The Optimist Citizen

Abha Khetarpal, who contracted polio at the age of 3, is helping hundreds overcome the hurdle of disability

“Even while sitting on a wheelchair, one can stand up for one’s rights,” she declares. This one line defines all the actions taken up by fiery and feisty Abha Khetarpal, a counselor for people with disabilities and a well-known activist for the rights of the disabled. She also teaches college kids, writes books, blogs about things she believes in and indulges herself by writing poetry. She does all this while cruising the world on her wheelchair.

She was three when Abha contracted polio. Instead of becoming frustrated or remorseful, her parents have always focused on how to bring their daughter up in a way that she becomes a happy, independent person. Since both of them were teachers, education seemed to them just the right weapon to equip their daughter with. Subsequently, they began homeschooling her uptil class 8, after which she went to a school.

It was not until she started pursuing her undergraduate education that Abha felt she was any different from her classmates. “At this stage, too, it was more like I was systemically challenged then physically challenged. The colleges and universities that I went to seemed to have never given it a thought that a person with a physical disability would have a mind sane enough or bright enough to want to study,” she said recalling difficulties like going to classes on higher floor in buildings with no ramps or railings. It was this systemic failure that made her decide to complete her education through distance mode. Eventually, she earned herself several degrees including masters in subjects like economics, English and psychology.

Having long felt the need for morale building among people with disabilities in India who were also victims of the same system, she started Cross the Hurdles in 2010. A resource website about all requirements of people with disability, it doubled up as a place to find counsel and advice. “Very often, people with disabilities hesitate to share their problems with others as they are not sure about the problems being understood. If someone in a similar situation was to give them advice, it makes it easier for them to confide in and trust the other person,” she said about the reason for providing counseling through the website. She added that many of those requiring advice may be home-bound, a hurdle that the internet helped to overcome.

The counseling through the website was conducted over e-mail, phone calls and video calls, all of which were encrypted to ensure confidentiality. “This privacy ensured that people would ask questions that they otherwise would not. Even topics like sexuality, body image issues and personal hygiene were brought up very often. These interactions also made me realize and understand some of the most intimate problems of women with disabilities,” she said. It was the lessons from the counseling sessions with the women that led her to author books on topics like self-examination and menstrual hygiene for breast cancer in women with disabilities and one about tax exemption for people with disabilities in India.

“In my entire journey, my parents’ decision of using my education as a weapon proved a blessing. I want other people in my situation to have this power as well. That is why the next step for us at Cross The Hurdles is to create an infrastructure to provide education and skills required to make people with disabilities financially self-reliant available on the internet,” said Abha. For this, she added, a crowdfunding campaign is underway on Crowdera, a multinational crowd funding platform that does not charge any service fee.

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