By Neha Kirpal
Para swimmer Madhavi Latha Prathigudupu’s recently released autobiography, Swimming Against the Tide (Sage Publications, Rs 595), is an inspiring story of dreaming big, beating the odds and emerging victorious.
Though she was born in a family of modest means and developed a disability early in life, Madhavi’s CV is impressive enough by anyone’s standards. Associate vice president in an MNC bank group, a former national para swimming champion, the founder general secretary of the Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu, and the founder president of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India, Madhavi founded the ‘Yes We Too Can’ movement to encourage persons with disabilities to participate in sports.
She also led a 15-member team of Indian wheelchair basketball administrators and coaches to the US on a sports visitor programme.
A celebrated TEDx speaker, she was the president of the Toastmasters Club in her organisation and has spoken at various prestigious platforms. In 2017, she was also part of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and Arjuna Awards selection committee.
Born in 1970 to a school teacher and a homemaker in a remote village called Sathupally in Andhra Pradesh, Madhavi was the youngest of five siblings. At the age of seven months, a massive polio attack left Madhavi paralyzed below the shoulder.
Madhavi’s parents were very progressive in their thinking, and inculcated in their daughter the importance of securing an education, getting a job and becoming financially independent. In fact, her loving and supportive family was her biggest strength in her journey. “Even today I wonder how they brought me up with this much confidence and boldness without having any guidance on effective parenting and being in a rural area,” she writes.
A bright student, Madhavi was top of her class from grade one onwards. At the age of 15, she began taking tuitions for primary class students, earning a little income for herself. She and her parents felt that it would be best for her to avoid marriage. Despite the struggle, she managed to get a job in a government bank.
“If our intentions are good, even if we are not in a powerful position or rich, God will show us some good souls with whom we can work together for the cause to which we are committed,” she writes. As a female employee with a disability, she continued to face challenges at work, such as her hard work being overlooked at the time of promotions.
In time, Madhavi began going to her office riding a Kinetic Honda scooter that was modified by attaching two wheels on either side. She describes it as one of the most empowering experiences of her life. She went on to buy a house and even a car modified for persons with disabilities. Thereafter, Madhavi quit her secure 15-year old government job to join the private sector at a multinational bank.
At the age of 37, Madhavi was told that she wouldn’t survive beyond a year. She was then recommended to a well-known physiotherapist who suggested that she try hydrotherapy or underwater exercises. Ever since childhood, Madhavi loved water, and the new exercises helped her immensely. Soon, she learnt how to swim, which was very liberating for her. At a corporate swimming competition, she was able to complete the 100-metre freestyle race. This motivated her to learn all the other styles, including backstroke, butterfly and breast stroke.
Having experienced the benefits of hydrotherapy, she began creating awareness about it through the media, giving talks at educational institutions, corporates and other platforms as well as arranging training sessions.
She began working with the government, corporate, educational institutions, NGOs and other organisations supporting persons with disabilities. She set up the Yes We Too Can Charitable Trust, and also worked with IIT Madras to design the prototype of a pool lift for disabled persons.
At the age of 40+ years, Madhavi took part in a national para swimming championship, where she became a national champion and won three gold medals. In all, she has won 30 medals for swimming at the state and national level. She went on to form a national-level federation of wheelchair basketball, organised several camps to raise awareness on adaptive sports, trained interested candidates and coordinated an inter-state championship.
While recalling her life’s journey, Madhavi also shares her observations on various aspects, such as our ignorance about the rights of the disabled, how our environment can become more disabled-friendly and the crucial requirements to promote sports for the disabled.
Madhavi’s life goal is to promote an inclusive society. “I am confident that together, with the help of so many great people, we can change the world and make it a more open and welcoming place for all of us,” she affirms.
According to Madhavi, the most effective way in which we can change the perception of society towards persons with disabilities (PwDs) is by interacting with them. This will make society understand that PwDs are like any other human beings who too want to lead life in a respectable way, have fun and entertainment and get recognition, she says.
Her advice to other disabled persons is to be a self-advocate. “Don’t wait for someone to come and resolve your issues,” she concludes.