When I was told that I would get to attend a Wheelchair Rugby match, I thought, “No way”. On my way to the ESCIP (Empowering Spinal-Chords Injured Person) Centre, I thought about the ways in which the people that I would be soon interacting with are disabled. God, they must have faced such hardships. I should probably make sure that I don’t stare at their feet. They are quadriplegic. Staring at their disability will probably offend them.
With all these thoughts in my head, I walked into their office. Their office, or centre, was just like any other house in Delhi. The hall was brightened by sunlight that was streaming in. There were enough chairs and sofas to seat at least 15 people strewn all over the room. At the other end of the hall was the dining table, where everyone was seated, waiting for lunch. After which, they planned to begin the match. After 5 minutes of introduction, we got to the point. We got to lunch time.
My friend and I sat on the sofa, while the guys made it to the dining table. I was rather surprised at how freely they roamed around the house. I saw them help each other. They were like family. Yes, that was it! They all admitted to the fact that, their levels of disability and independence varied. Some were still learning how to get off of the wheelchair and into their beds; while some were planning to become a professional in the field of Wheelchair Rugby. I tried my best to tear my eyes away from their limp feet placed at the footrest of the wheelchair. That is when Nikhil explained to me how disability is a hurdle. He lifted his lifeless foot and explained. I was amazed at how comfortable he was. For him, his disability was just about being differently-abled, with each person turning their disability into an ability in some way or the other.
After about half an hour in their presence, I forgot that they were “disabled”. It was funny how while on the way all that I could think of was how to avoid making them feel awkward in any way. Perhapsit was the manner in which Nikhil was so comfortable in just picking up his limp feet and trying his best to explain what the problem was. Or maybe it was when Gajendar, aka Gajju, told me that he aware of the fact that people hesitate to help the “differently abled”. This just took me back to the instructions I had given myself. “You see”, Gajju said, “We know that people are hesitant to help us, not because they don’t want to help us but, they are worried how we will perceive it.” I smiled at Gajju and nodded in agreement. There was something rather refreshing about people who tried to look at every side of the story.
After lunch, the walk to the playground was a short one. The playground set up was like any other park you would find in your residential colonies. They all gathered in a circle and warmed up for the match. And then, the match began. I can say that I was completely amazed. I didn’t expect men in wheelchairs to be so energetic! They zoomed around the ground, tackled each other, yelled out at fouls, tried to stare each other down and did everything that a sportsperson in a “normal game” would!
I am not particularly sporty, but in terms of cheering, I am the first one to yell out a “Boo ya!” And their energy was contagious. I got up from where I was sitting on the boundary and stood with others and cheered. Gone were my doubts and fears and all the little check points I had kept for myself. I saw them tackle each other, my eyes scanned their arms. Though their feet were limp, their arms did all the work for them. Trust me when I say that using a wheelchair is no child’s play. “Imagine carrying a dead weight of 50 kg wherever you go”, Nikhil had said. I thought about how I crib every morning about carrying my laptop to office.
What did I learn? The whole idea is to look beyond their disability. Just before the match began, I spoke to one of the players. Pradeep is from a village near Meerut and was never aware that he could live life this way. One of the fastest members in the team, he takes great pride in the distance he has travelled. He was here today because he took a bullet to his back when he tried talking some sense into a couple of boys who were harassing a girl. He explained how one bullet had brought his whole life down. But he knew he could live now. He could travel around on his own. Life was better. His second life treated him well.
By the end of the game, I looked across and I spotted each one of them. Eyes swollen, sweating like pigs, they were huffing and puffing. They did this because they loved it. Wheelchair Rugby was more than just a sport to them. It gave them that rush we all look for in life. The point of this little story is not that they need pity. There is so much more to them than their disabilities. Next time you see a differently-abled person, try to look beyond what you see in front of you. Try and strike a conversation. After all, where there are wheels, there are ways. And of course, stories!