India. Later on, she started an NGO called Chandrashekhar Azad Khel Academy to mentor underprivileged handicapped children.

Today her students are her life, and she is ardently working hard to amass Rs 25 crore to establish proper infrastructure, training, education, and growth for them.

Ruma Roka

Quite early in life, Ruma understood the value of helping, empowering, and supporting the disabled, especially those who suffered from hearing loss. In 2004, she learned sign language, and later went on to establish the Noida Deaf Society in 2005. After years of struggle, today NDS has 39 trainers who can mentor the students with hearing loss. The foundation also helps in increasing the employment opportunities for them.

Malathi Krishnamurthy Holla

An internationally recognized para-athlete from India, this Bengaluru-based sportswoman is a rare story of inspiration. She represented India for the first time in Paralympics at Seoul in 1988. Along with working as a manager at the Syndicate Bank, Malathi also runs Mathru Foundation, where she focuses primarily on children suffering from polio whose parents cannot afford the necessary medical care. She has also won Padma Shri and Arjuna Awards.

Rajalakshmi S.J.

Rajalakshmi S.J. shot into the limelight for bagging the title ‘Miss World Wheelchair 2017’ at Poland. This Bengaluru-based wheelchair-bound orthodontist is just 31 years old. Along with giving motivational TEDx talks, she regularly gives free-of-cost dental check-ups and works for the employment and education rights of the disabled.

Deepa Narasimhan

Deepa suffered from Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) during her childhood. She herself suffered due to the lack of employment opportunities for the disabled in the corporate sector. As things changed and new opportunities knocked at her door, she eventually went ahead to play a pivotal role in starting the Profound Disability Internship Programme disabled people searching for employment in the corporate sector. As of now, Deepa is working as Diversity and Inclusion Head at Dell EMC and works strongly for creating an equitable workforce.

Nirmala Kewlani

It’s very inspiring how Nirmala never, ever allowed her wheelchair to become an impediment in how she lived her life. Not only did she fight for her own dreams, she made it possible for thousands of others who are like her to demand their entitlement as well. She filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport in Mumbai, asking them to implement the Person with Disability Act (PDA), eventually leading to 30 disabled-friendly buses in the city. For the past 12 years, Nirmala has been working to empower the lives of disabled people. She is a member of Sukriti Foundation, Access for all Social Foundation, and Nina Foundation.

S.D. Jayasree

In spite of being hearing-disabled, 32-year-old Jayasree reinvented her life to inspire, help, and motivate others. By founding Calliper Women to help people with hearing disability, Jayasree has been working tirelessly to introduce sign language in school curriculums. She helps women with hearing disability get employment.

Suvarna Raj

A famous International para-athlete, Suvarna has played an important role in fighting for better accessibility for disabled people, be it in withdrawing cash from the ATM or local travelling in buses or education and employment. She is also working in the national flagship Accessible India Campaign with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Even in para-sports, she is working hard to ensure that disabled women sports athletes are not marginalized.

Each of these women is a source of inspiration. In the face of disability and the challenge and stigma attached to it in India, these women took up the mantle of change and not only reinvented their lives but went on to change the lives of others as well.


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