“Go beyond what we can’t do & focus on all the things we can do” | Preethi Srinivasan
“Go beyond what we can’t do & focus on all the things we can do”
Preethi Srinivasan was a teenager when she got a cervical spinal cord injury (SCI) i.e. paralysis below the neck. Before that, Preethi was the youngest member of the Tamil Nadu State Women’s Cricket Team, who started representing the state at just eight years of age. She was a National Level swimmer. Exceptional in academics as well. Her life changed in a split second after the accident. We don’t call a SCI life changing just like that! I’m really glad to bring her story to you.
She also runs an NGO called Soulfree and has posted a ‘20-20 Statue Challenge’. It’s a great way for any able-bodied person to get in the shoes of an individual who has quadriplegia: “For the duration of 20 min and 20 seconds the participant must remain a statue – not move any muscle below the neck! You cannot use the bathroom, move your hands in any way, move your legs in any way, shift the weight from your buttocks, take a drink of water, or do anything that will require you to move any muscle other than the neck. If you need something urgently, even scratch an itch, you can use your voice to ask for help.” Let me know in the comment section below if you were able to complete it.
Preethi Srinivasan’s #LifeBeyondSCI
I had an absolutely blessed and blissful childhood. I’m the only child of Vijayalakshmi and Srinivasan, my grandparents and everyone filled my life with unconditional love. My father had always dreamt of learning to swim like they do in the Olympics, but did not have the opportunity. So, when I was just three years old, he enrolled me in swimming classes and by the age of eight, I was a state level medallist.
Somehow, I seemed to have a deep connection and passion for cricket and my father encouraged me. Never once did my family ever discriminate against me on the basis of gender. My father would always say, “even if you want to be a mechanic, I will support you, but you must be so passionate about what you do that you become the world’s best mechanic.” I feel blessed that I had such wonderful parents and family.
Preethi with her mother and father
My father’s job required him to keep relocating, and we would move almost every year. In 12 years of school, I ended up attending nine different schools in three different continents. At the time, it was really difficult to always be ‘the new girl in school’. But I now understand the immense value of that kind of exposure to various cultures, traditions and lifestyles.
After I completed school in the USA, my father and I decided that I would return to India. It was not a popular decision, because at the time everyone in India seemed desperate to study in the US. However, we did not want that because we are very patriotic and it was my dream to represent the country in cricket. So, I returned to Chennai and joined a consolidated five year MBA course. At the completion of the first year, I went to the US to be with my father and we had a very memorable summer vacation, during which time we drove through the length of California. I returned to Chennai on July 7, 1998. My life was perfect and the possibilities seemed infinite, but we did not realise that life was going to change.
On July 11, 1998, I joined my classmates for an excursion (college trip) to Pondicherry. In the afternoon, after lunch, we decided to play on the beach. After a little bit of tennis ball cricket, the heat got to us and the boys decided to go for a swim. We girls were holding hands in about thigh-deep water, when a wave ate the sand under my feet. I stumbled and being a seasoned swimmer, when I knew I was going to fall, I just dove into the water. As soon as my face went underwater, I felt a shock-like sensation travel through my body and instantaneously, I could not move anything. I tried to stand, but nothing happened. I held my breath and waited. Apparently my friends thought I was playing a prank, because I was an ace swimmer, but when they realised something was wrong, they immediately pulled me out. From that moment, I was paralysed below the neck
From there I was flown to Chicago, and had my rehab at RIC (Rehab Institute Of Chicago). I remember having very positive and encouraging therapists, a physiotherapist (Ila Benz) who pushed me quite a bit in the early stages. I remember I even fought with her because I used to be a competitive sportsperson who was training 6-7 hours in a day – so the few muscles that were still working, she could not compete with me – so I would say, just because I have lost something, you are able to push me. Because I am at my worst. I guess I remember her 20 years later because she did her job well.
Life beyond spinal cord injury
I started mouth painting, doing online work but, when I tried to enrol in a distance education program for a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I was hit in anyway. A person, who had graduated school in the top two percentile of the entire American population, was bestowed with ‘The Who’s Who amongst America’s Students’ award and could have easily joined the top universities in the world, was denied admission into a long-distance program. I was told by many universities, “there are about 15 days of practical classes, no lifts (elevators), no ramps, don’t join.” I was devastated by this rejection, because I could not really understand why I was being discriminated against. My father encouraged me to improve my knowledge and bought me many books, but from about 2002, till his death in 2007, I did not pursue any formal education. Later, I completed a bachelor’s degree in Medical Sociology, as it did not have any practical classes. When I wished to join Masters in Counselling Psychology I was again rejected. This time, Soulfree was just getting launched, and the media supported in fighting the case. Soon, I was allowed to join M.Sc. Psychology and we were victorious in setting up functional ramps at the Distance Education building (IDE) of Madras University in Chennai.
Today, I work full-time using speech activated software as a writer on a movie-based website. I’m very proud to say that I’m able to provide for my family and am not a burden to anyone, but this transformation has required years of introspection and penance.
This is a very difficult question. When we returned from Chicago to Thiruvannamalai, I had a very painful experience because the person who was assigned the seat next to me refused to sit there during our flight from Amsterdam-Chennai. So we did not travel much after our return to Thiruvannamalai.
There are two particular trips though that have been games is for me: The first one was to Mahabalipuram, a tourist location close to Chennai. This trip was not special because of the place, but for the first time in 20 years, I spent one night away from my mother. It was a girls night out and I had gone with three of my friends. For the first time in my life, it was such a sense of independence because I went from Thiruvannamalai to Mahabalipuram and back by myself, with only the driver accompanying me. I booked the hotel after asking about accessibility and it turned out to be perfectly suited so the entire trip broadened my horizons quite a bit.
The second one was in December 2019. I planned a six-day trip during which time we travelled more than 2000 km. It was a beautiful pilgrimage through Karnataka, into Kerala visiting many temples that my mother had wanted to see for a long time but never had the opportunity. I was fulfilling her dream and that gave me such a sense of joy. Also, I sat next to the driver and used Google Maps to navigate the entire six-day stretch and was really proud of myself!
I would love to see Rajasthan and am also planning another, more ambitious journey across India all the way to Pandaripur visiting many temples along the way. On the way back, I have a special wish to go to Goa and Gokarna. It would be a phenomenal trip but quite a challenge to organise everything to be comfortable for my mother and accessible for me. Let’s see when the world opens up again!
Message for people who are newly injured
My message to those with disabilities is to get out there and open yourself up to being vulnerable. Don’t feel afraid to ask for what you need. Don’t hesitate to go after your dreams and ambitions. So what if everything is hundred times more difficult for us? If we work hundred and one times harder, it is still possible to be better than everyone else, still possible to prove our self-worth again and again.
So what if people look at us with pity or disdain? Over time they will realise that we are precious human beings just like everyone else and have the same right to be here as everyone else. Let’s work hard and not make excuses. Let people respect our efforts and be moved to give us our due.
For quadriplegics who can neither use their hands or legs, I must say that it’s never going to be easy. Having to be dependent for the most basic needs in life isn’t something one can get used to, but it is something we can transcend. Let’s go beyond what we can’t do, and focus on all the things we can do. It’s possible, not easy, but possible. If I can do it, so can you.