By the age of 8, Preethi Srinivasan was a national level swimmer and at age 17, she captained the Tamil Nadu Under-19 Women’s team. Apart from being a good sportswoman, she was also a brilliant student. Life was going well however after a seemingly harmless accident when she was 18 took away her ability to walk, she has been confined to a wheelchair since then. For most this would be the end of their dreams but not for Srinivasan! She not only decided to take charge of her own life but also decided to do something for others suffering from a similar condition.

On Sunday, March 26, Srinivasan who was a guest on the Navhind Times talk show, Talk from the Heart, shared her story, spoke about her work, hopes for the future and inspired the audience with her indomitable spirit, grit and determination.

Having had to unlearn everything she knew and start life afresh after the accident, today she is a PhD scholar at IIT Madras, a motivational speaker, writer, psychologist, mouth painter, change maker and founder of Soulfree, a charitable organisation that is transforming the disabled into positively-abled.

Recounting the challenges she had to face after her accident, she said, “At 18 years of age, my entire sense of self and identity had been based on my physical appearance, my achievements and status in society. I had been looked up to all my life, seen as a role model, as a hero, and then in a split second everything was lost. Suddenly, people began looking at me with pity in their eyes or they would studiously look away, as if I had ceased to exist. It was extremely hard and I could not bear it at all.” Being paralysed from neck down, robbed her of the ability to do anything for herself and she was totally dependent on her parents for everything. She spoke candidly about the depression and the rejection she felt. “We had trouble finding caregivers when we moved to our village of Tiruvannamalai, because they considered me as a bad omen or were afraid to do things for me, due to the fear that my misfortune would affect them.

Difficulties have the marked the way at every step for Srinivasan. Even when she wanted to pursue her studies, she was told not to join the college as there were no lifts or ramps. “My father was asked point-blank, why would he want his daughter, who is in such a condition to even get educated?

It was her parents’ unconditional love, she said that slowly brought her out and gave her a deeper understanding of life. “Instead of blaming me or leaving me at a care centre, they quietly sacrificed their lives so that I may live with dignity.

Unfortunately in 2007, her father passed away suddenly of a heart attack when he was just 57 and four days later her mother too had a heart attack and subsequently needed bypass surgery. Having led a protected life and having no contact with the outside world for more than a decade, it was a shock for her to be placed in the role of the decision-maker and breadwinner of the household. “I had to learn a great deal about life, assuming the responsibilities of adulthood. I took charge of my mother’s health and find caregivers to take care of my body, which I did with the help of my friends. I did not know anything about my father’s investments or our financial position. I had to learn in a hurry. Then, with the use of a speech activated software, I started working full-time as a writer for a movie-based website, which I still continue to do, to this day,” she said.

Starting Soulfree was another challenge that tested her mettle. “I realised and learnt that challenges and barriers are meant to be broken. When I started Soulfree, the banks wouldn’t allow us to open an account because they do not accept thumbprints as a valid signature.

She also spoke about the role of faith in the divine, surrender to a greater force, perspective, contentment and many other topics.