“I am a spectacular version of myself – Strong, Empowering and Happily Different”
It amazes me how one’s unwavering faith on self aims for a change that brings into forefront myriad possibilities for others. Please meet Devika Malik, an International Para-athlete and Silver Medalist at World Athletics Grand Prix, Tunisia 2014 and USA 2016. She is an alumnus of the Youth Leadership Program conducted by the United Nations Office of Sport for Development & Peace in Tokyo, a Queen’s Young Leaders Awardee 2015, Ph.D. Research Scholar and a proud daughter of Padma Shri 2017 Deepa Malik.
Devika and her mother Deepa Malik are Founders of The Wheeling Happiness Foundation, a foundation that works to enhance emotional well-being and bring simple joys into the lives of persons with disabilities.
I am truly honored to interview Devika Malik for Girls to Watch.
“We hope that our efforts will bring about a shift in this universal mind-set and drive people to view persons with challenges as truly valuable and empowered citizens of the world, not objects of pity” – Devika Malik
You are a Multiple-medal winner para-athlete, a Queen’s Young Leaders Awardee, tell us what drives you in life? How do you plan to build a more socially-inclusive India?
Being aware of possibilities is the first and foremost thing that has driven me largely as a person. When you have the right tools and an enabling environment, then everything is possible. Secondly, my love for travelling, it’s enriching to the core. Through travelling, I get the opportunity to engage more, to observe people in different situations and implement in my own life all the learnings I return with. For e.g. my mother and I visited The United States in 2016 for a competition. On a day off we went to the Grand Canyon and it was wonderful to see how a certain level of accessibility was ensured without spoiling this natural beauty. There were hydraulic buses for the wheelchair to get on and off. It gave us an idea to be more inclusive in our own country. Co-incidentally during that time, Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai was launching accessible ambulances, so we collaborated and gifted them a bunch of wheelchairs. The third aspect that drives me is collaboration. If I am doing something that could possibly link very well with another person’s vision, so why not do it together and expand our reach. For e.g. we are based out of New Delhi, but we have done a lot of work through advocacy in other cities and raised funds for about 300 artificial limbs in collaboration with Jaipur Foot.
Tell us about your journey as Queen’s Young Leaders Awardee?
My journey to Queen’s Young Leaders is more personal and my mother has been a vital part of it. Her achievements coming from striking will-power and crazy visions inspired me to push myself beyond limits.
My mother and I have witnessed how immensely sports have contributed to our lives. That triggered the idea of introducing sports more in the lives of people with disability and giving them a respectful outlook towards self. When I first heard about The Queen’s Young Leaders Awards, I was already involved with The Commonwealth Youth Sport for Development and Peace which is a working group within Commonwealth Youth Division. I applied for the same. There were questions around my vision and why is it important to me, after competing several rounds made it till the end, got selected, became a part of their founding batch and won the award. It was then I realized the gravity of being a part something as big as this. Out of 60 people who won the award, I was one of the shortlisted ones who they covered on digital spotlight. This was a highlight because for the first time, I got to talk about my work in front of the camera. Additionally, they had collaborated with Cambridge University so even before we were declared winners, we already had access to University resources. For a holistic learning experience, I was dedicated a mentor. Their main purpose was to transform us into better community leaders.
Your mother Deepa Malik was conferred with the prestigious Arjuna Award in 2012, she holds 4 Limca Records and 3 national swimming records and ranks 1st in Asia and 3rd in the world in paraplegic Javelin, Shot-put and Discus Throws. Do you think her unflinching faith in herself and an indomitable spirit has an important role to play in your incredible journey?
Yes, Absolutely. My mother is the strongest influence in my life.
When my mother got paralyzed, I was eight and a half. Since that time, I have been intimately involved in the minutest details encircling her life. It used to be her mind and my hands sometimes. As a child, I internalized everything.
You know, my mother suffered a spinal cord injury in 1999 and after her surgery she was completely bedbound for two years. Back then internet was still embryonic, the healthcare and diagnostics wasn’t that advance. It was a pure drive and self-initiative that she found ways to heal herself internally. We got her a computer, she learnt to operate it and with the help of limited internet connectivity she located a few support groups and forums with similar conditions. Gradually, she also changed the infrastructure of our house to move around more easily. She did everything to be more functional in the new kind of body. Growing up in such a brave background, I have only learnt to hold on as much as I can.
You are the Co-Founder of The Wheeling Happiness Foundation which is a helping hand that reaches out to the differently-abled who need physical, materiel, financial and emotional support. Tell us more about your organization? How do you plan to grow it in the next 5 years?
My mother was the first woman ever to win a medal at the Paralympics from India, it’s been a long gap since then. Compared to 5 years ago, we now have more women participating at the State and National level, but, at the International level there are only 2 or 3 who make it. So, from a futuristic slant, I am aiming to finish my PhD. by the end of 2019 and I am specifically looking at ‘Women with Disability in Sports in India’ to understand from an academic perspective what are the reasons behind such lag. Once I have an infallible research in place I can present a case to address this gap, be it in the form of reforming our policies, providing better facilities or just to enhance participation of women in Sports. There is a lot of research already in place that talks about how sports impact people, but I aim to refurbish it in Indian Context (keeping my foundation into consideration).
From an organizational standpoint, we have trained the ground staff of Indigo Airlines on how to handle wheelchair passengers, or, how to interact with them. Presently, we are giving rehabilitation training to a young girl, we are gifting a motorized extension to wheelchair (which is an expensive equipment through which your wheelchair functions like a scooter) to another person through our foundation. Eventually, my mother and I have planned to set up an academy for women and girls who have not explored their potential in sports. We will provide them with all the basic facilities and give them enough scope to experiment and analyze what they are good at.
What are some of the grave challenges, that people with disability, face in India? Being the Co-Founder of The Wheeling Happiness Foundation and having achieved so much against all odds, do you propose any solution for it?
With the revised ‘Rights for Persons with Disabilities Act’ passed in 2016 there are now a lot more provisions for people with disabilities as compared to what it was when first passed in 1995. Specifically, in context of physical disabilities, the central government awards the same amount of money to a sportsperson with disability as an able-bodied person who wins a medal in Asian Games, which was not the case 5 years ago. I am connected to various disability activists who raise their voice every day, no doubt we have a long way to go. The consolatory part is at least there are conversations happening now.
I know a few Indian travel companies who are exclusively focused on providing accessible holidays to people with disability. Cox & Kings Tours and Travel have started a vertical called ‘Enable Travel’ which designs accessible holidays. Since they are in their initial phase, so, my mother and I travel with them aggressively to survey different destinations and provide them with feedback on how they can make it better. We also making a deliberate effort in education and employment sector for people with disabilities.
What I wish though is for things to be more systematic, collaborative and streamlined for the impact to be larger and faster.
When you look back at your incredible journey, what is that one moment that you remember the most and why?
The first time I won an International Medal at the IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Tunisia, 2014. On a larger scale, when we could finally set up The Wheeling Happiness Foundation.
A message for all the people who are reading you…
Be more accepting of difference. If we consider ‘Disability’ as a difference rather than an inability, we will approach things from a more positive outlook.