At the age of 42, when most sports personalities decide to hang up their boots, Rio Paralympic Games silver medallist Deepa Malik has bigger plans. Calling herself more of a sports activist, whose goal is to see India become a disabled-friendly country, Deepa reveals what made her train hard for the Rio medal.
Taking time out from her busy schedule, which included shifting to a new house and organising a birthday party for her father, Deepa, the face of para-sports in India, speaks nonchalantly about her journey, the current scenario for para-athletes in India and the recently passed sports budget.
Question: You have said before in an interview that disability brought focus into your life. But, what was the reason behind taking up sports?
Answer: I was craving for a new identity, an identity which would define me as a person more than a patient in a wheelchair, not taking it as a tragedy or sadness in life. I was doing everything that I used to do, but in a wheelchair. I started my own entrepreneurship project and I was very actively participating in army functions — the Army Wives Welfare Association, etc. If I couldn’t dance, I became a Master of Ceremonies instead of an actor on stage. So whatever best alternative I could do, I did.
There was an image of me that I was unwell in a wheelchair, I was sad, so I needed to do something and in that something sports became a major part. I did try to be a rallyist, I tried to be a biker, swimming, anything… sport became my way to prove to the world that I was happy, I was rocking in the chair and it wasn’t a sad affair for me anymore.
Also, as I have seen the world walking and then to see how the society around you reacts to disability, it gave me focus, it gave me a mission in life, a purpose. God has given me a positive and happy attitude. The thing which people were not ready to believe was that an individual like me could be in a happy state, for they thought that just because you got paralysed, and you have so many body challenges, you are bound to be a sad person. I wanted to break that perception and sports became a medium to do that. Then I started enjoying it as it also kept me fit, agile and alert.
As a sportsperson do you look up to someone for inspiration?
I came into the world of sports not with the mindset of a sports personality. It was more about the social outlook; it was a social cause for me. Then I found purpose in the sporting world because the policies were not in order. I would probably call myself more of a sports activist, than a sportsperson.
There were times when I didn’t want to participate, as there were no federations and I had to work very hard to raise funds. Even if you wanted to drop out of a team and not go, the other children, the young underprivileged kids, who are also a part of the para-sports world, would come up to me and say, ‘Ma’am, who will help us get visa? Who will help us with the entries? Who will go and talk for us about funding with the government?’ So I had to push myself — Okay, another year and another. It was more of a journey of making a few changes and contributing to the world of para-sports.
I found it very funny that in 2010 a journalist asked me, ‘How do you jump with a parachute that is not even an event in Commonwealth Games?’, when I had said that I am here as a para-athlete. Even a journalist didn’t know what para-sport meant. I guess that one line kept me in Delhi ever since and I have been doing anything and everything I can to promote para-sports and to create awareness. So for me it’s a movement. I’m more like an activist than a sportsperson, and I am so happy that in the bargain I did well as a sportsperson.
Since the time you started, you must have faced people who have tried to demotivate you or tried to tell you, directly or indirectly, that what you are trying to achieve is futile. Have you ever felt like quitting or giving up?
I feed on challenges. That’s how my upbringing has been and I am so fortunate that I have had a very sound childhood. My parents have worked hard on me because of which I have got this innate habit of taking challenges head-on and to be positive all the time.
The Rio medal was the result of some comments like — ‘She has aged now… What more for her… She has already got an Arjuna Award at 42... . And even if she goes to the Paralympic Games, she will never be a medallist… She will be a participant…’ So whenever challenges like these are thrown at me, I gear up much better because I feed on them.
What is this mission that you keep talking about — Ability beyond Disability?
This is a term which was coined by me when I declared one fine day that I want to go and join the world of sports. I was asked that at the age of 36, during a Nationals, in an interview — Why at 36? Why now? And I just coined the term and said, ‘This is my mission, Ability beyond Disability.’ So, it originated there and anything I did afterwards was a very strong part of the same mission.
Last year, you faced an incident when an airline ill-treated you… What are the hurdles a disabled sportsperson faces and what needs to change?
It was not about ill-treatment. It was more about the lack of awareness towards the handling of passengers in wheelchairs. I guess a sympathetic attitude towards various types of disabilities is not there. People think that wheelchairs are meant for those who can’t walk anymore. They don’t realise that the people who cannot walk at all also need a wheelchair because the awareness is less. The incident just flared up and it flared up for the good. Because, after that the airlines put a proper procedure in place and they are in very close touch. I am very happy to note that they have taken all the measures, all the steps forward, to improve that situation.
