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"Disability brought my life into focus," Deepa Malik

An army man’s wife, mother of two, a restaurateur with a social cause, a former beauty queen, an accomplished swimmer on the international platform and now a wannabe biker; 38 year-old Deepa Malik wears a multitude of hats and firmly refuses to let any conversation veer to sympathy that her disability often attracts. Malik became a wheelchair user in 1999. Most recently, she became the first paraplegic to participate in the gruelling Tour-de-Himalaya Car Rally. Allister Mark Syiemlieh of D.N.I.S. caught up with her.

D.N.I.S.: You were the first paraplegic woman to join the world of sports in the Indian scenario. Were you apprehensive? How did you go about it?

Deepa Malik: Yes, I was apprehensive! Because being paraplegic requires special attention like living arrangements and wheelchair accessible bathrooms etc. These need to be taken care of before you venture to do something. As for joining the world of sports, it was purely by luck. The Maharashtra Paralympic Sports Association had earlier seen me swimming. They asked me if I wanted to participate in the Nationals and that it was a sure shot medal because I was going to be the first one in my disability category. I could swim but I never knew that it was worth a medal.

D.N.I.S.: Your name is registered twice in the Limca Book of Records: for crossing a 1-km stretch of the Yamuna River against the current in 2008 and covering 58 kms by riding a special bike this year. What drives you to achieve your goals despite being severely disabled?

Deepa Malik: I strongly feel that the outdoors is a good way to keep fit. When I challenge myself for activities like these, I have to seriously train for it. The only way we, wheelchair users can lead a normal life is by keeping our body toned and exercised. Going to a doctor or hospital everyday for formal physiotherapy can be monotonous and makes you feel like a patient. But when you train and workout for fun activities, you not only get the required exercise but it also boosts up your morale. Others then take inspiration to be happy and healthy.

D.N.I.S.: Recently you participated in the toughest car rally in India. Can you tell us something about your experiences?

Deepa Malik: My participation in the Himalayan Car Rally 2009 was for two main reasons: firstly, driving has always been my passion and secondly, it was part of the activities of my mission, ‘Ability beyond Disability’.

The one thing that surprised me was the fact that, in spite of so much growth in mechanical technology, driving possibilities for disabled people in our country are still very limited. Modifying vehicles to suit disabled persons’ driving is little known or accepted. Getting a driving license and customizing a vehicle of choice is a very lengthy process. Besides I was shocked to learn that till now, the world of motor sports was not open for physically disabled people.

Someone had to make the first move and push for inclusion of disabled people in the mainstream. That is why I decided to do this rally. It was a long ordeal of paper work, changing few rules and policies. Am happy every one at the motor sport federations worked hard for my inclusion.

The minus degree temperature and harsh roads were the main challenge for my spasticity and thrice operated spine. Lack of oxygen, high altitude sickness and long driving hours and distances made it all the more difficult. But the adrenaline rush of being able to rally alongside able-bodied persons made up for everything. I was awarded THE TRUE GRIT TROPHY but the real happiness came from succeeding in opening doors for people with disabilities in the rally world.

D.N.I.S.: Tell us something about your mission ‘Ability beyond Disability.’

Deepa Malik: When I started life afresh on a wheelchair after spinal cord damage, I had to undergo serious physiotherapy. When I interacted with people like myself, I realized they all felt a lack of direction. Most people think that life is restricted due to paralysis. For women, it is worse! Lucky to have full family back up and education on my side, I decided to give hope to those who were paralyzed.

I started doing various outdoor activities. I call myself to be on this mission - ‘Ability beyond Disability’. My aim is to change the stereotypical image of wheelchair users that people generally have and sensitize society toward my type of disability. The media is the best way to reach out to maximum people. Coverage of the activities I do help in convincing paraplegics at motivational workshops that a ‘normal’ life is possible even on a wheelchair!

D.N.I.S.: Since you were not born with a disability, how did you cope with it? Has it changed your perspective in any way?

Deepa Malik: It was pretty depressing in the beginning but the love and support of my family made the process easy for me. The acceptance of your disability by your near and dear ones can make a lot of contribution to ones confidence.

It made me look at life from a new window. I learned everything all over again, right from turning into a bed to sit, from having a bath to changing clothes. But the biggest challenge I faced was timing my bladder and water intake.

The things which I had taken for granted when I was not disabled, now seemed like big hurdles. A step just six inches high could actually restrict my accessibility, the same step that I possibly never ever noticed before! My life was only about fashionable clothes and gossiping. But disability brought my life into focus. I started a restaurant supporting the education of a few children, set out on a mission to motivate people like me with the help of my activities. In short I learnt to give back to society and realized the true sense of living.

D.N.I.S.: You have been a wheelchair user for ten years now. What changes have you seen in the disability sector with respect to attitude and awareness?

Deepa Malik: There is definitely a lot of change but a lot has to be done still. The media and Internet have brought in a lot of awareness. One thing, which I have learnt, is people look at you the way you look at your self. The day I gained confidence in myself, I realized the society also became ready to accept me. Once your surroundings know that you are not going to be taken for granted, they don’t.

It has been a decade and I have seen a tremendous change in people’s attitude towards me. I have also seen sports for disabled persons gain tremendous support from the Government. Even corporates are coming forward with sponsorships. These are the changes felt on the personal front. But a number of issues are yet to be addressed in terms of employment and equal opportunities, and of course people who are challenged both physically and financially.