Sharing experiences from journey towards a PhD- Preethi Srinivasan.
[I am paralysed below the neck and writing this with the help of a speech activated software. Every day there are new challenges, but my life is rich and meaningful. We can all achieve great heights just by keeping on showing up. It’s not about all the things we cannot do, but what we choose to do with what we can do.” In the words of Confucius, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising each time we fall.”]
This is my journey with a particular examination and selection process, the obstacles, challenges and the final turning point. I hope this story inspires more persons with disabilities, who feel let down by situation, or get pulled down by obstacles.
For PhD, I applied to IIT (Madras), quite sure that I wouldn’t be able to satisfy all the criteria for admission into India’s premier educational institution. Upon receiving a summons from them to appear for the entrance examination, we travelled the previous night to Chennai and were provided accommodation in one of their hostels.
With the help of two PhD students who were assigned to take care of me, one of whom agreed to be my scribe, I wrote the examination to the best of my ability. As luck would have it, I was chosen for an interview in the afternoon and was absolutely thrilled to receive admission into the PhD program. I was assigned two guides, who were both very kind and considerate. It took a while, but it slowly sunk in that I might actually be the first woman with a 90% disability to ever receive admission into any of the IITs in their illustrious history. I felt blessed beyond belief.
In order to receive an admission as a full-time PhD scholar however, I had to submit my resignation from work. I was verbally assured that I would be getting a stipend while I was studying. So, I happily handed over my papers and became engaged in the first year of academic activities. More than a month later, I was shocked to be informed that I would in fact not receive any stipend from IIT. My guides were equally bewildered at my plight. They were also unaware of a small but critical snag in the system. As a person with disability, I was permitted admission into IIT without passing the UGC NET examination. However, to avail the fellowship accorded to a PhD scholar, apparently the NET exam needs to be compulsorily cleared.
I found this to be absolutely inexplicable. If a person with disability could get admission but not financial support, how was she or he supposed to sustain herself/himself over the years of research? I felt that the most vulnerable and in fact deserving candidates were being cut off at the knees and left stranded. I say this because we fight so many obstacles and difficulties just to get admission. Wouldn’t it be fair to treat us like any other PhD scholars once we gain admission? We should either be treated equally upon admission or this so-called leniency of allowing admission for persons with disability without the NET examination, only to be denied financial support later, must be removed altogether, in my view.
I felt totally helpless and stranded. Having been away from academics for several years, I had no confidence that I could pass such a competitive and difficult exam. I was anxious and cornered, but my guides encouraged me to go ahead and face this challenge head-on as well. Finally, with very little idea as to what I was doing, not to mention complete insecurity and lack of confidence, I applied to write UGC-NET examination. I found that in order to apply for JRF [Junior Research Fellowship] the age limit was 28 years. I was flummoxed. If one wants to do research, what does age have to do with it? Why should a person be robbed of financial stability during the period of research based on their age? Working with what I had, I applied for the Assistant Professor category which did not have any age limit.
Soon I was into the last leg of preparation. With just over a week left before the examination, I decided to call the centre to which I was assigned to find out about wheelchair accessibility. It is noteworthy that during the application stage itself we are asked about disability and made to present our disability certificate. And yet, to my utter dismay, it turned out that the examination centre was not accessible at all. In fact, I was told that it would be conducted on the first floor which would require the student to climb forty steep steps.
There was no way I could even dream of reaching the first floor in my motorised wheelchair. And, just the thought of the indignity and humiliation I would face if I had to be carried up the stairs was unbearable. So, wasting valuable time I had to make myriad phone calls to government officials and members of the media to highlight this scenario of discrimination and complete apathy to my needs. After making a big hue and cry, they agreed to give me a small room which required me to be carried only a few steps. This small room was more like a storage room without any light or ventilation where they had installed a camera and other devices to ensure that I wouldn’t cheat. If similar protocol had been diligently followed to ensure that I could write the exam with dignity, I would have appreciated it.
