Miss Wheelchair World India and navigating unsmart Indian cities

New Delhi (IANS) She still remembers the applause when lights hit her on the ramp for the first time. From major designers to audience members, everybody was standing. That was the moment, Somya Thakur (29) knew this is where she belonged. That this was the place where her wheelchair was only a physical companion and not an identity. It was the first time she was ‘free’.

This ‘Ms. Wheelchair World India’, a resident of Panchkula, slipped from a nurse’s hands when she was 11 days old. The doctor on duty, in order to reverse the damage pulled her legs so hard that Thakur developed three fractures in her right thigh. And that was the start of the ‘unlife’.

“When it was time to join a school, most of them in her hometown Solan recommended that an institution for the mentally unsound should be approached. Well, you can gauge their mental equilibrium by this. Somehow my parents enrolled me in a school in Chandigarh. But the best years for a ‘normal’ child were traumatic for me. Nobody wanted to be friends with someone who was so different, I was mostly alone, and would always wonder: What is my fault in all this?”

Despite getting excellent grades, she could not go to the college of her choice in the city as the classes for the subjects she had chosen were to be held on the first and second floors, and there were no ramps. Well, nobody had the common sense to shift her classes to the ground floor. “I would blame it on the lack of awareness towards the needs of the specially-abled. People like us are forced to stay indoors and are therefore ‘invisible’, thus our needs are seldom taken into consideration.”

But life changed for the better when she joined Panjab University (PU) in Chandigarh. Not only did the staff and students acknowledge her needs but that is the place she made numerous friends. “When I asked for ramps, they were immediately made.”

Although doctors had advised her not to study as the same required hours of sitting in the classroom, Thakur says she paid no heed to that and continued. “I completed my MBA from PU and dreamt of working in a major MNC, and not listening to the advice coming from different quarters to do a stenography or typing course.”

It was now her battle with Indian cities…

Even in a smart city like Chandigarh, which prides itself to be the most modern and livable according to most surveys, most places cannot be accessed by the specially-abled — even if it comes to the heart of the town — Sector 17.

Lack of ramps, unscientifically designed ones even if there are (too steep, using marble) any translate into inaccessibility.

“Considering my scores, I would get interview calls from most major companies but I could not even access their offices. Even elevators were not a solution as there was mostly a step. As a woman, you cannot easily ask for help from strangers to lift you/the chair. I was selected for a job in Bangalore, but again, accessibility was an issue.”

Realising that this was not limited just to offices, but even cafes, parks, restaurants, and malls, she along with a city resident late Anish Bhanot started the Rotary Positive Abilities Club — a platform where those with special abilities help others with the same issues.

“We have been writing consistently to different offices, market unions, and malls to ensure they take our needs into consideration. It is a long-drawn battle, but I am glad we have taken the first step.”

Getting numerous offers to model after she won the Miss Wheel Chair World India title in Mexico where contestants from 28 countries participated, there are times when she is the only specially-abled contestant in a show.

“Of course, there are several instances when people go out of their way for me, but many designers also refuse to be associated with me. I quite understand their fears. But the ramp is the only place where I feel alive. In real-life people expect a specially-abled not to try and look her best, but dressed as if in a perpetual state of mourning…”

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