She became the youngest girl to play in an Indian state cricket team, at the age of 8. She was a champion swimmer, as well. Preethi Srinivasan had a bright future ahead of her and she was ready to take on the world with her talents. Until one fateful day.
On a college trip to Pondicherry, she was involved in a freak accident that left her paralysed from neck down.
To most, this would seem like the end of their dreams. But not Preethi. She not only decided to take charge of her own life, but pledged to do something for everyone suffering from her condition.
With an unbreakable spirit, she then set out on a journey, that is nothing short of an epitome of grit and determination.
In her own words, ‘If I work hard, remain true and live with integrity, my life would automatically be a success. I was taught that success meant excellence in all endeavours, and I strive to be the best that I can be at everything.'
After this life altering accident, she got up, dusted herself and decided to take control of her own destiny, instead of obsessing over the unfairness of fate. But this was obviously not easy. While speaking about her struggles of overcoming the impact of the unfortunate incident she said “For the first 18 years of my life I had effortlessly excelled in every area of my life, and the future seemed to be brimming with infinite potential. Then, in a split-second, it was all over and I found myself having to come to terms with life in a wheelchair.
At 18, one identifies oneself completely with the material plane – appearance, achievements, social status, status amongst peers, et cetera. I thought I deserved all the success I got purely because I worked hard with integrity and sincerity. Then, I reached a stage where I could not even move my little finger no matter how hard I tried. What could I have done to deserve such a fate? I was shattered. My identity was completely lost and I felt invisible in the world. Who was I? I didn't know, I didn't want to know – I wanted to die.
People had always looked at me with approval and liking. But [after the incident] people began to look at me with pity in their eyes or they would studiously avoid looking at me altogether. I felt like I had disappeared altogether. I couldn't deal with it at all. For two years after the accident, I stayed indoors. I never left the apartment except for doctors’ appointments. I did my best to ignore my reality. I would do anything and everything in my capacity to distract myself. I listened to audio books constantly, watched TV, movies, listened to music – anything and everything to not have to think, not have to face reality. If I was forced to go out and meet people, I would get panic attacks and not be able to breathe.”
But life is all about what drives you and the things that you care deeply about. Having suffered from paralysis herself, she understood the plight of thousands of Indians who suffer from it, but do not receive the right help. She was shocked at the lack of institutions that provide rehabilitation and relief to such people. This is what she had to say:
“Those who sustain spinal cord injury need help from the moment of injury – they will need short-term rehabilitation centres that can help them heal in mind and body, and then inspire them to lead an active life after injury, by enabling opportunities in education, employment, entrepreneurship, and if their family cannot take care of them, they need long-term rehabilitation centres.
There is not even ONE long-term rehabilitation centre or Independent Living Centre for a woman with spinal cord injury or any other multiple disability to live in permanently if her family cannot care for her. This is ridiculous because the country has 1 billion people, and 43% are women. If even 2% were to get multiple disabilities, where will they go?”
This is what inspired her to start her institution Soulfree. Talking about what Soulfree strives to achieve, she said “Soulfree's ultimate vision is to create an inclusive township, where people with severe disabilities can come and live permanently. They will be trained and supported so that they can be as active and productive as possible. For example, one of Soulfree's initiatives is called "Throat Fort" and its aim is to provide voice-based jobs for quadriplegics, who are paralysed below the neck and do not have use of their hands or legs. By training them and giving them the skills to become radio jockeys, voice over artists, TV presenters, et cetera, and find employment for them in the recording of audio books, as telephone operators, BPO centre employees et cetera, we aim to ensure that quadriplegics can also lead a life of dignity and purpose.”
Her journey has been nothing short of tumultuous, but she has not allowed her disability to get the better of her. She fought with the difficulties that life threw at her and emerged as a messiah for people with disabilities. When asked about how she found the motivation to turn around a situation, that people thought rendered her ‘helpless’, she said:
“The first 18 years of my life were like a fairytale, and since then, I've experienced things that are beyond most people's worst nightmare. Having lost everything there is to lose, including my own life, my sense of identity, my hopes and dreams for the future, I've had to look at myself and ask the question, "Why am I being kept alive?" Something opened up inside me, and I just accepted that I was here to serve a purpose greater than my own personal needs, ambitions, dreams or desires. It took a long time, more than a decade, but somehow, have reached a stage of acceptance and equipoise, a stable and clear state of mind.
There is a happiness in me that can't be taken away by any external events or circumstances. I'm here to see this story play itself out, as a witness, nothing more. However, it turns out, I'm alright. This knowing is peace. This journey has set me apart, and taken me on a plane that is totally different from what most people experience in life. I feel that for every tangible I have lost, I've gained a lot of intangibles, but society has no yardstick to judge these, because society does the known their value. I stand outside, watching my own life unfold, and it's a magnificent journey, quite fascinating. I feel really blessed to not be caught up in the day to day grind that the majority endure, and to have had experiences that have taken me beyond the physical realm. It's all good, and as you look, it's going to get way better! Watch out!”
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