This Women’s Day SheThePeople.TV brings to you the story of an Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at IIM Amritsar. Dr Anita Sharma, who survived a polio attack, teaches driving cars to differently abled and elderly women in Amritsar, Punjab through her initiative called ‘On My Own.’ Sharma’s endeavour is to make the country disabled-friendly, one gear at a time. Here is her story:
Please take us through your journey so far.
I am paralyzed waist down as I contracted polio when I was six months old. After nine major surgeries, I started walking with the support of crutches and calipers. And eventually became completely independent. I drive retrofitted cars (manual and automatic both). And I hail from Jaipur and am armed with a PhD from IIM Indore in disability and entrepreneurship.
What inspired you to launch a car driving school for people with disabilities?
My own personal life narratives with or without driving inspired me. After seeing me driving a car without any problem, a couple of friends approached me to help them learn. I took their sessions and realized the overall impact in their lives when I saw them moving independently on their own to offices, colleges or wherever they wanted to go. This inspired me. I thought if I could contribute to someone’s life by reducing their dependence on others, then it would be a real contribution.
I thought if I could contribute to someone’s life by reducing their dependence on others, then it would be a real contribution.
I looked for driving schools for people with disabilities in India. I phoned more than 2000 driving schools and found that none of them offered driving sessions to people with reduced mobility because they haven’t had any retrofitted cars (i.e. modified cars with hand control) on which driving sessions for people with reduced mobility was possible.
There was a lacuna and it was to be filled. Hence, I started ‘On My Own’ a car driving solutions provider company for people with reduced mobility. I have two retrofitted cars.
What have been the biggest challenges that came your way?
I am facing two major challenges, first convincing people with disabilities and their families to learn driving a car. Second, On My Own is not a charity business. I do not want PwDs to be treated as a subject of charity. I have a nominal fee for the sessions.
People are getting to understand the importance of driving and becoming independent.
Take us through your experiences with the students in the school. Any anecdotes?
Earlier the learners used to face problems related to poor public infrastructure, extreme weather conditions, embarrassment and harassment while using public transport. Now not only the learners but their families are also feeling the difference. Learners are not dependent on others support anymore, they can go wherever they wish to go.
Tangible impact is measurable. I conducted two driving workshops so far. Four learners are now confidently driving their cars, got driving licenses too. I collaborated with one local NGO in Amritsar and we are organizing an awareness campaign for people with disabilities focusing on two/ four-wheeler driving, using public transport, driving license, fuel concession, etc. I keep on sharing positive stories of disabled drivers on On My Own’s Facebook page to motivate others.
I conducted two driving workshops so far. Four learners are now confidently driving their cars, got driving licenses too.
I have just begun this journey of making people with disabilities independent through driving. It is a long path to traverse.
Explain what makes your venture unique.
Popular driving schools or other local players never considered people with reduced mobility as their customers. These schools fail to provide the required adjustments needed to be done for different types of disabilities. They don’t have the required licenses and trainers to give driving sessions to people with reduced mobility.
On My Own is for those people who don’t fit in the logic offered by regular driving schools. We have retrofitted cars designed especially for people with reduced mobility.
How did you manage funding for the base operations initially?
It is primarily through bootstrapping so far. At On My Own, no learner is treated as a subject of charity or pity, hence, we have a nominal fee and cross-subsidization model for different operations. Funding hasn’t been a major problem.
What motivates you to play the role of a motivator to students with disabilities in daily life?
The biggest achievement is the ‘smile’ and ‘happiness’ on those faces who had never thought that they could drive.
Any future plans with a women-only school?
I do not see it as a women-only school. It is for people with reduced mobility (men and women both). My dream is to design a car where in wheelchairs can go in directly to make the life of wheelchair users easier as currently, they have to shift from their wheelchair to the car seat. Expanding the reach to other cities, getting a network of trainers who could teach on modified cars are some other areas to work upon.
My dream is to design a car where in wheelchairs can go in directly to make the life of wheelchair users easier.
Do you believe the entire ecosystem will take a long time to transform to become more disabled friendly?
It’s a long journey, and a journey which requires a change of mindset. People have just started talking about it. To accommodate and make public places inclusive a lot of infrastructure and attitudinal change is needed. It is a long battle. And I am hopeful. Someday it will happen.
What makes you passionate about what you do?
Immense satisfaction after each driving session. I find my life worth living.
Picture Credit: Dr Anita Sharma