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“Prejudices around disability triggered a fire in me, I thought it’s time,” PCI president Deepa Malik on disability, Paralympics and life

From an adrenaline junkie exploring the world of adventurous sports to becoming the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Paralympics, in Rio to preparing 54 athletes for Tokyo Paralympics as Paralympics Committee of India (PCI ) President, Deepa Malik is an inspiration for thousands of women and thousands of Para sportsperson.

 In 1999, Malik was paralysed below the chest following an accident, three surgeries and 183 stitches made walking impossible and she has since been using a wheelchair. She has previously won various medals, awards and appreciation for sports such as swimming, javelin and discus throw, and has set records with her motorsports and swimming feats. 

In 2012, she received the Arjuna award, for her outstanding achievements in sports at the national level. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2012, and she was also bestowed with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna – the country’s highest sporting honour. Today, President of PCI, a proud mother of two and wife of an Army officer, Deepa is a vocal spokesperson for paraplegic rights in the country with her ‘Ability Beyond Disability’ movement. 

Deepa Malik interacted with Sociotab on the challenges of life, prejudice and discrimination encountered by sportspersons with disabilities, and shared her views and glimpses of behind the scenes of India’s preparation for the ongoing Paralympics. Excerpts: 

I am an adrenaline junkie.” Please explain how this adrenaline rush has helped you achieve the success that you have achieved in the past years?

I think this love for adventure and craving for the outdoors has been an inspiration. After the paralysis and everything, it was said that now “she will not be able to step out, she is a wheelchair user, she cannot manage anything and her husband will not be able to travel,” so many things were said. But I think I was empowering myself, I was learning to adjust to the new body but nobody believed that I could do it all. I think disability was more in people’s minds than in my body. 

What is the most memorable memory of adventurous Deepa?

Each activity I did was to empower myself and was memorable in fact. Swimming across Yamuna and Raid-de-Himalayan were the most memorable experiences. 

PCI President Deepa Malik On Disability

I had no footprints to follow. There was no woman with paralysis who had done rallies, biking and all these other things I have done. So, I started out with a clean slate to write everything down…” What were the initial challenges you encountered that nobody knows? How did you motivate yourself in tough times? 

It was more of a personal journey in the beginning. I was tired of being looked down upon as a liability and as a source of sadness in the family.  I felt I should have died rather than living in a dead body like this which does not have bladder and bowel control. I saw that look in people’s eyes that “oh my god,  how is she going to survive in this body where for every little thing she has to be depended on someone?”

But in reality, people don’t have the self-belief to overcome such a huge tragedy, where they can be dependent yet be independent. There is just black and white, there is no grey that people believe in. You could be dependent and yet be independent. Let me tell you. I am dependent on my daughters, I am dependent on my health but when it comes to financing them, educating them, giving them a home and a shelter, when it is giving job opportunities to people, I am empowering them. And for that matter, tell me who in this world does not need help. We keep on talking about teamwork. What is teamwork? It is nothing but helping each other. Even in the corporate sector or in work culture, you create a team of people with different abilities put together and they work like a team. So why this stereotyping of disability? It is just your perspective. 

What was your perspective?

I was seeing life like that. I was happy to be alive. The kind of disease I had I could have died. I could have missed out on following the treatment of my eldest daughter. She had been through an accident and paralysis herself. My younger daughter was three years old. My husband was posted in a war zone, he had no leaves. My whole focus was on being alive and being able to manage, even if your body is paralysed, your brain is not paralysed that you lose your intelligence. I came on a wheelchair when I was 30 years old, but I was already running home before that. So just because my legs don’t work, I would forget how to run my life, my home?  So these prejudices around disability triggered a fire in me– that it’s time. Nobody was talking about me being happy and alive, taking care of my daughters. And I am still doing that. I am the breadwinner. My husband is happily retired. 

Do you still face the prejudices around disability yourself?

Yes, people don’t take you seriously, they think just because you are on a wheelchair you are nobody. They don’t think that you can be an achiever, so when they will look at Virat Kholi, they will be like “oh my god, he is Padma Shri, Khel Ratna.” Do they think the same way for me? They still think I am dependent on others. But thanks to the media, there is a lot of awareness today.  I should not be complaining because a lot of people know me, if not 100% then 30-40 % of people in the country know me. Things have changed a bit now, but 22 years ago this was not the case.

Do you still do things just to prove people wrong, or when people underestimate you?

Yes, I do it. I do many activities, take on a lot of responsibilities, participate in groups to prove a point a lot of times. If a job is given to me, I have to do it.  Infact, my family members also say that don’t challenge her or doubt her, otherwise, she will get on the roads doing it and proving you wrong. 

