Bengaluru: Sunil Jain, the founder of Astha, a local NGO that works with the differently abled, was afflicted with polio when he was 18 months old. The episode cost him his legs and Jain became confined to a wheelchair. His friends and his parents stood by unwaveringly and Jain made it through school and college, eventually becoming a Chartered Accountant.
“My first plan was to study science, but that was impossible for me physically. I couldn’t work in the labs,” said Jain. “That was the first time I found myself face to face with my disability,” he said. Up until that point, his friends and his family had acted as buffers, helping him lead a life that was not outside of the mainstream. Jain had thrown himself into sport - again, thanks to his friends. “I would sit in my wheelchair and watch my friends play. One day, I went up to them and asked. They adjusted the rules of the game and let me join,” he said.
Sport was a passion that would stay with him the rest of his life. “When you’re a child, there’s a lot of equality in sport. It makes you aware of your strength and helps you be more confident,” said Jain. “That’s what I loved most — it takes your mind off your disability.”
It took Jain three gruelling attempts to finally become a Chartered Accountant. “I would do my fieldwork on my wheelchair and it was a difficult process,” said Jain. When he was finally done, he found another unpleasant surprise in store. Companies refused to give him jobs, despite his intellectual abilities. “They refused to accept me,” he said. He started a private practice, driven completely by the idea of material success, which he found. “That’s when I realised it didn’t matter to me at all,” he said.
After a few months of introspection, he found the answer he wanted. Suddenly, he gave up wanting to prove to the world that his disability wasn’t a setback. “We don’t need to prove a point to the world,” he said. “Life is a game. We need to play it, to celebrate it and enjoy ourselves,” he added.
That is how Astha began, as an organisation that aimed to break the boundaries that exist between mainstream society and the differently-abled. “We have more to us than our disability,” he said. “It should be possible to sit down with a differently-abled person and talk about something outside of his condition.” Jain didn’t want sympathy or charity any more than he wanted discrimination. All he wanted was equality and so he returned to sport, which had become, in his eyes, the greatest unifier.
On Sunday, Jain organised a drum circle at National College, Basavanagudi. 25 people, 14 of them differently-abled, came together for what Jain likes to call a ‘jugalbandi’ event. The aim is to raise funds for a parasports academy, to achieve excellence among the differently abled. “We want our athletes to win five gold medals at every edition of the Paralympic Games, starting from 2020,” he said. “And more than that, the idea is to bring people together, despite their differences,” he added.
Only around 20 Indian athletes participate in the Paralympic games, Jain said, as opposed to China, which sends in about 500. “China has won 247 gold medals in a single tournament, while India hasn’t won a single gold in the last three. If we come together, though, we can best China,” he said.
Another important focus for Astha is in the political sphere — they want to ensure that every single differently-abled person has a voter ID. This involves an extensive door-to-door campaign in each ward and working closely with the local corporator. “A lot of these people think there is no point in them voting. But why shouldn’t they?” They are also working with the Election Commission to ensure that the process runs smoothly.
The greatest handicaps lie in the mind, a lesson Jain learned during the course of his life. “Everybody wants to give back,” he said. “No matter who they are or how much they have. There is one part of us that wants to do something good for everyone else.”
Most differently-abled people spend their lives trying to prove that they are as good everyone else, giving back is rarely expected of them. “That’s what we want to change — it’s the part of every human being that want to appeal to,” he said. Through education, politics and sport, Jain’s ultimate aim is to a see a world where the differently-abled are not forced to live on the fringes of society, where there is as much room for their strengths as there is for their weaknesses....