A woman of substance, Deepa Malik believes in challenging adversities. The lady with a strong self-belief made the disability the source of her strength. In a physical situation which might render someone dependent on others, Deepa is a source of strength and support for many. Each word in the candid conversation with InsideSport the lady with a lion’s heart uttered is an inspiration, not just to women, to specially abled, but to the strongest of personalities as well. The Olympic medalist who had overcome 31 surgeries and 183 stitches to win India a Silver at the Rio Paralympics shared with the InsideSport Special Correspondent Astha Chadha the life before and beyond the confinement to the wheelchair on the eve of this world women’s day.
Tell us about your journey so far?
Oh (laughs) That’s a very wide question. Journey has been crazy, tremendous, empowering, challenging and of course rewarding. If you want me to start from my childhood, I faced the disability first time as a child, had a surgery, had a removal of tumor, followed by a rehabilitation then I started walking again at the age of nine so the age of 6 to 9 were my challenging childhood years in hospital, the first introduction to the disability. Then of course I grew up into a young girl, fell in love, got married, that too with a man with same passion and hobbies. I gave birth to two lovely daughters. At age of 29-30, I introduced to the tumor all over again by destiny. Then followed by couple of major surgeries and declaration by the doctors that I will never walk again because it will be a removal of a tumor which will cut into my chord so after three spinal surgeries to remove tumors, I am rendered chest below, I repeat chest below paralysed because people keep writing waist below but there are more muscles involved in the paralysis so only my shoulders and arms are functional, I don’t have bladder and bowl control. So that’s what the journey has been.
Then it was about changing the perception of the people that Deepa has no longer got any ability left in her. I just wanted to prove myself whether, it was an ability to become a mother or a wife or a homemaker. Before I got paralysed, I was just enjoying my life as a home maker. Me and my husband share so many similar hobbies, we were doing so many things together that I never felt a need to create a different identity. I was really enjoying my duties as an army officer’s wife and a homemaker. There were loads of things to do, outings and all but post paralysis when I became home bound, and normally when in situations like this what the society typically suggests or your own family thinks, same thing happened. I was taken very respectfully to my in laws’ house, who were settled in Ahmed Nagar, during that time, special room was created for me, maids were employed for me but I felt like a vegetable, I felt as if I am a patient, who has been looked after.
This was a time when everyone started looking at me differently. For everyone, I was living a perfect life with a perfect family and I think that perfection bothered me because it was taking away my identity. Anybody who would come to me was sympathising. They would feel, what a lovely family taking care of her. I didn’t want that. I wanted them to understand that I cannot only take care of myself, but even of others too. I am also incharge of the situation and taking care of my kids and joining them in their daily activities. So from there, to change the perception of the society towards me and to prove myself, I felt a need to make an identity for myself
First thing I did was, I opened a restaurant. I employed under privileged kids in that and took care of their education as well. In that way I was not only satisfying my need, I was happy that I am able to do something for them.
From there interesting thing happened. While interacting more and more with younger kids, I learned the power of Internet, I started taking interest in that. When I started exploring more, I got to know that there are so many things which I can still do like biking, car driving. I got to know about so many things which people in my situation were doing in foreign countries. My journey of proving myself started from there itself. I can say it was like, technology correctly used.
What difference can you see post your Olympic win?
On personal level, on the lighter side, I didn’t have to stand in the queue during demonitisation (laughs) because there was always someone who out of respect broke the line and let me go.
On a serious note, of course there is a lot of difference. Whether it’s the attitude of the government or the people’s mindset, I can see change everywhere. My para Olympic win came with lot of applauds, rewards and awards. I saw some changes in sports policies or we can say inclusive sports policies. It has given out of wave of inclusivity. When the whole nation celebrated the Rio achievements, nowhere we were discarded. We got media attention. When I saw people taking pics and selfies with me after coming back from Rio, I felt the acceptance in form of recognition.
How difficult it was for you, to get this recognition, to prove yourself?
