Bengaluru: Malvika Iyer was a charming 13-year-old girl in 2002 when a grenade accidentally blew up in her hands, ripping her forearm and paralysing her legs, in Bikaner, Rajasthan, where she lived with her parents. An accident that could have ended her life completely changed her perspective, and even though it took years for her to overcome the trauma, she came out stronger and not only found a way to get her life back on track, but also became a harbinger of change for the disabled.
It was a change in the attitude of others, which came along with the trauma, that sensitised her towards the stigma associated with disability and she chose not to take it lying down, but fight against it not only for herself but for many others like her.
Now 29, the Chennai-based activist has overcome her disability by sheer will and was honoured with the prestigious Nari Shakti Puraskar (Women Power Award) by President Ram Nath Kovind in March this year for pushing the envelope in making everyone understand disability and come to terms with the physically challenged.
Through her talks across countries like the United States, Norway and South Africa as a global motivational speaker, Malvika’s saga has been igniting hope for thousands of people with disabilities the world over.
“I grew up at Bikaner in Rajasthan, where my father was working as an engineer in the state Water Works Department. The incident occurred on May 26, 2002 when I was 13 years old and studying in class IX.
“As I was rummaging in the garage at home, I unknowingly held a grenade in hand that blew up, snapping my forearms and severely injuring my legs, which lay dangling,” recalled Malvika in an interview.
A fire that broke out in the ordnance depot at Bikaner in January 2002 had flung pieces of ammunition in the vicinity, one of which claimed her arms.
Though bedridden for nearly 18 months after multiple surgeries on the legs, which suffered nerve paralysis, and the arms that were fitted with prosthetics, a restless Malvika soon pushed herself to face the challenge of her life at such a young age.
With just four months left for class X exams in 2004, she decided to appear as a private candidate in Chennai for the Tamil Nadu Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC), having missed class IX in 2002-03 after being hospitalised.
The gritty survivor, a bilateral amputee, then took her first steps with her parents’ support and wrote the exams with the help of a scribe as she was still getting used to prosthetics. Her determination had the nation in awe as she passed the board exam with distinction and was among the toppers in the southern state.
“Then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam read about me in a newspaper and had invited me to Rashtrapati Bhavan. He (Kalam) had asked me about my career plans and spoke to me about missile making,” Malvika fondly recalled.
“Facing board exams with no arms and meeting President Kalam made me realise that I should never feel bad about anything lost. There was no looking back after this thought,” asserted the disability rights activist.
Since then, Malvika forged ahead with higher education at the prestigious St. Stephen’s College in Delhi in Economics, a Master’s in Social Work from the Delhi School of Social Work and an M. Phil and Ph.D. in Social Work from the Madras School of Social Work in Chennai, even as she learnt to tackle disability and people’s attitudes towards it head-on.
“I was very active throughout my childhood — good at sports, dancing and had a fun teen life. It wasn’t easy to cope with losing my arms and seeing my legs weakened. But I soon felt that people’s attitude to disabilities hurt more than disability itself,” Malvika quipped.
In 2013, she delivered her first public speech in Chennai, opening up on how the incident changed her life forever. Soon she appealed to many nations across the world, demanding better laws and facilities for the disabled.
Through her talks, Malvika has been highlighting the issues of inclusion, attitudinal change towards the disabled, accessible elections, accessible fashion — where clothing is designed keeping disabilities in mind — body positivity, celebrating people with all body types, etc, while allowing people to connect with her through her own story.
“Every day, I receive hundreds of messages from people across countries, saying that I’ve been a reason why they never gave up in life. It is overwhelming that I’m able to make a difference in people’s lives,” noted Malvika, who also turned a model to advocate accessible fashion.
She is a member of the Chennai hub of Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum to encourage young people below 30 to work for change, and the United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development, allowing her to carry her voice across continents.
In March 2017, the United Nations invited her to deliver a speech at its headquarters in New York.
“I was humbled to receive a standing ovation from international delegates when I shared my story,” said the gender and disability rights advocate.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who interacted with the Nari Shakti Puraskar awardees in March, described her as an “adbhut naari” (wonder woman), Malvika recollected, stating the award makes her want to work more for women and disabled.
“It is unfortunate that accessibility remains a major issue in our country. There is a need for an attitudinal shift among the people, as discrimination is the main obstacle fro the disabled, making them feel excluded from society,” she pointed out.
Through her Ph.D research on reasons for stigmatisation of people with disabilities, Malvika urged for a school curriculum that sensitises children from a young age on disabilities.
“I hope I can work with the state-run bodies and educational institutions to introduce a curriculum in schools for the youngsters to understand disability and eliminate pity and stigma,” Malvika said.