Me, My Son, My Career and A Wheelchair

My son is my hero and he thinks that I am his. We share a nice and simple rapport. I am his friend and he is mine! There is nothing that we don’t talk about. He is very comfortable discussing about anything with me. He does not feel like I am this relic from another generation who needs to be looked at differently. The laughs we share and the uncannily common favorites we have when it comes to TV shows sometimes puts others off. Before you start thinking that I am going overboard with my story or that this is a common occurrence in all homes, let me tell you something else. Me and my son have never played cricket together, never gone to a movie together and I haven’t been to a playground or a mall with him even once! Why? I am on a wheelchair and this is India!

Don’t get me wrong, I am as patriotic as you or the other person. But when it comes to accessibility, I have to tell you that our great nation ranks very very very low! Even the mere expectation of accessibility is met with indifference and contempt here. Cut to my stint in the US and it was like heaven compared to what I am going through here! It is a country that believes that accessibility is a necessary aspect of living and every single structure is accessible, public or private. The barriers to entry or exit do not exist. A physical challenge does not even figure into any persons issues list. It’s like they don’t see it that way!

Image Credit: MorgueFile

Come back to India, let me narrate the story of a job interview here. The year was 1996, I was interviewing for a Systems Analysts post in a popular software firm that was part of the boom bearers for IT in our country. Those days, I wasn’t on  wheelchair yet, but both my right leg and right arm were already paralyzed. How that happened is a story that is out of the scope of this article. So I walk slowly into the room, there is a panel 6 people sitting and grilling folks. I sat down. The first question ” Oh God! How did this happen to you?” I explained. Then they were all like “Poor chap! So bright yet such a problem” I told them very clearly that I was a qualified post graduate engineer who could beat the best they had and wasn’t looking for sympathy. Then they got a bit upset. They called me “Over Confident” . The technical part of the interview began and I aced it! The next part was what I found ludicrous.

They all came with me outside the office and asked me to show them how I will walk in by myself. Then there were stairs that I had to climb up and down. Finally they wanted to see me use the loo! Not joking here! They did it!  After that they took me to a workstation and asked me to show them how I typed on a computer. I did, and faster than most of their other guys! So then they were “convinced” and gave me a job! I went home with an offer letter and a completely broken ego and lost self respect. In my tenure there, the boss made sure that he made me work the graveyard shift continuously for a year in the name of “equal treatment”. Kept changing my workstation twice a month across 10 floors to “test” my ability and many other “tests” followed. After a couple of years I got fed up and left the place.

All that was when I was more mobile. Now-a-days I am unable to walk on my own as my condition has progressed and need prosthetic support and a wheelchair to move around. So this changes the scenario even more radically. Cut to March 2007, I am the Head of Software Development at a firm in Bengaluru! The building has steep stairs, a faulty elevator without UPS backup and wait for it – the office toilet has a stair that is 2 feet high right in front of it! After a week, I went to the guy who owns the place and told him that these are my issues. He looked at me and said ” I care a F@#K! You are a professional and you need to manage with whatever is here! Go get to work!” A few days later I went and requested him to fix the toilet issue for me, he said, “The ladies toilet is lower, you can share it with them!” I was totally dumbfounded at what was being suggested here! Unable to believe that a CEO could even think of talking like this. He called and meeting of girls and me and made this cringe-worthy suggestion public! I objected and did not want my female colleagues embarrassed anymore! Requested them to leave the room and spoke to him. I told him that I will come in early in the morning and get my work done and leave by 5 pm everyday, that way I use the loo at home before leaving and after returning. He agreed. He even suggested medication to help me “hold it”

I did this for a year, the boss then started publicly questioning why I was leaving early everyday without stretching. He called it lack of commitment. My performance evaluation was trashed. A hefty performance component was withheld and I was warned that I would be fired! At this point, I knew that the end was near. Soon enough, performance reasons were created and I was fired!

I became a freelancer, after that life became better. The quality of life that I was leading improved and my family time also became vastly improved. But the basic issues exist. I am an android enthusiast, but most mobile makers ignore me as I can’t go to their events that are held in environs that are not friendly. They do not even send me review pieces on time!  But hey, I am not giving up or losing it!

