Making life pleasant for the physically challenged

S. R. SURYANARAYAN

HE was like any other ten-year-old boy. Bright-eyed, happy go-lucky, a lover of cricket and in addition very good in studies. Then it happened one afternoon. The child returned home from school, catching his calf-muscle and vehemently complaining to his mother that he was suffering from unbearable pain. He then collapsed. Who would have imagined that this would be more than a mere muscular strain? As it happened it was the start of the unthinkable, of untold misery. For little Velan, the fond son of Vasanth and Raghuvir, the world came crashing down that day. He was diagnosed as having a rare strain of muscular dystrophy, a crippling muscular disease which not only made him physically challenged, but was also threatening his life.

Some of the Indian cricketers with coach John Wright at the Shakti Foundation's special session. The cricket stars interacted with more than 100 physically challenged boys and girls. Anil Kumble (fourth from right) is taking a special interest in the Foundation's activities. Ms. Vasanth Raghuvir (extreme left) is the chairperson of the Foundation.-V. GANESAN

He lived for another nine years or so, was never absent from college (D.G. Vaishnav College) where he was a proficiency prize winner, but the struggle he faced, the agony that he underwent both in terms of bodily pain and mental torture in trying to cope with a world that is not exactly friendly to the physically challenged, was a touching saga.

Like any physically challenged person, Velan found the barriers to mainstream life too intimidating. He raised questions, thought-provoking ones to his mother, and the 'Special Child' inspired the launch of the Shakti Foundation (registered as a trust in 1993), which today is a movement aimed at providing medicare in rural areas and a barrier-free environment for the physically challenged.

How Velan got a cricketer like Anil Kumble into this is also a landmark development as far as the Foundation is concerned. Recalls Ms. Vasanth Raghuvir of that day in 1997 in Bangalore. "We had stopped at a cake shop for purchase, when my son, who was in the car, spotted Rahul Dravid inside. A keen cricket-lover, Velan was eager to have an autograph from the cricketer, even meet him. So we helped him out of the car and Dravid was touched meeting the young cricket enthusiast. What is more, Dravid arranged a special moment for Velan with various cricketers at the KSCA Stadium. And that is where Anil met and took a special liking for my son. It was unbelievable. The association with him grew as he took it upon himself to propagate the Foundation movement", she said.

Sachin Tendulkar, of course, was the biggest draw with the boys and girls.-V. GANESAN

Velan did not live long but Anil was at his bedside - when the young man was in the terminal stage - with the kind of brotherly attachment which Ms. Raghuvir finds difficult to describe in words. Velan had touched the chords of compassion in Anil and slowly the foundation's work gained impetus. The Project Ramp, a drive by the Shakti Foundation to make the city more sensitive to the needs of the disabled, had him in the lead. A film documentary by the noted Director Rajiv Menon was to follow with Anil featuring in that. No matter where he was, how busy he was, Anil never missed an occasion to take up the Foundation's cause.

"I remember in 1999, with the annual fund raiser we conduct in March drawing close, we were waiting to get in touch with Anil. That was the time when he had the distinction of taking 10 wickets in an innings. He was besieged by congratulatory messages and functions. But Anil did not forget his date with us. Not even the hurdle of the Chennai airport closure because of the belly-landing of a Cargo aircraft stopped him. He flew from Mumbai to Bangalore and came over in a car", Ms. Raghuvir said.

Not surprisingly, then when the Indian cricket team was in Chennai for the Test against the West Indies, Anil was in the forefront of the special session that Shakti Foundation arranged in collaboration with Hotel Taj Coromandel (one of the few places in the city which has a ramp to facilitate the movement of the disabled) for a group of over 100 physically challenged boys and girls with the members of the cricket team. "It was an emotionally charged moment for all the players. Each and every player looked moved by the experience. Not many of them knew that here were some who did not have the ability to shake hands. Of course, Sachin was the biggest draw", she said.

The media provided its support on the occasion and the disabled had their day. "It took a long time for us to bring their emotion down", said a co-worker with Ms. Raghuvir of that evening. Having read and seen so much about the cricketers on television, it was a rare occasion for the physically challenged to interact with the players. Of course, there still is the dream to actually watch them in action in a stadium. As Ms. Raghuvir said, the Foundation hoped to move the TNCA as a part of this "Project Ramp" drive and appeal for an area in the stadium for the physically disabled with ramp access so as to facilitate them to enjoy the matches live.

In fact there is much to be done to make the lives of the physically challenged less complicated. Providing ramps for free access to public buildings, pavements, parking and toilets can be a major step in that direction. Incidentally, there is a law in place (The persons with Disabilities Act 1995) but only in Delhi is it being implemented. Ms. Raghuvir hopes Tamil Nadu would follow suit, taking into account the progress made thus far with Government help in making the city barrier-free for the disabled. Things will not happen overnight, but then the notes of compassion when they come from sports personalities like Anil Kumble evoke all round optimism. "Creating awareness and being aware of the needs of the physically challenged is the least we can do as humans and citizens of India", says Anil. Those desirous of following in Anil's footsteps can also join the movement. Please contact Ms. Raghuvir at 6611213 or 98400-36993 in Chennai.