It has been quite challenging, kind of a solo journey, till the time we got involved in Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS). For the first time Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new concept of TOPS involved the para Olympic sportspersons also on a par with the able bodied. That gave us the wings to fly and prove ourselves. It gave us a lot of a liberty to spend money or to customize the training according to our limitations. Lot of people were working simultaneously. The game also changed. Lot of specialized people joined the team.
But it was not there before. We definitely need more people around us who can understand the science of sport, who can see the disability sensinization of the muscles. Definitely there are so many areas to work on. We really need to make every part of our nation accessible to everyone. We need to start from the ground level. We deserve equal opportunity and we have quite a talent with us but that doesn’t come out because they don’t get the right opportunities or the guidance. There are lot of people who can constructively contribute in the progress of our nation despite of their limitations. If I can bring a medal for our country at the age of 46, so can anyone , if they get proper training.
Do you think the government need to make more policies for para athletes?
We cannot depend entirely on the government. We cannot sit and wait for Government to make policies and give grants and help, we need to start from base level. First of all everyone should treat the differently abled persons as a part of the society. We need to change our perception of looking at them. Education is a big medium to do that. Teach your kids, teach them to accept and make differently abled kids part of their group so they get confidence. Not only that if you are holding a position in society, where you can make changes, please stand up, go ahead, raise your voice and bring changes. Utilize your knowledge and education. Start giving specially abled person around you equal opportunities.
We all have to become a part of this accessible India campaign. More than the government it’s our responsibility first. Don’t ask for the facilities like ramp only when you have someone disabled in your family, raise your voice for others also. It’s your duty as a citizen to make it as an inclusive India.
How does it feel being a women sportsperson in India?
It feels great. Sports has become a very strong medium of my declaration of women empowerment. It has helped me in breaking the myth that disability does not have any ability in it. I think my passion for sports only, whether it was for adventure sports or for shot put, gave me a chance to prove that women can do everything. Ability or disability, doesn’t matter.
Your take on sponsorship market’s response to your and other para athlete’s achievements in para Olympics?
Unfortunately, no big change. For example, even after winning Olympic medal to sustain in sports, to raise fund for my training, if I look at some corporate brand to sponsor me, they won’t believe me or trust me that I can be a brand ambassador of something. Like for that I turned into a motivational speaker. The only difference is, post my win, I am getting more offers to speak but sadly no brand approached me to endorse their product.
What I want to ask is, Wasn’t my silver on a par with the other silver and the bronze, the other two ladies got for India (at the Rio Olympics). My struggle as a sportsperson was equally tough. Do I not have the determination or the strength to do something for the country? I also have a pretty face, I also use the beauty products like them so why I can’t endorse them?
Definitely, many corporate brands have awarded me, they have called me as a motivational speaker but no one has considered me as their brand ambassador. I feel that we still do hesitate to accept differently abled as someone who is endorsing a product.
A message for parents of differently abled kids
Don’t put limitations. Start saying yes. Encourage them. Stretch their limitations, ask them to go beyond that. Make them emotionally very strong. Make them strong not only physically but mentally as well.
Your message for government bodies
We need a very regular and time bound training program. If we are looking for more medals, which I think we can get, there should be no delays in training programs. It has to be very honestly directed. Para sports is very young at this moment. We have just got the proper federation and state bodies so hopefully this will follow more.
Your message on Women’s Day
Women has a power to change impossible into possible. For development of any society,we need to start respecting women first. Women always carry an aura around them. They have this special ability to inspire people around them.
Deepa Malik is the first Indian women to win a medal at Paralympics. Though her silver medal came in 2016 Rio Paralympics shot put event, Deepa also participates in various adventure sports. Wife of an Army Officer, the wheel-chair bound brave-heart is associated with Himalayan Motorsports Association and Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India. She has undertaken an 8-day, 1700-km drive in sub-zero temperatures which included a climb to 18000 feet. It was – Raid De Himalaya. This journey covers many difficult paths including remote Himalayas, Leh, Shimla and Jammu.
She is a member of the working group in the formulation 12th five- year plan (2012–2017) on Sports and Physical Education as nominated by the Planning Commission HRD Division on behalf of the Sports Ministry.