Born nine years after her parents marriage, Preethi Srinivasan, had a fairytale childhood. But at 18, her life was overturned by a receding wave. Paralyzed below the neck, this State-level cricket captain and swimming champion, was left to battle not only her physical and mental sufferings but also societal rejections. But she did not stop at “Why me”? She did not loose courage or her sportsman spirit. She continued to fight and even today she fights with a smile. Through her courage and conviction she strives not only to retain hope in her own life but also spread it to others like her.
Preethi Srinivasan was born on 5th of September 1979. At just 4 years of age she was inspired by the 1983 World Cup (also known as the Prudential World Cup) held in England and Wales that was won by India by 43 runs, at the famous grounds of Lords. But during the India-West Indies finals, she supported West Indies, rather than India, because she was an ardent fan of Vivian Richards, recollects Preethi jovially. She was so fascinated by the game, that at age seven, she even attended a cricket camp that attended by approximately 300 boys. But the boys were not comfortable playing with this little girl. “There, the boys were scared to bowl to me as I used to hit the ball so hard. I also bowled fast but slowly became a leg spinner”, said Preethi in one of her earlier interviews.
The aspiring cricketer
In addition to cricket, Preethi has also won accolades in swimming. She swam from when she was just 3 years old and later became a State level 50m breaststroke champion. But cricket was her passion. At 8, Preethi was selected to play for the Tamil Nadu State Women’s cricket team and in 1997, she captained the U-19 TN cricket team and led the team to victory; its only victory at national level at the time.
Preethi, the child prodigy
Unfortunately, a year later while returning from a college trip from Pondicherry, she met with an accident that changed her life forever. On 11th of July, 1998, on their return journey from the trip, they stopped to enjoy at a private beach owned by one of her friends. Although close to the shores and a swimming champ, she tripped in the waters because of a receding wave. The wave churned up the sand under her feet and she tripped. She stumbled a bit and dived face forward into the water. “As fate would have it, the moment my face went underwater I felt a shock like sensation travel through my body”, said Preethi in an interview to Betterindia. No impact, no blood, no pain, just a split-second of misfortune and the very non-dramatic fall had a very dramatic effect on her life from then. Once a sportsman, she could not move any more.
This was the start of her dependency on others. A swimming champ, a bowler, a batswoman, she then lay still in the water holding her breath waiting for others to rescue her. Her friends were horrified and chaos ensued. But Preethi remained cool. She instructed her friends on her first aid, following which she was taken to JIPMER Hospital in Pondicherry. But emergency care in India, especially with regard to spinal cord injuries, still does not match international standards. Lack of trained and skilled medical professionals who possess the training and experience to diagnose and handle such patients are extremely rare in most hospitals across the country. And JIPMER was no different. After supporting Preethi’s neck with a spondylitis collar, without adequate diagnosis, the hospital officials sent her to Chennai for check-up, labelling her as an accident case. She reached Chennai after 4 hours; 4 very crucial hours, where she was diagnosed with a severe case of paralysis rather than spondylitis. Today, as Preethi recalls the details, she still cannot help but wonder if her life would have been different had those four crucial hours not been lost in misdiagnosis.
Even after her accident, she did not forget to smile and spread the smile
Disability, is an impairment that limits one’s activities and participation in what is considered to be normal in everyday society. As per the WHO, it is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives. For an athlete, a sportsperson, for someone who excelled in every arena, this change was a difficult one. It was difficult to accept that that life was over, that her sports career was over. It was difficult to accept the course life had so suddenly turned for her. The stage of life she had reached through hardwork, integrity and talent had all of a sudden disappeared and it was difficult to accept this new life in a wheelchair. “I felt invisible”, says Preethi. “I was shattered. My identity was completely lost. Who was I? I didn’t know, I didn’t want to know- I wanted to die”. The disability to move, her disability to control her own body, had robbed her of her achievements, her sense of dignity and self-worth. She felt lonely, secluded from the world.
May be the Divine tests only those who it knows can sustain the pain and still be a role model to others. Preethi refused to give in. And so did her parents. Like all parents, they wanted to ensure a bright and independent future for their little princess. But they knew things were different for Preethi. She had lost the functioning of her spinal cord, so they became her surrogate spine. “The greatest blessings in my life are my parents who’ve always showered me with unconditional love and support. After the accident their generosity of spirit and greatness was even more evident as they quietly sacrificed their lives so that I could live with dignity. Never once did they blame me for destroying not only my own life, but theirs as well and all their hopes and dreams for my future. Im alive today because they stood by me and cared for me every moment of everyday. My mother is my Goddess”, say Preethi about her parents (Courtesy Betterinida).
Having done well in both sports and academics, Preethi wished to continue her studies, after the accident. Her extensive travel, across continents, because of her father’s transferable job, gave her the opportunity to learn about different cultures, traditions and people. It helped her develop an intuition about people and their psychology, a reason why she hoped to take up the subject for higher studies. But the road ahead was not easy and once again her disability came between her and her aspirations. In 2001, her father, an electric engineer, approached the University of Madras, for Preethi’s enrolment into the psychology course. But the University denied admission. As per the rule book, every student in the course was required to spend 15 days at the University for compulsory contact classes, which the University felt Preethi would not be able to attend, especially because they would be on the third floor, with no wheelchair ramp facilities for disabled people. “My father went to every official and begged them to take me but they refused”, said Preethi in an interview to The Hindu in 2013. But Preethi and her father did not give up. Her father brought her books and encouraged her to continue learning since he believed that in the intelligence and passion of his daughter for which he did not require a paper certificate from a University.
