Unstoppable By Polio This Wheelchair-User Mother’s Life Is A Stirring Tale
Achla Arora, a polio survivor and wheelchair user, the mother of two girls has braved challenges for almost all her life. She had a polio attack when she was just a few months old, and it was so severe that the doctors almost gave up on her. Under her maternal grandmother’s care and through some Ayurveda oil massages she not only survived but excelled as a working woman. At 70, said she wants to experiment on Macramé and cooking and is learning how to drive.
Now she is an investor in her younger daughter, Neha Arora’s company Planet Abled — a platform that provides accessible travel solutions for people with disabilities. Achla couldn’t go to college due to accessibility, distance and transport issues, and again came face to face with a near-death experience while delivering her first child. Her husband lost his sight while he was still in college. And, she completed graduation privately.
The gutsy mother speaks to SheThePeople.TV about being a working woman with a disability, her inter-caste arranged marriage, being a cross-disability couple, bringing up two daughters independently without much family support and how things are for immune-compromised people under the current pandemic. Some edited snippets.
Tell us about your journey as a working woman, defying all odds… What kind of social stereotypes you faced daily?
For 34 years, I worked in the Revenue Department of Government. Prior to which I used to take tuition, sew clothes for people and even had a PCO which gave me 50p per call. My whole body has been affected majorly by lower limb polio, including back scoliosis with full-body deformity, though, I have a decent hand function.
Being a working woman that too with a disability 40 years ago was in itself breaking a stereotype in many ways. I was the only woman in my department for over 30 years. In our times, if a woman was working she was mostly assumed to be a teacher, but I had a full-time job. I could never take a promotion because going to the higher floors in the office was not an option for me as they were not accessible.
“At work, I faced discrimination at various levels because one I am disabled, and second I am a woman.”
My husband Satish Arora lost his sight at the age of 22, and we are a cross-disability couple which is still not very common in India. We had an inter-caste marriage 45 years ago. Often parents of my children’s classmates used to visit our home wondering who pays their school fees and how such a family like ours functions.
During my work tenure, we used to live in government quarters colony and not many women worked in our neighbourhood. I, being a working woman and that too a disabled one, was all about breaking that stereotype that women don’t work, more so, when they have a disability. Although I used to commute in a cycle rickshaw and often fell while travelling because of a bad body balance, that’s a different story, for another day perhaps.
Differently-abled people tend to be creative problem-solvers. Share the experience of raising two girls independently.
It has also been about our children, we have two girls. When our second child was born people hoped that we would have a son, you know to take care of us in old age. Often it was also about giving too much freedom to our children very early on. People questioned our parenting. They became independent very early in life and we never bothered if they were girls.
I raised them independently without much family support as we lived in a different house throughout my working life. I still do all the primary cooking in the house as I have always done. I am pretty fond of new technology whether it’s latest appliances or phones. I manage all my grocery and vegetable, fruits shopping for the house online all by myself because I don’t want to be dependent on my children for my day to day activities and needs.
Achla wants to travel the world with her entire family because they could never successfully do it when they were younger.
Raising a successful entrepreneur and investing in her company, what inspired you to help Neha setting up Planet Abled?
I own half of the company and have invested my savings into it. Also, I believe, not being able to travel or go for a holiday as a child, due to her parents’ disability, and later the unpleasant experiences of travelling, encouraged Neha to start the company.
So we have been pretty accustomed to accepting that yeah some things are not for us and travel is one of those. But Neha questions everything, right from when she was a child. So when the children grew up and forced us to travel, she would argue at most places when they were not accessible or had no reasonable accommodations for disabled. This actually led to a mob fight once and after which we decided not to travel at all. I am a calm and composed person who avoids conflicts at any cost so for me these incidents were not acceptable. But instead of sitting onto it and accepting it, she decided to build a solution for us and people like us. And one day she just came and told me that she has left her job to start Planet Abled. We all were perplexed but gradually accepted that as long as she is doing something good we would support her. After all, we only made her the self-thinking individual that she is today.
Personally, travelling is my biggest passion right now and I want to explore the world as much as I can. I want to catch up on everything that I have missed in all these years. I am happy that with better financial means now and also my daughter working in the same space, it helps me visit various sorts of places. Unfortunately, most tourist locations are inaccessible with no proper toilet.
What inspired you to take up driving at this age?
I remember as a child I refused to accept a tricycle and liked my father’s motorcycle more. The feeling of empowerment and excitement, that yes, I can drive on the road, I am behind the wheel and soon will be able to go everywhere all on my own whenever I will want is amazing. Soon I am going to buy an automatic transmission car and will get the small changes required to move the controls to the hand, once this lockdown is over.
“Then I will practice and refine my driving and will increase distances covered slowly.”
Coming to the current situation, what precautions are you taking to protect yourself during this limited mobility period?
Well, like others we are staying at home. I haven’t been out of the house in the last two months. Even though I need regular physiotherapy to keep pain at bay and keep myself better functioning, I have not been able to do so. No outside movement to the park also. Since my husband and I are both immune-compromised and I have some lung issues, we cannot take any risk.
We order everything online and leave it untouched for a few days before washing it and then using it. Sanitizing all tech devices, including, remotes and phones every couple of days and cleaning door handles regularly. We are trying to curb the possibility of visiting the hospital.
“Keep yourself busy mentally with various activities or engagements. It could be movies or some creative activity. This will help you avoid an overdose of news and fear of uncertainty.”
If you are stuck in a situation then you should never be hesitant in asking for help. There have been many disabled people who live alone and when the lockdown started their caregivers couldn’t reach out to them. Later, due to the efforts of various activists a pass was introduced and made as an essential service. My advice is to help and assist each other — physically or virtually.
India is not a very disabled-friendly country and at a time like this, the country is not remotely prepared to handle the crisis that disabled people are facing on a daily basis. Do you believe the entire ecosystem will take a long time to transform and evolve?
From what it was a few decades ago to what it is today, we have certainly come a long way, but we still have a very long way to go. The passing of the New Disability Act in December 2016 and its coming into force in 2017 has certainly made it more hopeful.
More importantly, what is required is the change of the mindset in the society. They should acknowledge that disabled people are part of the mainstream. We are an equitable part of society and have an equal right to everything, then why the environment limits us? Also, it is important to note that accessibility is much beyond than just building a ramp. It requires accessible toilets and information and technology in accessible formats for all kinds of disabilities. Making sure none of us are excluded.
Feature Image Credit: Neha Arora