“I do not have a disability, I have a gift! Others may see it as a disability, but I see it as a challenge. This challenge is a gift because I have to become stronger to get around it, and smarter to figure out how to use it; others should be so lucky.”
― Shane E. Bryan
The throng at the petty shop mingles with that of the canteen next door on this muggy morning at the Bharathidasan University’s Palkalaiperur campus on the Tiruchi-Pudukottai highway. A queue of students and staff is waiting for the young woman at the counter who fishes out things as they are demanded – juice, unruled foolscap paper, peanut candy, potato chips, and biscuits among others. In the corner is a newly-installed photocopier that also generates a clientele of its own. Few bat an eyelid when the young woman, S. Amudha, glides to the floor from her chair and crawls to the different shelves to pick up stuff. For the 30-year-old paraplegic, navigating the world with her hands has been a way of life for a long time now. “It’s difficult, but I’ve never felt it worth complaining about,” says Amudha.
The eldest of three children, Amudha clearly remembers the days she was on her feet as a child in Chinna Suriyur village before a fever stiffened her limbs and paralysed her when she was six. “My grandmother took me to the Samayapuram temple and offered many prayers and massaged my hands regularly till they straightened out,” she recalls. “But somehow my legs got neglected, and I lost the ability to use them.”
Her parents, both farm workers let Amudha attend the local government school, physically carrying her to and from campus every day. But her education had to stop with Standard V, the highest class available at the school then. “When I got admission to a hostel in Thanjavur two years later, my parents were not inclined to send me there, so I just dropped out,” she says. Alone at home for most of the day for the next 10 years, Amudha overcame depression and fear to begin her ongoing journey towards self-sufficiency. “I learned how to cook and do the household chores first. Later, my father used his savings to buy a wet grinder for me. I started selling idli batter for around 5 to 6 customers every day. Some nearby eateries started contacting me as well,” she says.
At the age of 20, Amudha was encouraged by a teacher who was giving tuitions to her sister, to change her attitude and interact more with the world outside. “I came to the Bharathidasan University in 2004, and worked as a saleswoman in the store run by (former professor) Mr. Chellam Balasundaram for two years,” says Amudha. When her benefactor retired, she went back home, but six months later, with the help of a loan from the Women Entrepreneur’s Association of Tamil Nadu (WEAT), she decided to start a small shop on the university campus selling pickles, appalams and vadagams prepared by self-help groups which paid a commission of Rs. 10 for every Rs.100 worth of goods sold. “But it didn’t do very well,” admits Amudha, “because such products don’t sell every day. From 2007-09, I used to simply come to the store and wait for customers.”
The establishment of a canteen next door brought an electricity connection to the building, and as it were, some power into Amudha’s business plan as well. “I started with a fridge for soft drinks, and then slowly built up a range of products,” she says. Starting with goods worth Rs.5, 000, Amudha says she now has got material for at least Rs.2 lakhs in the store. “I just kept reinvesting all my earnings back into the store,” she reveals. As the store took off, so did Amudha’s personal life. She got married to her cousin Chelladurai, and the couple has a daughter, Ajeetha, aged 5. “Maintaining a household, looking after a baby and keeping a career going can be difficult when you have a physical problem like mine,” she agrees, “but I prefer not to complain about it. If I do, I’ll be asked to stay at home!” she smiles. Instead she focuses on her future plans – right now it is the brand-new photocopier that has begun to earn its keep after an initial dull spell. Amudha has applied for a bank loan to help pay off its Rs. 80,000 cost, while another project is to learn how to drive the specially adapted three-wheeler scooter that she purchased with the help of donations from friends and well-wishers. At present, she uses an auto-rickshaw to commute.
“I have to really thank all the kind-hearted people in my family and at the Bharathidasan University who helped me come this far,” she says on an emotional note. “They have taught me that one can be useful to society even if one is differently-abled.”