My son walked up to me and said “Dad, don’t worry, we are a team – You, me and your wheelchair! And we are winning!” Truer words have never been spoken!

  • Good article.

    • Shakthi Vadakkepat

      Thanks Kiran. It is just a part of the story though! There are thousands like me! Untold stories

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  • Sridharan G.V

    Super Shakthi.. I still remember working with you, one of the most enthu guy I have worked with & now hats off to your son, he truly is a hero

    • Shakthi Vadakkepat

      Thanks Sridhar! I just want people to know that my India is very different from their India and understand that I just want what everyone wants!

  • The amount of insensitivity that exists disgusts me. I think things like empathy have to come from within. What is it that makes people so oblivious to other’s needs? I wonder.
    This brilliant, honest piece brought a lump to my throat. And I think you are fortunate. You have the resources to freelance , plenty of talent plus of course the never-give-up attitude. You’re a fighter and so is your son.

    *Applause*

    • Shakthi Vadakkepat

      Thank you Preeti! It helps that I have amazing friends like you! Makes a big difference!

  • Sujit

    Thanks for the article Shakti. I feel that the opportunities to physically challenged persons are only lip service. I would like to share my story too. I suffer from myelo radiculopathy and walk with support of two crutches. I was a student of Computer Science in an Engineering College and was the topper of our batch. I had done my internship in TIFR and had published 4 international journals. So, when at the time of our campus interview, I was confident of being placed. The first to come was ONGC. When I was called in for document verification the guy told me that I would not be considered for the job as I was physically challenged. I argued with him that since it was an IT job, I would be able to perform as well as all “physically abled students”. But he ignored me and crossed my name of the list and didnot even consider me for interview. He told me that I should only apply when the “quota” for physically challenged person appears and told me not to sit in any PSU interviews any of them would not consider me. I think India needs to change its attitude towards physically challenged. We don’t want the sympathy but equal opportunities. I don’t think that is too much to ask.

    • Shakthi Vadakkepat

      Exactly Sujit! This India is ours too! We have every right to lead a life without depending on anyone! Let us be the change that we want to see!

  • terrinakamura

    Shakthi, thank you for sharing the link to this post. It was heartwarming to read about the relationship you have with your son. How wonderful!

    Your post illustrates how enlightened and sensitive work environments can change the quality of one’s life. My hope is that it will become more of a priority in India. If people demand it, it will happen!

    Wishing you all the best!

    • Shakthi Vadakkepat

      Thank you Terri! I hope so too! Let us see!

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  • Thomas Jones

    Good article, and I hope you press for changes in India. Here is the USA it was the same way when I was young; none of the colleges I attended were ever accessible for my wheelchair, and the first 2 years I worked I had no toilet; I had to cross the street to go. Good luck and force changes.

  • I love your post. I use a walker with a seat because I cannot stand very long at all, and fall a lot because of neuropathy. I can’t feel my feet and trip easily. The US is much better, but not perfect at all with accessiblity. A lot of time the accomodations are for someone who is not pushing themselves in a wheelchair, and you have to travel much farther because of the way they modified the building or parking area. It is harder for those of us who are partially ambulatory.

    The rights that we have in the US were fought for over many years, and are still a challenge.

    I have noticed how lucky we are when I have even visited Canada and Mexico, our closest neighbors.

    International travel is very difficult, I know.

    I really appreciate hearing about accessibility in India. The conflicts that you had with work would no longer be tolerated here, and you would be a rich man if you filed a complaint. But, 25 years ago the protections were not there.

    I look forward to getting to know your better.

    Thanks again for your blog.

    • Shakthi

      Thank you for reading and commenting! Means a lot!

  • Tiger Vamshi

    Support system is bad but with winner like you, we can make a great progress. Cheers.

  • We always liked your articles Shakti & this one is really motivating for people who think its all over. We always watch you as a big player in the Indian influencers list. This article made us all to think positively and get going…..Thanks for wtiting it so wonderfully

  • varsha jeetendra

    This is so beautiful and inspiring. Truly a motivational article! Teared me up a bit, but surely brought a smile towards the end of it. Thank you!

    • Shakthi Vadakkepat

      Thank you Varsha