We are a very progressive and beautiful country. We are at par with the world. Despite being so populated, India has done tremendously well. The only two places where we lack are cleanliness and sensitisation of inclusivity (of a person with disability). If we can set these also right, we can be the most progressive nation in the world.
Disability definitely needs a much more targeted focus, when it comes to infrastructure. Our public areas need to be more inclusive. If a person sees that the infrastructure around is disabled-friendly, he will be reminded of the fact that there are people with disability and may even recall this later. But when the infrastructure is not disabled-friendly, automatically we go into the ‘out of sight, out of the mind’ mode. So this is something we really need to work on.
How friendly are our stadiums for disabled sportspersons and what can we do to better the situation?
I have seen change happening. The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (in Delhi) has done a (para-athlete) acceptability assessment, which I helped them do and wherever possible we have tweaked the places. Even minor changes can go a long way. A lift has been added in the SAI sports sector in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. And very recently, the first disability excellence centre dedicated to para-sports has been inaugurated.
So things are happening, changes are there, but definitely more improvement can happen. What we can do to improve is whenever we construct a building in future we have to ensure that it as per the norm. Even as per the rules, any public or government building should be acceptable. We need people to execute their work more honestly, starting from designing a building.
To buildings which already exist, we can add ramps, lifts; we can make new entry and exit points where the ramps can be installed. We need it to be barrier-free and more amicable for people with disability.
Are there enough coaches for para-athletes? Not every coach would be able to understand the challenges faced by a para-athlete or the necessities?
No, I will not say there are coaches who are trained or have enough sensitisation, either emotional or medical or physical. We definitely need to have some kind of courses like they have abroad. One can have the coaching skill, but at the same time one needs to understand the type of disability or the limitation of the person — for example muscle functionality. I guess some biomechanics learning along with coaching skills would help. With regard to coaches, we have a long way to go.
Do you plan to do anything about it?
I definitely want to do something about it. I bring this topic up in panel discussions as also with the government in any meeting. I also write about it. Currently, I am still an active sportsperson with the portfolio being a Paralympic medallist.
I have managed to arrange a bit of funding to open an academy now. I hope people will have faith in the academy and contribute to it. I can then work out a module and say, ‘This is what we need.’ But for that there is still time. Whatever I can do on a personal level or through my foundation, I am doing my best.
You have been a rally driver, a swimmer, and also featured in javelin and discus. Why did you hit upon shot put?
Because there was no option. I was doing very well in javelin. I was setting records and had reached the World No. 2 spot in the F53 category. I had also picked up a medal in the Incheon Games with a new Asian record.
However, to my horror, post Asian Games when they came out with the list of events for the Rio Paralympic Games, the only event which was in my disability category was shot put. I had to restart my journey of learning and crafting my skills in shot put. It demanded a lot of hard work, but I am glad I managed. When I qualified for the Rio Paralympics at the Doha World Championship in October 2015, my throw was barely 3.67 metres.
Internationally, I was ranked seventh when I left for Rio Paralympics. And I cleared 4.61m in Rio. That kind of improvement I had to do within 11 months.
Recently, the sports budget was passed and allocation of finance for sports promotion among the disabled was reduced by 99.75 per cent, from Rs. 4 crore to 1 lakh. How do you react to that?
There is some ambiguity here. I am very sure there is a separate fund through which we will be financed. Otherwise, it will be impossible for us to go to competitions.
The government definitely has a different plan and I think we are being directly served by a special funding programme, the allocation for which should have gone up substantially. There is a remarkable increase in the budget for activities in the disability affairs ministry also. So we are hoping that we will get benefited from not one, but two ministries because para-sports are definitely high on priority with the PMO.
What is your ultimate goal besides winning?
My ultimate goal is to see India, every corner of India, absolutely accessible and inclusive in nature. When I say we I represent the specially-abled community. They should be given loads of opportunities and freedom to exercise any hobby, any outdoor activity, any job and education, absolutely free and easily accessible.
When I say free I don’t mean as financially free, but with ease. Everything should be barrier-free — in terms of the human mind, the psyche, the sensitisation, and the infrastructural inclusivity, positivity and loads of opportunities for us to be actually empowered to an extent that we become useful citizens for the country.
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