Today we are in conversation with Ms. Shobhika Kalra – a wheelchair user and disabled rights activist with a mission to make the world more wheelchair friendly.
Tell us about yourself
My name is Shobhika Kalra. My family consists of my mom, dad and my elder sister. We moved to the United Arab Emirates 25 years ago from Delhi, India . I spent my childhood in Abu Dhabi and shifted base to Dubai 10 years back. I went to school in Abu Dhabi, did my graduation in Business Administration with marketing as my major. I then went on to do my post graduation in Psychology. I was doing exceptionally in academics and extra curricular activities, was very popular and everyone’s sweetheart.
I noticed that my performance in extra-curricular activites declining gradually. To me, this was somewhat alarming. So I decided to get myself enrolled in a boarding school in India. When I got back to Abu Dhabi to pack my stuff my mom insisted that I have a complete health check up before I go to the boarding school. She noticed that in the corridor from her room to my room I walked in a criss-cross manner and sometimes I’d suddenly trip and fall down. She shared her concern with a doctor friend who simply reassured her. But my mother insisted that something was wrong.
That is when I was diagnosed with a degenerative, terminal and a very rare muscular nervous disorder called Friedreich Ataxia. I was not a wheelchair user initially, but within the next few years I found myself in need of one. Friedreich Ataxia is a condition in which nerve fibres in the spinal cord and the peripheral nerves degenerate becoming thinner. Peripheral nerves carry information from the brain to the body and from the body back to the brain, such as a message that the feet are cold or a signal to the muscles to generate movement. The Cerebellum, part of the brain that coordinates balance and movement also degenerates to a lesser extent. This damage results in awkward, unsteady movements and impaired sensory functions. The disorder also causes problems in the heart, spine and difficulty in speech and damages various muscles of the body.
What difficulties did you face while adjusting to life in a wheelchair?
It was a a very strange scenario for me. I was used to being the best at whatever I did and here I was not able to do even simple tasks. Throughout all this period I made it a point to never compare myself to others. My sister once told me this story in which everyone gets the equal amount of coins in life in terms of blessings . It’s just that everyone receives these coins in different ways. This story has stuck with me and always helps me be positive.
What can we do to sensitise people towards the problems faced by the differently abled? Is this something that should be taught to children in schools? Do adults also require some training?
I think educating children about life on the wheelchair and how to treat people with special needs is extremely important. When I was diagnosed with the disorder I had never seen a child on a wheelchair, nor did I know what was expected from me and how I should behave.
So education on this matter would’ve been helpful.The intensity of the shock would have reduced as I was just 13 when I was diagnosed and still had my whole life ahead of me. If a person receives such training when they are young in school they stand a chance to become well-rounded, empathetic human beings for the rest of their lives.
What problem are you trying to solve? And how successful have you been so far?
I have been trying to make everyone understand that accessibility is as important for a person who uses a wheelchair as clean, breathable air is for an able-bodied person. Many people might not be very comfortable with adversity, but I have been able to solve this with my example.
Let’s talk about Wings Of Angelz.
I would like to tell you the reason Wings of Angelz started. I was in class 8 at the time I was diagnosed with my condition and my class was on the 2nd floor. My legs were growing weaker and one could only get to the 2nd floor by stairs. My parents requested my school to shift the class from the 2nd floor but they refused. I had to drop out of school even though I was doing very well in school (academics and extra curricular activities) as my doctors suggested that it was not safe for me to climb the stairs daily. This was an accessibility issue I faced.
So the idea that accessibility was such a big issue was at the back of my mind. At that time I was still too shocked from the diagnosis to do anything about the issue.
Few years later my sister and I had gone to watch a movie and there were many stairs to get to my seat. I had to rely on the kindness of 4 unknown men that time. I was 24 and I did not feel comfortable about the situation.
So my sister decided to speak with the manager about this. His reply then was irresponsible, ignorant and frankly disappointing.. This episode upset and shocked my sister an I and we decided there was a need to create awareness about wheelchair accessibility. So, along with a few friends we started Wings of Angelz. Today we have around 150 volunteers ready to support us.
What are some of your biggest achievements?
I’ve had 5 really big achievements
I was recently awarded for my community service by H.E.Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, U.A.E’s Minister of Tolerance
I was awarded She the Change – Udhyami award from Pravasi Bharatiya Divas 2019 in Kashi, Varanasi. I am the youngest Indian in the Middle East to receive She the Change – Udhyami award. Pravasi Bharatiya Divas 2019 was an initiative by the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi and I was invited to be a speaker at the event
An able-bodied woman approached me to tell me how she had lost all hope in her life and was thinking of suicide. She told me after watching one of my interviews and seeing my enthusiasm for life she decided not to take the drastic step
I have helped Dubai build over 1000 wheelchair ramps
I have gone scuba diving to spread awareness about wheel chair accessibility. My doctor was very upset with my decision after I Informed him because scuba diving, if not done with the right precautions could have been life threatening for me.
How can people be more sensitive towards the differently abled without appearing to be patronising them?
People should be more empathetic than sympathetic towards the differently abled or even in any situation which they themselves have not dealt with before. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes brings out a completely different perceptive on everything.
Do you feel independent?
I do feel very independent, even though I might require help for many physical activities. I am mentally very independent as I take my own decisions and decide which path to follow. Because of my mental resilience I travel everywhere by the metro independently and often go grocery shopping all by myself for my family with a minimum of 10 shopping bags hanging on my wheelchair.
What is the secret to your resilience?
My secret is that I take inspiration from everyone I meet. This quality has really helped me grow as a person.
Where do you see yourself and your movement in the next 5 years?
I see myself doing very well in whatever I do. Wings of Angelz is launching an app to help wheelchair users make decisions about the places they want to visit. The places are categorised by sub categories and linked to google maps to make the experience as barrier free as possible. The app will also help with the following:
1. Make the process of recording information easier and convenient for the volunteers involved.
2. The app will not just focus on identifying accessible entrance but will also include more holistic accessibility views such as accessible cashiers, bathrooms, hallways, fire safety etc.
3. The app will gratify volunteers through scores for each steps they complete to make the place accessible. It will also run a scoreboard to declare volunteers of the week etc. based on these scores.
4. Additionally, it will also make the information available to organisations for self-improvement on multiple accessibility criteria.
With the app, Wings of Angelz aims to make all of society to become the ambassadors for wheelchair accessibility.
https://www.facebook.com/WingsOfAngelz/ – the link to the Facebook page of Wings of Angelz
The link to my personal page on Facebook
Read about Virali Modi, another wheelchair user who is also an activist.