A para athlete, an entrepreneur, and a champion of disability, at 28, Devika Malik is on a mission to advocate for people with disabilities. Born a premature baby with acute neonatal jaundice and hemiplegia, Devika is following her mother Paralympian Deepa Malik’s footstep to challenge the odds like how her mother would want it. Rehabilitation counsellor Devika has become an international level athlete with eight national and three international medals in her kitty.
This disability inclusion advocate has brought laurels from different platforms, including being the recipient of the prestigious Queen’s Young Leader Award 2015. She co-founded ‘Wheeling Happiness’, an organisation which supports and helps differently-abled to dream big, in 2014. From helping them to make a career in sports, to bringing smiles with accessible equipment, powering them up to challenge societal barriers to fixing their financial problems, Devika is a go-getter and a doer when it comes to claiming what’s rightfully hers and others like her. She aspires to make the country disabled-friendly.
Devika gets candid with SheThePeople.TV. Excerpts of the interview
What inspired you to launch a platform for people with disabilities?
Since the time I was young, I have been brought up seeing everyone in the family focusing on fitness more than anything. As I was born with hemiplegia, which caused paralysis in one side of my body, from a very young age, my parents encouraged me to take up any form of sports to keep up fitness routine. I was a shy kid and my disability worked against my confidence of which I had little. Besides facing physical, emotional and social challenges, I was insecure about my ability from a early stage. I was constantly worried if in case I under-perform my team shouldn’t suffer because of me. That’s one of the main reason I avoided team sports. However, gallons of support came in from my family. They motivated me to enjoy any form of sports because that was important for my rehabilitation too.
The second thing that my mother always encouraged me do was public speaking. When I got older, I realised that when you have a disability since childhood, it is possible for you to turn out to be very shy and reserved. You avoid going out in public, you lack confidence, especially, because of peer pressure and the sheer lack of empathy in the society where a disabled person is mocked.
This young social entrepreneur’s work was lauded by NITI Aayog in 2018
My mother must have kept that in mind, drawing from her own personal experience. So, naturally I was brought up in a way that speaking on a stage or in an assembly wouldn’t scare me. Eventually, the field of work I have chosen for myself, the confidence to be able to speak in a public forum, and the knowledge of making myself heard it all came from a constructive yet humble upbringing. When you are in an advocacy work it does require a certain amount of confidence.
Devika has helped over 50 persons with disabilities to become sportspersons, and provided artificial limbs and devices that can assist them to walk or move to more than 500 beneficiaries
I started playing professional sports in 2010, years after my mother took up sports in 2006. That was the year we came to know about the various forms of disability sports and infrastructure. We got to know more about various disciplines of sports for differently-abled. I started accompanying her to various podiums because she needed an assistant who would help her travel. In 2010, she was training for the Commonwealth Games and I too had spent leisure time in the camp, training alongside her. I also went to the Commonwealth Games village where I assisted other athletes. The environment there was completely different from what I have been experienced back home. At the Commonwealth and the United Nations, young people support each other, lift each other up, and become each other’s’ watchdogs. I, too, had represented India at many international forums but the voice inside me always pushed me to do more. That was when I realised how vastly this entire world functions where athletes from different countries come together and encourage each other by sharing their stories. I decided to take a leap and started up.
Share your strategies for the job and insights. How do you maintain the status?
Venturing into a new idea progressed naturally. Witnessing my mother grow so much so fast, that she did not let her disability deter her ambitions, I jumped to the idea of supporting the same. Now it might be a normal thing but back then being a Para athlete came with certain challenges and I wanted to solve that. Even though today the scenario has changed vastly, people like us still need assistant.
Initially, we would give advice to people and help them in whatever way we could. India is not disabled-friendly country and we need assistant in every way possible. At the beginning, we would shelter women at our home so they can observe my mother’s lifestyle. They had learnt a lot from her as in how she manages her daily life being a wheelchair-bound athlete. And, I have always volunteered. It really encouraged me that so many athletes needed our help. So in 2014, after I completed my Master’s and had more than one year experience working for a corporate training firm, I decided it would serve everyone better if we formalise this initiative. By then I had realised what my true calling was, what I really enjoy doing and where do I feel more invested. So I quit my job and life was never better.
For her efforts, Devika received recognition from Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Our real agenda was never really to focus on sports only. Personally, yes we relate to sports more than anything and are assured of the impact it can have on a person’s life. But the end goal is basically that a person with disability should feel enabled and capable of fulfilling their potential, and chasing their dreams must be on priority. That’s the reason we named it ‘Wheeling Happiness’ because the idea was that until and unless one doesn’t feel internally happy and capable, no external factors are going to be able to help you or even hinder you.
The infrastructure might be a little better now than my mother’s days but there’s still a gap. One time my mom mentioned that she wanted to go watch a movie in a theatre but couldn’t because they didn’t have the facility. Disability could be a huge discouraging factor as every space is not accessible. In my mother’s case she had the internal peace that helped her deal with any hindrance that came along. We wanted to build that sense of confidence among people, that kind of credibility to just ask for what you deserve. The motive to help people become self-reliant and encouraging them to be independent really drives this initiative. From teaching them how to drive to helping them modify their vehicle so that they don’t need the support of their legs to drive, we have helped a lot of people to become sportsperson as well.
We have recently dived into fashion as well to break the stereotype. Fashion industry believes a disabled body is not perfect. We aim to break that chain. We mentor women in different genres.
Explain why the venture you’ve founded is so efficient when it comes to being the best in the industry?
The biggest campaign we started off is to make roads and spaces accessible for people with disability in collaboration with government and private facilities. We supported corporate firms to become more inclusive and be easily accessible to who wanted to hire the differently-abled. We did a nationwide training for an airline where we mentored the ground staff on how to assist disabled passengers. We have also provided close to 500 different accessibilities to different age groups, basis facilities like wheelchairs, crutches and artificial limbs etc. A big factor we have realised is that a lot of the people with disabilities in this country are also economically under-privileged. So if you don’t have a wheelchair and cannot walk, basically your life is within one room. A lot of them just need basic necessities to start with.
The idea was to enable the differently-abled in however way they want to be enabled. Help them achieve what they want to achieve
What kind of challenges did you face so far?
Finding sponsorship is not a smooth process. Your idea should make an impression on their existing ideas, and also depends on how much up gradation you can make on a basic idea. But today the focus has been shifted to inclusion; people are talking about it, working on it. But to raise money to support people with disabilities you only need to put in hard work to prove yourself worthy of their trust in you.
What is your long-term vision?
Currently, we are running rural disability workshops and now we are in a space where we are getting huge appreciation for the jobs done. Of course, my long-term vision is to expand the reach. Furthermore I want to make an experimental space for athletes where they can come and choose their own sports. It depends on whether their body and mind are enjoying the sport or not, being in a stadium that caters to every need. So my whole idea is to help them starting off from zero and to take them to where they finally get appropriated being a sportsperson in India.
Feature Image Credit: Devika Malik