‘With an equal opportunity, disabled people are capable of doing anything’

In our series on strong, independent women; we bring you the story of a 67-year-old woman, who has been actively working since the last 36 years to ensure that each disabled person is treated equally and the same opportunities that any able-bodied person is provided with

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Meenakshi Deshpande is a 67-year-old woman who lives in Pandharpur in Solapur, Maharashtra. She was affected with polio when she was a child, at the time she was around 6 to 7 years old. As she was a handicap child she was given to any schools.

But, due to her father’s resistance, she was eventually granted admission to a regular school. Deshpande strongly believes that handicap children should be given an equal opportunity for education. As they may be differently-abled but they are mentally strong. She states that if they are proper training then they can overcome any obstacles.

She has working to change the mind-set of people toward people with disabilities since the past 36 years. On Sundays, she teaches handicap children and also makes them aware about the government schemes for the welfare of disabled people.

Deshapande explained how her parents got to know that she was affected by polio, she said, “During those days, in the year 1954, there wasn’t enough awareness about polio. It was at emerging disease at that time, my parents weren’t aware that I was affected with polio. When my parents began to notice that I could not walk properly, they took me to a doctor. The doctor told them that I had polio and would never be able to walk normally again.”

Sharing an incident about how she got admission into a regular school, “But, my parents never viewed me as disabled girl. They wanted to educate me in a normal school. But no schools wanted to take the responsibility of a differently-abled child. But my parents did not give up. My father went on a hunger strike for my admission; looking at his determination other parents whose children were disabled joined him, so that even their children could be enrolled in the school. Finally, the school gave in and the other children and me admission to the school.”

My parents ensured that I completed my education till the 11 standard (metric pass), which was SSC back in those days. My college life began after that. Pandharpur had just one college at the time which was quite far. My father saw an advertisement for a cycle which could be used by disabled people and purchased one for me, even though we were poor.”

After finishing college, Meenakshi got a job in bank. She started working at the Bank of India. When I was younger my father wanted me to be able to get a bank job, he was very happy when I got my job. From here onwards, Meenakshi journey began.

Meenakshi said, “When I used to go to the bank, I used my hands for support while moving. Many people would come up to me and say that their relatives are handicapped, what should we do for then, I then realised that there are other people like me. On Sundays, I began to teach disabled children, and also make them aware about the government schemes and thee laws which are there for the benefit of handicapped people.”

She added, “So far, I have helped more than 2,000 disabled people. Once in a year in Pandharpur, we organise a health camp for the disabled, we treat them for free. We take the consent of the parents and treat them for any ailments.”

Twelve years ago, Meenakshi had started a centre for disabled girls to provide them with vocational training. At the centre, they are taught how to sew or how to make paper bags and greeting card. We sell these products at exhibitions, and the profits are distributed among the girls.

Meenakshi has also been a crusader for disabled kids, to be given admission in regular schools. As she believes if these children are segregated, they won’t learn about the other person’s world or their struggle. Having them in the same school would help them find common ground.

She stated, “A handicapped person is also a human being, people should change their mind-set so that everyone can live equally.”

She also actively works to ensure that disabled patients can have better access to public places. In India, there aren’t good services for handicapped people. They are unable to us the ATM’s as there are no ramps for wheelchairs. Even in hotels, railway stations there aren’t enough ramps. At some places they are no toilet facilities for the disabled. She wants the government to pay attention to these small things and provide these services.

She said, “Society must also change their perspective towards disabled people and accept them.”