Does the overcoming challenges attitude and spirit of teamwork come from your army background?

Ofcourse, an army background teaches you to be a daredevil, be courageous. What I learnt from the army is — your Plan B. The Army always has a Plan B ready in hand, if this won’t work, we will have this. So that has helped me a lot because I had always heard conversations around me, father, brother, husband– always training to be prepared.  Like the war, it is not gonna happen right now but still, they are preparing every day religiously, doing their firearms, doing their PT drills, so you are prepared when it’s time. It teaches you to not be scared of the unknown. Just prepare yourself. This attitude and adaptability, the army teaches you that. You are constantly moving, trying to fit your old furniture in your new house within a new setup.  So changing my interiors to suit my disability was not a big deal. 

Changing Mindset towards Disability

Paralympics Disability

Should every disabled sportsperson be an ambassador of para-sports? 

Yes, this is a very crucial factor for which we have also started a campaign #Praise4Para. Just like #Wethe15 has been started by the International Paralympic Committee alongside the UN– the 15% of the world population is disabled and through this campaign, they are creating awareness that Wethe15 have to come together and stand by each other. The movement is something that is required. We people have to empower ourselves to get into leadership roles. For example, it was a very sudden but conscious decision for me to come back to a leadership position in sports. Unless we are not there in the leadership role, we will never be able to make a difference for ourselves. So, yes, I definitely feel if 15% of our population talks, tweets, shares about para-sports, it will certainly make a difference. Furthermore, it declares that your country is inclusive. It changes the mindset that a person with disabilities is representing the country, winning medals, making records, breaking records, feeling fit. That is a totally different feeling altogether- being called fit and being praised for their body which has won a medal. 

What efforts can be taken to make sports inclusive? 

Just treat sports as sports and not give us labels. Let us create visibility. 

Tokyo 2020

And have you seen changes from the Rio Paralympics to Tokyo Paralympics? 

Yes, of course. So much has changed.  There are so many first-timers who are going to Tokyo.  People were flooding for trials. People have actually taken up sports after seeing the Rio Paralympics. Discus Thrower Vinod Kumar says that he saw the arrival of Deepa Malik at the airport and was like “Oh a woman on a wheelchair coming back with a medal, then why can’t I play.” All he used to do was to run a shop, and he lost his parents.  His father was also from the army and because of being a disabled child, he was just living off his father’s pension and was alone. But today he has camaraderie, he belongs to a fraternity. He is going to represent the country at the Tokyo Paralympics. 

There are so many stories, you pick up any story, it will be a story of empowerment, it will be a story of rags to riches. All those you are going for Tokyo Paralympics will end up with a grade 1 job and it is an empowering feeling so why not?  

Furthermore, the policies today are inclusive, for example, the government has declared the ceremony will happen after the Paralympians return, this did not happen at the time of Rio.  Last time, Modiji met us after we came back from the Rio Paralympics, not before we left. Even the prime minister’s focus has increased so much. Besides, there is no parity in funding schemes, the corporate is also coming on board slowly but there is a little bit of difference. 

Do you see the same level of excitement in the audience for Paralympics like the Olympics?

Yes, we see it from the media’s enthusiasm, we think that if the media is so excited then obviously the people want to know, read and learn about us. See, the moment the Prime Minister is personally talking to athletes, it definitely catches the attention of the common people. And the way social media is talking about, raising and celebrating Paralympics sports is really overwhelming. It was not so when we played and I am happy that I am still a part of it in some way. Last time I was preparing for one medal, today I am totally engrossed in preparing for 54 athletes’ performances out there.  

How has been the journey so far?

It has been a joyful journey. I am happy that I could contribute hugely because  I know what the athletes want and how to keep them in the best of their mental health and to communicate with them. Their requirements are of prime focus so it is kind of overwhelming to give it back to sports which has given me so much. 

How can media organizations like SOCIOTAB play a role in channeling the advocacy campaigns that disability activists like you run?  

I think this is very important, it all depends on how you present us. You are the communication factor about our achievements and how people look at them. You are the one who can represent us in the right light. When it comes to sports, I want you to represent it as sports, not as charity, or entertainment. It is a highly competitive and highly skilled field, you will have to push your body beyond a limit, it is difficult to get international standard achievements.  We need to have inclusivity at the school level, are sports including children with disabilities in school?

Now I would also ask you to talk about the need for infrastructure to be inclusive, if anybody is building any colony or anything, it has to be inclusive. Community places should be inclusive. Furthermore, accessibility today is not just about the ramp, it is also about Information Technology.  Accessibility on the internet is as important as accessibility offline because the entire world is working virtually now. These are the aspects we need to raise questions about. 

 So are you inclusive online and offline?

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