I first saw her when she wheeled herself into the coffee shop of the hotel I was staying in Ahmedabad. She and her husband made an interesting sight! People who had come down for dinner stopped in their stride. Her husband on crutches with their baby boy in a sling tied on his chest and she following on her wheelchair. It was endearing, if not anything. And then when she starts talking and you get to know her, you realise she is a bundle of energy with a zeal for disability rights. Her vivaciousness is infectious. Meet Neeta Panchal of Disability Advocacy Group, Gujarat as she shares her story with Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S.
D.N.I.S.: You acquired your disability when you were barely 17 years old. Can you tell us about the incident?
Neeta Panchal: It was during the huge earthquake that ravaged Gujarat on Republic Day in 2001. I was 17 years old at that time and was on my way to school along with 7 other girls. Suddenly, the earth shook. Since we stayed very close to the Pakistan border, we thought that it must be a war that had started. Unknowingly, we rushed into a building to escape what we thought was a bombing, only to realise that the whole building was crumbling down on us. My friends died. I was caught between two of them but somehow I survived.
I was trapped in the rubble for more than four hours. When they were pulling me out, I couldn’t feel my legs anymore.
D.N.I.S.: How did you overcome the trauma?
Neeta Panchal: It wasn’t easy. When the doctors kept telling me that I had been badly injured and that I was paralysed waist down, I was still hopeful. I thought I was in a hospital after all and I would get well soon. Finally after spending more than a year there, I realised that this was serious, that I would not be able to walk ever again in my life. It shook me. I went into depression. At that time I was also engaged to be married. When the boy’s family found out that I had become disabled, they broke off the engagement. I tried to commit suicide twice. Luckily, my family rallied on to get me out of that mindset. My brother especially. He showed me Sudha Chandran’s film called ‘Nache Mayuri’ which is her story about being a dancer despite losing one leg. Slowly, I came out of my depression. I realised that if God has saved my life, He probably had a reason.
D.N.I.S.: How did you decide to join the sector?
Neeta Panchal: That happened much later. The earthquake had taken a toll on my family. I lost my sister and grandmother. We lost our house and all our belongings. We had nothing. To top that, my family suddenly had to look after me. I did not want to be a burden. So I started a small shop of imitation jewellery and then moved on to open a P.C.O. By this time, I was friends with my disability. In 2004, I participated in the National Para Games in Bangalore and won a silver medal in wheelchair race. In 2006, I won the gold medal in the same event. It was only after I came to Ahmedabad that I entered the disability sector.
D.N.I.S.: You have a very interesting love story – almost straight out of a romance novel. Please do share how it all began.
Neeta Panchal: Well, Handicap International (H.I.) conducted rehabilitation camps in Kutch after the earthquake – teaching us basic daily activities, etc. I had several surgeries after the earthquake (Neeta has had 22 surgeries till date and calls the operation theatre her ‘home theatre’!). I needed to come to Ahmedabad for one such surgery. I did not know anyone here and my family was also from a very simple background and was not sure about managing things in a big city. I sought H.I.’s help. Parag (Panchal) who works with H.I. was asked to help me. That’s how we met and fell in love in the hospital.
But our families were dead against this match. Parag’s family because I was more severely disabled than him (Parag is orthopaedically impaired because of polio) and mine because they did not know anything about Parag. We went ahead against our families’ wishes and got married in the hospital on May 25, 2006.
D.N.I.S.: Did you families reconcile to this? Were there any problems?
Neeta Panchal: Our families reconciled to our marriage but there were other problems. My in laws’ house was not accessible. Parag walks with the help of crutches and he could move around the house. I am a wheelchair user and there were places within the house which were inaccessible. We had to get a place of our own. We spent all our money on it. There were days when we did not know where the next meal was coming from.
D.N.I.S.: You also have a two year old son. Being a paraplegic, what difficulties did you face during your pregnancy?
Neeta Panchal: Several doctors told me I was crazy to think of conceiving. Finally I went to a doctor in a Government hospital. I told him that he does not need to worry about my decision and asked him to guide me through my pregnancy. I was confident that I could have a baby like any other non-disabled woman. It was not easy though. The delivery was even more difficult. There were some 20 plus doctors in the operation theatre. But inspite of everything, today I am a proud mother.
D.N.I.S.: How did Disability Advocacy Group (D.A.G.) happen?
Neeta Panchal: Parag works at H.I. and I also got involved with a lot of activities that they do. We soon realised that there was no forum for people with disabilities in Gujarat. There were big organisations working for disabled people while the latter were just ‘beneficiaries’. A group of us decided to form a platform which any person with disability can access. That is how the idea of Disability Advocacy Group (D.A.G.) happened. It was established with H.I.’s help and support. It was an informal network for a few years till we finally registered it in 2009. We now have 2,400 members across Gujarat. Everyone at D.A.G. comes in her/his individual capacity. We do not believe in the tag of an organisation. Our only identity at D.A.G. is that we are people with disabilities.
J.L. Nakum of Jamnagar is currently the President and I am its Secretary.
D.N.I.S.: What does an average day in Neeta Panchal’s life look like?
Neeta Panchal: Very ordinary! I have made my entire house accessible. I do all my household chores from cleaning to cooking on my own. D.A.G. does not have an office yet. I do all my D.A.G. related work from home. Doctors keep telling me to slow down – I still have a lot of health issues but then I got to do what I got to do.
D.N.I.S.: Any message for our readers?
Neeta Panchal: I think disability is in one’s mind. I have learnt a lot in the last 10 years. I was a simple girl from a remote part of Gujarat. Today I have participated in so many national and international events and have got to meet so many interesting people. I couldn’t speak anything but Kutchi language earlier, today I speak Hindi and broken English. I have come a long way. Of course, all this would not have been possible without the support of my family, my in laws and my husband. People today look upto me as a role model. What more can I ask? Zindagi me pairon se nahin, dimag se chalna! (You move forward in life with your intellect and thoughts not with your legs.) Everything happens for good.