Last but certainly not least, came the challenge of finding a suitable scribe to write the examination. I needed somebody who had some knowledge of how to approach an online examination. I requested many, but was unable to find anyone. Then just about 48 hours before the examination, I got a phone call from one of my IIT associates, who had identified someone in Thiruvannamalai. Nobody wanted to travel and as it turned out, my scribe was a capable young woman, but the stress and anxiety I had to go through till the last moment was incredibly difficult. I faced so many moments where I wanted to breakdown and cry because it wasn’t anything I had envisioned. I wanted to give up and accept defeat.
However, giving up has never been an option in my life and as I sat in front of the computer to have my face photographed for identification, I was already tired after the incredible battle I had to fight just to be there. The room was stuffy; it was so hot that I had to request for a wet cloth to be draped over me. A couple of temporary fans and half a bucket of water (so that I could soak the towel once more after it became dry) were generously arranged for my benefit and soon it was time. Thankfully, part of the leniency for a “person with disability” during this examination is extra time (for the three-hour examination we are given an hour’s extension), but it does not seem to enter the thought process of decision-makers that it would be difficult for a wheelchair user to sit continuously for four hours without any break.
The examination was so difficult; by the time I came out I was on the verge of tears. I reached home and genuinely apologised to my mother saying that I was just not good enough to remember all these names and dates. I assured my mother and also my guides that there was no way I was going to pass this examination. Yet, nobody seemed too troubled by my laments because they had faith in me, although I hadn’t the vaguest idea why. I was so sure that I would fail. I told them that I got so tired as time went on I just could not concentrate or recall anything.
I could not sleep for the first few nights after the examination. I had never failed so miserably at anything in my life. Then, on the day the results were announced, I had no courage to look at my marks. My friend saw it and congratulated me. I could not believe it. I asked her over and over again but she just laughed and told me to look for myself.
It turned out that I had cleared the exam with flying colours! I was deemed ineligible to apply for JRF due to the age restriction, but in truth, based on the cut-off, my marks were good enough to pass in both categories. Ironically however, even after cracking JRF I couldn’t behold the title of JRF because I crossed the cut off end as far as the age limit those. It’s tragic that age becomes the criteria for research and merit.
After seeing my mark sheet, what I felt was not pride or triumph but deep gratitude and relief. I had been beating myself up for failing the entire segment of society I represent. If I had failed, it would have been so easy for the system to say, “They’re just not good enough. How much ever we try to help them, they fall short.” I did not want to give anybody that satisfaction. I wanted people to look at me and rethink their judgement about “persons with disability” and for those in corridors of power to take us seriously. I desperately wanted to represent my community and show the people in the ivory towers that we may have physical impairments, but we have the same right to a good education as anybody else.
However, after all this, my struggles were not over. I had passed the exam, but UGC refused to hand over my certificate and IIT could not approve my stipend without receipt of the certificate.
Finally, my certificate was released and just today, my first Fellowship stipend has been received. After nearly one and ½ years of struggle, I have finally become a PhD Research Scholar, equal to the rest of my peers in every way. And, although it has been a long and arduous journey, the persistence and perseverance has paid off.
I hope this story will motivate and inspire more people to face seemingly insurmountable challenges in life. I am paralysed below the neck and writing this with the help of a speech activated software. Every day there are new challenges, but my life is rich and meaningful. We can all achieve great heights just by keeping on showing up. Like I say, “It’s not about all the things we cannot do, but what we choose to do with what we can do.” In the words of Confucius, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising each time we fall.”
I sincerely pray that my story will create a precedent and permit many more women and men with disability to gain admission into prestigious educational institutions like IIT. Finally, I humbly request the people in power to delve slightly deeper than the surface and offer truly inclusive policies so that those with disabilities are not dealt in such a callously apathetic and unjust manner in the future.
And, finally, I wish to offer hope in these difficult times. Life along the road less travelled may be incredibly bumpy, but if we persevere, we will find that ends in victory.
18 April 2020