Only disability in life is a bad attitude, says Indian activist and motivational speaker Malvika Iyer

Dr Malvika Iyer and German disability rights activist Raul Krauthausen, speakers at the Global Leader Series for Non-Profits talk at the Singapore Institute of Management on Oct 17, 2018.
Dr Malvika Iyer and German disability rights activist Raul Krauthausen, speakers at the Global Leader Series for Non-Profits talk at the Singapore Institute of Management on Oct 17, 2018.ST PHOTOS: JONATHAN CHOO

SINGAPORE - 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," the 29-year-old said on Wednesday (Oct 17). "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 grenade, with the blast leaving her with serious injuries when she was just 13, has pushed herself - mind over body, she calls it - to great heights.

She topped the state of Tamil Nadu in India for her 10th grade examination, 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, says 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 on Wednesday 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.

When she was 13, Dr Iyer picked up a partially exploded grenade near her house following a fire at a nearby ammunition depot.

She did not know what it was. The grenade later exploded in her hands and almost killed her.

Her left ankle was also 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 examination. With three months left to the exam, 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 topped 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 for more accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities in India.

Mr Raul Krauthausen, 38, the German speaker at the conference on Wednesday, co-founded a non-profit called Sozialhelden (which means social heroes). One of its key initiatives is a website where the public marks out places that are accessible. Wheelmap.org was started, as there are lots of old buildings in Germany that are not accessible to wheelchair users, he said.

Mr Krauthausen, who has brittle bone disease, is a wheelchair-user himself.

Over a million places worldwide are now marked on the website, including in Singapore, and it 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."