Champions for a more inclusive society

Disability rights advocates share their stories about overcoming adversity at conference

She may have lost both her hands in a freak accident in 2002, but never tell Dr Malvika Iyer what she cannot do.

"When people pity me, it angers me. I'm capable of so much more but some people can't see me beyond my disability," said the 29-year-old yesterday. "The mind is so powerful that it can stop you from doing things (that you can do).

"So the only disability in life is a bad attitude."

And the Indian national, whose hands were blown off by a partially exploded grenade which also left her with serious injuries, has pushed herself - mind over body she calls it - to great heights.

She topped the 10th grade examinations for the state of Tamil Nadu in India, typed her 250-page PhD thesis in social work with just a bone sticking out of the stump of her right hand, is a disability rights advocate and models clothes which people like her can easily put on by themselves.

Dr Iyer, who is married to an engineer, said she can do most things that an able-bodied person can do - except tie her hair in a ponytail.

She was one of four speakers at the Global Leader Series for Non-Profits talk yesterday at the Singapore Institute of Management. They shared how they overcame adversity and played their part to create a more inclusive society.

The conference was organised by the Tote Board and the Social Service Institute.

The other speakers were German disability rights activist Raul Krauthausen, Singaporean doctor and paralympian William Tan and former Singapore national swimmer Mark Chay.

Dr Malvika Iyer and Mr Raul Krauthausen, both disability rights advocates, were among the speakers at the Global Leader Series for Non-Profits talk. Dr Iyer has won the highest civilian honour for women in India, while Mr Krauthausen is co-founder of Sozialhelden, which started a website for the public to mark out places accessible to wheelchair users. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

When she was 13, Dr Iyer picked up the grenade near her house following a fire at a nearby ammunition depot, without knowing what it was.

The accident also meant her left ankle was almost detached from her leg. She was bedridden for about two years, had to undergo multiple operations and, even now, still suffers pain in her limbs.

She had to miss school for almost two years but decided to take her 10th grade examinations. With three months left to the exams, she went to a private coaching centre to catch up on her studies and dictated the answers to a person appointed to write them during the exam. She was the top scorer for the state.

She said: "My mum did not give me space for self-pity so I have had to learn to do things myself. I lost a lot of things because of the accident, but I didn't lose my spirit - and that helps me to move on."

Dr Iyer, who has won a series of awards, including the highest civilian honour for women in India, is now a disability rights activist, advocating more accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities in India.

Mr Krauthausen, 38, co-founded non-profit organisation Sozialhelden (which means social heroes). One of its key initiatives is a website where the public marks out places that are accessible to wheelchair users. was started as there are many old buildings in Germany that do not have that kind of accessibility, he said.

Mr Krauthausen, who has brittle bones disease, uses a wheelchair.

More than a million places worldwide are now marked on the website, including in Singapore, and the resource is available in over 20 languages, including English, Japanese and Chinese.

He said: "The biggest problem is that people with disabilities are seen as pitiful humans. Like it's our problem to make sure we can enter a place and not the responsibility of the building or shop owner (to make it accessible to wheelchair users). It's the responsibility of society to accommodate and empower everyone."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2018, with the headline Champions for a more inclusive society. Subscribe