Preethi had always excelled in academics. Being in a transferrable job, her father moved frequently, which resulted in Preethi being the new girl in nine different schools across three different continents. And she excelled everywhere. She graduated from Upper Merion Area High School, Pennsylvania, USA in 1997; was awarded the academic honours for outstanding accomplishment and excellence in academics for 1996/97 in her school; also won the English department and Accountancy department awards for the highest average in advancement placement English and in Accounts,respectively, for the that year. In 10th grade (1994/95), she was awarded the certificate of merit for maintaining excellent standard of work throughout the year from Vidya Mandir Senior Secondary School and in class 12, she was amongst United State of America’s top 2% merit students and awarded representation amongst of Who’s who Among American high school students. But today all her accomplishments and capabilities fell short because the University felt she was disabled. But to think about it, was it Preethi’s disability or the disability of our society?
Later at 33, Preethi tried to enrol into a psychology correspondence course offered by the Bharathiar University and Annamalai University, but was refused again. Finally she took up a correspondence course in medical sociology in the University of Madras, because it did not require contact classes. But despite being a student at the University, her fight with her alma mater was not over. She was refused admission once again for her disability; this time for its correspondence Master course in Counselling Psychology. “They did not even want to look into my achievements or consider the fact that I was a student here. Why should I not be allowed to study a course I have a passion for just because I am disabled and because they don’t have ramps?” asked Preethi in an interview with The Hindu.
Despite all societal rejections and her misfortune, Preethi never succumbed to her wheelchair. And in her journey,her mother, Mrs. Vijayalakshmi Srinivasan, has been a constant source of encouragement and support, especially after her father’s death. Like all parents her mother was also worried of what would happen to her child after she died. And the thought probably became even more predominant when she was asked to undergo a quintuple bypass surgery. But along with the future of her own child, Mrs. Srinivasan, thought about all the others who were facing the same plight of disability. “So in her usual generous way, she started to think that this must be a concern all parents of the disabled would have, and because there was no solution in India, she encouraged me to start an NGO and begin working towards providing sanctuary for many more like me”, says Preethi about her mother. The idea and initiative exposed them to problems of others, especially women. Many were being treated as a burden to the family and were even encouraged to commit suicide. The stigma and shame of dependency, denial of their self-respect and even their right to a life, traumatized Preethi. She felt that if people like her, who were reasonably secure, decided to ignore the plight and cries of those in need then our society would never evolve. Drawing inspiration from the life and works of Helen Keller, Preethi, decided to make that difference in the lives of others like her. “I thought, if they had a place to go, if they were given hope and a reason to live, if they could live with dignity, a basic quality of life and become productive members of the society, they wouldn’t be forced to commit suicide. This has to happen and if it must happen through me, then so be it”, says Preethi (Courtesy Betterindia). So, Preethi Srinivasan, along with her mother, co-founded SOULFREE, an organization that aims to prevent future injuries by spreading awareness about what a spinal cord injury is and how to prevent it among the youth of India. Having faced the consequences of a misdiagnosis and inept emergency medical care, prevention through education, especially in areas of spinal cord injury, forms the top priority of her organization. It aims to create a more inclusive society and appeals to others to be open to the positively-abled, to befriend, employ, uplift, empower and create wheelchair-friendly spaces.
Soulfree also recognizes and aims to fulfil every human’s inherent right to a basic quality of life with the hope for fulfilment of their dreams and ambitions, including their wishes for education and employment. It is geared toward building and retaining self-esteem in the victims by helping them identify their own strengths and latent talents. As part of its empowerment and rehabilitation program, it aims
- to create a long-term facility equipped to care for the severely disabled permanently and to train them to have productive employment
- to create awareness about the necessity of wheelchair accessibility, such as simple alterations in ramps and elevators
- to provide a support system for the families of those who have spinal cord injury including grief counselling, guidance and all-around support
- to setup databases so that the injured can be in touch with many others like them, share ideas, problems, solutions and garner community support
- to garner support of the community, government, corporate houses and NGOs for setting up volunteer databases including those for medical services such as physiotherapists, doctors, nurses, trained caregivers, scribes etc.
Founders of Soulfree: Mrs. Srinivasan with her daughter, Preethi
The accident had left her devastated. It had changed her life completely. But with the help of supportive parents, Preethi soon turned her disability into inability. She adjusted her life and her aspirations. Her cricket and swimming gave way to mouth painting and reading. She started designing posters and business starter kits and worked on doing synopsis (including those for the movie-based website, www.moviebuff.in), editing, reviews for friends and spiritual magazines like Tattvalokha. She also wrote web-content for a few years. Delivering motivational and inspirational speeches, teaching spoken English and Tamil; and counselling for depression and other psychological problems have brought her closer to people, who are also a constant source of inspiration to her. She hopes that through her words and example, she can inspire to others to live. She hopes she can help others like her look beyond just the material realm, into something more meaningful and worthwhile. She strongly believes that she has been chosen as an instrument by the cosmic flow to spread light, love and laughter in the world. She feels fulfilled by her positive impact and hopes to journey on in life touching the hearts of others and spreading hope.
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