KOCHI: In 1999, Smitha Sadasivan was only 19 years old when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She lost her ability to walk, brush or even move her fingers. She had even lost her vision for two months. Steroids helped but repeated episodes affected her normal life.
However, she was not ready to quit. Battling odds, Smitha has now emerged as a prominent disability rights activist who was recently awarded the Javed Abidi Public Policy Award for her work with the Election Commission towards making the 2019 polls accessible.
A native of Poozhanad in Thiruvananthapuram, she has settled in Chennai and has been working on different aspects associated with disability awareness like accessibility, education, employment and legislation. Her teachers at Vidya Sagar, a special education centre, encouraged her to continue studies.
“It is there that I gained the confidence to do something. I was in the advocacy department and started learning about the rights of the disabled and studied the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995. I attended training programmes and understood that disabled people enjoy the same rights as able-bodied persons,” said Smitha Sadasivan. “If I am not able to do something because of the barriers set by the society, breaking those barriers becomes my right,” she added.
Talking of the support she received, Smitha is grateful for those who helped in her journey. However, she also feels that there is still a long way to go.
“I have conducted sessions for the disabled about their rights, approached officials to implement the provisions of the law and worked with a panel of lawyers to understand the nuances of various acts. All this gave me adequate strength to take up any issue that comes my way,” noted the activist, who thinks people seeking help from her makes her forget her issues.
In 2015, Smitha attended the South Asia Dialogue on Disability and Political Participation held in Sri Lanka that helped her gain a better perspective on accessible elections. She made a comprehensive plan on components that need to be addressed to make elections completely inclusive.
“From 2015, I was steadily working on making the elections accessible to all. I received positive response from the Election Commission of India and Chief Electoral Officers who eventually appointed me the accessibility consultant,” she said.
Smitha has also been working with Greater Chennai Corporation to improve accessibility in public places, especially the beaches.
“Marina beach in Chennai is the world’s second-longest one. So, we are planning to construct a path till the beach for the disabled and elderly,” she says.
Another feather in Smitha’s cap is her work to introduce accessibility in technology and prepare manuals on disability etiquette - how they should be treated, the language to be used, how to handle a wheelchair, etc.