ot many women get the opportunity to lead a corporate division, take to sports after turning 40 and then go on to become a sporting body administrator. Even fewer individuals can accomplish all of this, wheel-chair bound. As a differently-abled member of this society, P Madhavi Latha, did.
The 45-year-old is living proof that women empowerment is not the abstract concept that politicians use to gain brownie points but a reality that can be achieved despite our patronising and patriarchal society.
“My colleagues tell me that one Madhavi is equal to three people,” she smiles. Born into a lower middle-class family in Sathupally town, which is part of the modern Telangana State, Latha was only seven months old when a massive polio attack rendered her 80 per cent disabled leaving only her left hand unaffected. But growing up was tough not because of the paralysis but due to the society’s antipathy towards educating girl children, she says.
“Few families in the village looked positively at educating a girl child. But my parents were different. They decided that they would give everything to educate me and my four siblings,” she says, proudly.
She was denied admission to Class XI because the school didn’t have differently-abled friendly infrastructure. “I had to study from home and that meant I couldn’t interact with other people. Until then, I had friends who used to carry me on to the fields to play just so that I don’t feel left out,” she reminisces.
An excellent student of Mathematics, she decided to tutor her junior students as an alternative to being with her friends. “Because if I couldn’t go to the outside world, I decided that I will make it come to me,” she says. Being paralysed, however, she did have her limitations. “I used to crawl until I was 20,” she reveals.
Graduation from college followed when she cleared her Bachelor’s in Mathematics, but suddenly Latha found she could not get a job because there was no employer willing to take in a paraplegic employee. For an individual who was taught the importance of financial independence by her parents right from childhood, this posed a serious problem. “Not much information about job opportunities for the differently-abled was available. It was then that a relative pointed out that the Life Insurance Corporation hired people like me,” she says.
However, the hope was short-lived, as the insurers rejected her outright telling her they didn’t have vacancies in the category of disability that affects the legs. She then appeared for banking services examinations but was declared unfit for a bank job by doctors in Hyderabad. This broke her heart. “Here I was waiting for an appointment letter, when I got the news,” she says. It didn’t make her relent, she pursued her case and finally was employed by the State Bank of Hyderabad (SBH) in June 1991.
In the next 15 years with SBH, she did an MBA, became a certified banker and a documentary credit specialist as well as a certified anti-money-laundering expert. But none of it equalled the feeling of freedom that she felt when she learnt to ride a scooter, she says. “All my life, I had depended on someone else for my conveyance. I had to be carried from place to place. But now I could move wherever I wanted. I felt free,” she says.
If there is one thing that she relishes more, it is overcoming challenges. This ambition pushed her to accept and move locations with every promotion that she got on the job. This also finally led her to quit the job when a client of her bank convinced her that bank jobs weren’t too demanding. “He said that working and surviving in the private sector was the real challenge,” she says.
Moving to Chennai in 2006, she got on board Standard Chartered Bank’s shared-services unit, Scope International, as a senior manager. But months into the new job and place, Latha had to face health complications due to a crooked spine, as a result of the polio attack. “I couldn’t breathe. The spine was covering one half of my lungs, restricting my breathing, while the other lung could breathe in only about 80 per cent,” she says.
“I remember an orthopaedic surgeon listing out, step-by-step, how this situation would worsen and he told me that in one year or less, I would die. He wanted me to get it surgically operated but I was 37 then and I had minimal chances of surviving if I went in for the operation,” she adds.
It was then that a junior she tutored years ago in Sathupally referred her to a physiotherapist, who helped deduce the cause of her problem — lack of physical activity. The therapist suggested hydrotherapy, which helped her discover the magic that water contained. “For the first time in my life, I could move my legs. The buoyancy helped. The thing that I couldn’t do on land, I could do underwater. I could walk. I discovered water is freedom for people like me,” she says.
Only there was no coach to help her learn to swim. But the issue was quite simple, one she thought could be rectified. “Till date, the physical education curriculum has nothing on adaptive sports. Even in a day and age when Paralympics is the next most important thing after the Olympics, we don’t have coaches who can train the differently-abled,” she sighs.
So, she did the next best thing. She trained herself in swimming. Still, it wasn’t until her employers organised a corporate Olympiad that she seriously thought of competitive swimming. “On that day, I remember my colleagues mistaking me for a spectator and when I stepped up to compete, their jaws fell open,” she smiles.
It was then that the floodgates opened. Latha competed and won three gold medals at the 2011 Kolhapur Disabled Games. Today, Latha is a sporting body administrator, having started the Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu. She has helped boost the numbers of differently-abled participants from Tamil Nadu at the national level. From less than four participants in 2010, the association has helped train 59 athletes, who at the 2014 national meet won 36 medals among them.
Her involvement in sports also persuaded her to take up public speaking to campaign for equal opportunities for the differently-abled. “Stadiums around the country do not have proper toilets. Here, we are as a country trying to gain Paralympic medals but I found that even five star hotels in the city discriminated against the disabled, as not more than one room is built for use by the differently-abled,” she notes.
“It is this reason why I visit engineering college students often and take up my cause because after doctors, I see engineers as gods, as only they can come up with a universal design that includes the differently-abled when building something,” she reasons.
Equal opportunities, she says, is lacking in corporate boardrooms. “Recently, there was a notification by the Securities and Exchange Board of India asking that the boards of all companies appoint at least one woman director. How many companies have implemented it? In fact, I know people who have appointed a female relative to the board only to satisfy the requirement,” she says.
“Men find it easy to ask why women are granted such privileges. I ask them, in a society where even getting out of the womb alive is a challenge for a woman, why shouldn’t the government and the society go all out in providing privileges to women,” she asks.
She also points out that accessibility issues mean that the cost of living is higher for the differently-abled than for ordinary individuals. “Because buses aren’t accessible, I am spending `500 on a taxi instead of a bus ride that would have cost me `5. Because the local grocer’s shop isn’t accessible, I am forced to buy vegetables and make purchases at a premium price from an upmarket shop,” she explains.
“Accessibility is the cause of this financial problem. Of course, unless equal opportunities are made available, the differently-abled should be paid a higher salary. But if we ask the private sector to do that, they will simply stop hiring differently-abled employees,” she observes.
With equal opportunities, persons with disability can be far more competitive, she says. Although provision of equal opportunities is a mandate for the government to consider, Latha believes that one’s home is not an exception. “Unless your parents and your family will do it, it (equal opportunities) won’t happen. And if it won’t happen at home, it is unlikely to happen in society,” she points out.
“My parents believed that making me financially independent alone would ensure my survival after their time. They gave me great importance in the family,” she says.
But more importantly, Latha now understands the significance of ‘exploring oneself’. “They use that term in spirituality, although I had never quite understood it. Now I know it is about pushing myself to do things, stepping out of my comfort zone. I enjoy breaking stereotypes and I will continue to do it till my last breath,” she concludes.
the differently-abled need to be paid higher. but if we ask the private sector to do this, they will stop recruiting us — p madhavi latha, Sporting body admin