From Disability To ‘This’ Ability, Dr Malvika Iyer Is An Inspiration To All

Dec 1, 2021, 17:26 IST

Fashion


Just like the mythical phoenix, DR MALVIKA IYER, who literally rose from the ashes following a bomb blast, is a symbol of rebirth and strength, and an inspiration to many. She talks to Kalwyna Rathod about her journey, challenges, and making a difference

Award-winning disability rights activist, international motivational speaker, accessible fashion model, body positivity advocate – Dr Malvika Iyer has several feathers in her cap. “When you accept yourself, you’re invincible,” she says with conviction. Behind that confidence lies years of struggle with finding herself and practising self-love. Dr Iyer was only 13 years old when a gruesome incident left her a bilateral amputee; she lost both her hands, suffered multiple fractures in both legs, and was bedridden for over a year. What she never lost, what no one and nothing could ever take away from her, was her grit and positivity.

Malvika Iyer

Explaining how the grenade explosion in her house in Bikaner in 2002 changed her life, Dr Iyer says, “While it affected me physically and emotionally, it also took a toll on my family. My parents, my sister and I had a normal, simple life; the accident turned everything upside down. Despite it all, there was never any talk within the family about how I was now a person with a disability or a burden on my parents. I had lost 80 per cent blood, my blood pressure was low, and the doctors had said I wouldn’t survive. All my mom wanted was for me to live; she said she didn’t care if I had lost my hands, she would take care of me no matter what.”

Unsurprisingly, Dr Iyer has not found the same attitude from people outside her family. “Travelling to and between hospitals, I used to get stared at, pitied, and be at the receiving end of insensitive remarks such as ‘Bechari ladki’, ‘She’s never going to be able to study’, or ‘Who will marry her?’. Even when I went back to school and later joined college, I was subjected to curious stares, which brought on feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. At times, dealing with these stares, comments and emotions was more painful. Growing up as a disabled woman was sort of a double challenge, because of my disability and gender.”

Being a victim of discrimination led Dr Iyer to pursue her doctoral thesis on attitudinal barriers towards people with disabilities. Her aim was to understand the attitude of young people towards those with disabilities, and she interviewed around 1,000 college students in Chennai for it. From her research, she gathered that discriminatory ideas and beliefs start at a young age, when individuals come across others different to themselves and find it hard to accept the differences. “I’ve tried to make the research as exhaustive as possible, including into whether people who have a more open mind towards people with disabilities have had prior contact with such individuals or if they’ve read about such topics or if they’ve been part of more inclusive education, also including the domains of marriage and relationships. I feel it’s important for young people, especially if they are our future change makers or policy makers, to have an inclusive attitude towards anyone who is different from them in any way,” she says.

Malvika Iyer

Dr Iyer’s talk on related topics at the United Nations in New York City in 2017 earned her a standing ovation; and she served as the youngest co-chair at the World Economic Forum India Economic Summit 2017. “I was representing young people, women, and people with disabilities. People with disabilities need to be portrayed right by the media – not as a liability, but as a source of inspiration, as individuals who can equally participate in politics, governance, and any field of their choosing,” she says. Dr Iyer also feels that it is up to us how we perceive things. “Attitude is a very important concept, and we need to ensure that, when we are in a position to mould a young mind, we give them a wide perspective with regards to people being different, accepting everyone, and being more inclusive.” She talks about a 2018 incident, when she was heading home to Chennai from Delhi after receiving the Nari Shakti Puraskar from the President. The award was a huge frame that Dr Iyer was carrying happily, proud of herself, seated in a wheelchair at Delhi Airport. “Just as I was about to board, a group of people came up to me and, while they could have easily read what was written on the award, they instead prodded me with insensitive, ugly questions when, rightfully, I think a ‘congratulations!’ was all I deserved.” Iyer felt it was unfair to not be recognised for her hard work, and to be identified only as a person with a disability, because people were not able to see beyond it. It is this change in discriminatory attitudes that she wants to bring about – she is okay with being a source of inspiration, but would rather be seen as an equal. “The more we interact with, read about and see people with disabilities around us, the more it will be normalised,” she says.

Malvika Iyer

Today, Dr Iyer lives as normal a life as any other person, doing it all from making coffee for her husband each morning, keeping her home sparkling clean, to getting dressed and putting on her makeup, all by herself. The only thing she can’t do is tie her hair into a ponytail. And, while cooking was a challenge once, she can now whip up gourmet dishes with ease! Topping the state board exams, inspiring several people, and advocating for building an inclusive society, how does she think her life would have been had the accident not happened? “Knowing my and my mom’s personalities, I would have had a happy life for sure. But the accident, my disability, and my experiences have given me a new perspective towards life, made me humble and taught me to be content. Before the accident, I was a trained Kathak dancer, I loved dancing, I was also passionate about creating and crafting things with my hands, I loved outdoor games. The accident took away from me the ability to do all these things that I enjoyed. That being said, my aunt always says that, since I was a child, I’ve been a friendly person who has loved connecting with others. So my personality would have certainly been the same had the accident not happened; I would probably have pursued a career in designing, decorating, dance or modelling. But I still am a model (laughs), so that’s something that’s not been taken away from me!” she replies.

Would she ever want to change anything about her life? “To be honest, I love this life. I don’t think I would wish for my hands back or for the day of the accident never to have happened. I have experienced tremendous things since that day and suffered a lot of lows, but it has all made me a stronger person. This is the person that I want to be, these are the experiences that I want to enjoy and cherish, and this is the difference that I want to make. In a heartbeat, I would choose this life over any other life.”