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Ability beyond Disability

Inspirational. Epic. Heart-warming. Empowering. Living legend. The pride of India. “The best meeting I ever attended.”

These were some of the comments made by members of the audience at the end of a two-hour interaction with sporting legend Padma Shri Dr Deepa Malik who is New Zealand to receive the Sir Edmund Hillary Fellowship from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Deepa, who is paralysed below the chest, is indeed a living legend. She created history by becoming the first ever Indian female para athlete to win an Asian Games medal in athletics as well as the first ever female World Championship medal. The International Paralympic Committee named her as one of the 10 most inspirational women para-athletes of the world. She holds Four Limca World Records in the Adventure Category. In 2017 the Great Asia Women Achievers Awards named her one of the top 10 Asian Women Leaders.

The meeting, which was held on Monday 6 May, was organised by Haryana in New Zealand at the Indian Association of (Manukau) New Zealand (IAMNZ) premises in Papatoetoe. The event was supported by 17 Indian Diaspora Associations. “When we heard that Deepa, who is a Haryanvi, was going to stopover in Auckland enroute to Wellington we requested her for a meeting,” says Haryana in NZ’s Sunil Kaushal, “but we wanted the entire Indian diaspora to attend, which is where Veer Khar and Roy Kaunds of IAMNZ stepped in and offered their venue and partner along with other Indian associations.” As a guest of the New Zealand Government Deepa’s travel and stay is arranged by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who were gracious enough to fit the meeting into her busy itinerary, Kaushal explains.

A part of the event was co-facilitated by Black Caps Test opener Jeet Raval and I Am Woman Trust Chair Annu Sharma.

Deepa was accompanied by her daughter Devika, who is also an accomplished and celebrated social worker. The meeting began with a short Ted Talk-style soliloquy where Deepa recounted her tragic, moving and inspirational story. She was an independent adventure-loving, motor-bike riding girl who married a boy who promised to gift her a motor cycle. But tragedy stuck in 1999 when first her daughter Devika was badly injured in an accident and was paralysed on one side of the body. Then her husband who was a Colonel in the army was called up to fight in Kargil. At the same time doctors discovered that Deepa, just 29, had developed tumours in her spine and the only way to save her life was to sever the spinal code which would leave her paralysed for life.

She described how her entire life just changed in a matter of a week. However the tragedy changed her entire outlook. From total helplessness and despair she started rebuilding her life. First she started a restaurant and became an entrepreneur then she started sports. By the age of 36 she was competing internationally. She is India's first ever female Paralympics medallist across any sport. She is also the first ever Indian paraplegic woman swimmer, biker and car rallyist. She has 23 international medals and 68 national and state level medals in swimming, javelin, shotput and discus events.

She is the first Indian to receive the International Women’s Day Recognition from the International Paralympic Committee (awarded each year to one woman from all over the world), for her contribution to advancing disability sports for women in India. She also holds a world record in open river swimming for swimming across the Yamuna River for one kilometre against the current. Deepa is also a record holder in driving customised cars and motorbikes and became the first ever physically challenged person (man or woman) in the world to get a rally licence to compete in the ‘Raid-de-Himalaya’ car rally on the world's highest motorable road.

Her achievements have been recognised by the Government of India. Deepa received the Padma Shri; the Arjuna Award; President’s National Role Model Award; Women Transforming India Award and First Ladies Award as well as five state government honours. She is now the recipient of New Zealand’s Sir Edmund Hillary Fellowship for 2019.

The next hour of the meeting was facilitated by Black Caps Test cricketer Jeet Raval and I Am Woman CEO Anu Sharma. It was a fantastic interaction and Deepa also answered questions from the audience. She played a few videos which explained the work she and her daughter were doing. They run an NGO called Wheeling Happiness which inspires disabled people do things they would normally not think of doing. Her mantra is “Ability Beyond Disability”.

Her NGO assists in the training and sports equipment requirements of para sports persons. It enables persons from lower socio-economic strata. The foundation has provided more than 500 mobility aiding devices.

Deepa is a member of the Government of India’s Working Group for the Formulation of the 12th Five Year Plan (2012 – 2017) and contributes to create policies for the physically challenged. She is the expert consultant for Disability Inclusive Accessible Infrastructure for the ‘Smart Cities’ project of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. She has recently been inducted as a member of the world’s largest democratic party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Deepa, who is a professional motivational speaker, told the gathering how the current government under Narendra Modi was transforming India, especially rural India. She also praised the government for focusing on disability issues and sports.

The meeting ended with a vote of thanks from the IAMNZ President Veer Khar who presented her with a book and a medallion and also inducted her as an honorary member of IAMNZ. The presidents of the Telangana Association Narendra Mr. Narender Reddy Patlola and the NZ Telugu Association Sri Lata, President of Uttarakhand Association of NZ Dr Upendra Saklani, President of Indian NZ Catholic Association Alston D’Silva, Kunnal Sharma from Waitakere Indian Association, all felicitated and spoke at the event. Sunil Kaushal presented he with a commemorative plaque on behalf of Haryana in NZ and was joined by the representatives of the Indian Associations present.

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