Parathletes Ekta Bhyan and Devika Malik on disability, access to infrastructure, and mental health
At HerStory’s Women On a Mission summit, para athletes and disability champions, Ekta Bhyan and Devika Malik discussed the pressing need for accessible infrastructure and acknowledged mental health as a bigger challenge than physical disability.
Para athlete, paralympian and disability champion Ekta Bhyan said there seemed to be a notion that persons with disability are incapable of doing or excelling at things of their interest.
“A surprising fact of our country is that the literacy rate among persons with disabilities is just 42 percent, which is lesser among women with disabilities. They are restricted to their homes without any opportunities and inclusion remains a faraway dream for them,” she said, addressing the virtual audience at HerStory’s Women On a Mission summit.
Ekta and her co-panelist for the event, Devika Malik – have surmounted great odds to make a career in sports and bring laurels to the country.
In 2002, at 18, Ekta met with a horrific accident that left her with a spinal injury, complete paralysis of lower limbs, and partial paralysis of upper limbs.
Devika Malik – a disability inclusion advocate and Forbes’ 30-under-30 Asia-featured entrepreneur – was born a premature baby with acute neonatal jaundice and hemiplegia, with paralysis on one side of the body.
Inching towards inclusion
Despite their unique personal journeys, both Ekta and Devika highlighted the shared challenges of being in a “financially demanding” career as a para athlete and the challenges to keep up with training.
While para athletes have gained some recognition and limelight after the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics where India sent its biggest ever contingent of 54 members , Ekta said most private companies would not sign bigger deals with para athletes.
As a step towards inclusivity, Devika highlighted that infrastructure could be improved to accommodate persons with disabilities at all public places.
“People are not out there because our infrastructure is not accessible. So you don't see as many people with disabilities but that doesn't mean that they don't exist,” she said, and added that more persons with disabilities need to be involved in policy-making and execution.
“There is definitely a need to further the access, especially in last-mile connectivity,” she said.
If facilities like buses are being commissioned, Devika pointed out, one must also think about how long the bus can halt at the stop and whether it is sufficient for everybody to board as well as take care of the bus stop’s accessibility in the first place.
“The metro system in Delhi is a relatively more accessible transport but even so, the elevators at the stations are sometimes on a raised platform. So these minute details need to be thought about with more deliberation and involvement of people with disabilities,” said Devika, who is also a National Youth awardee and co-founder of the Wheeling Happiness Foundation.
She highlighted the gap - policies and benefits the government designs do not reach the right beneficiaries, especially in rural and remote areas where most people have little information about the initiatives.
Emphasising the need to sensitise and spread awareness among the public, she said, “One thing I always say is that we need to be aware that people with disabilities are the largest minorities in the world and disability is dynamic – one in seven people face disability at some point…so it is just better for us as a society to be universally designed and inclusive.”
On mental health
Devika and Ekta also spoke on the importance of mental health.
“Yes, physical disability is challenging but more challenging is mental health. If you are having any challenges in terms of mental health, that takes a lot of energy, time, and a support system,” Ekta said, and cautioned the audience,“People pretend to be happy, they don’t pretend to be depressed.”
A shout out to the sponsors of Women on Mission Summit 2022, an Initiative by HerStory, by YourStory -BYJU'S, the presenting partner, and other sponsors - Kyndryl, Sequoia Spark, Zilingo, Atlassian, Akamai, Freshworks for Startups, and Netapp Excellerator.
Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan