Coachability Foundation has the honor to host an exclusive interview with Dr. Malvika Iyer, a motivational speaker and a disability rights activist. She has received international recognition and awards for her work with disabled individuals and discriminated women. She is a role model for female empowerment and inclusivity. In this discussion she shares with Coachability Foundation her vision in life and looks back at the most important events that shaped her personal and professional journey.
CF: Dear Malvika, you have received honours and awards that one can only dream of. If you were asked to look back, which of your many accomplishments (public or private) would you choose to share as those having significantly marked and shaped your personal and professional journey?
Malvika: One of my biggest personal achievements was learning to be independent. It was my mother's dream ever since the accident happened. During the rehabilitation phase all she wanted for me was to stand up on my own legs and be independent, just to be able to take care of myself and to be strong. I have been a very independent and strong person, but I think in the last four years when I started living in a foreign country (USA) I learned to do a lot of things by myself. Something that might seem very simple for people with hands, it is a very big achievement for me. I started doing dishes, I learnt how to do laundry, I learnt how to clean my house and I managed to cook by myself. This last one is the biggest achievement by far, I am able to prepare not just simple ready-to-make things, but to actually cook ingredients from scratch and make -mostly Indian- food. You can imagine when one loses both hands and the capability to walk easily, they are not left with a lot of options. However, I overcame that challenge and I became truly independent and and I think it's my greatest personal/private achievement. People find it very hard to believe actually. I get a lot of questions: “how do you this”, “how to do that”, “how do you hold a pen or how do you dress yourself up”. I think for me this is very personal and an achievement that is very close to my heart. More than my marks and more than my awards, I would say this is what made me truly understand that I can survive anything, and I can be by myself and I can take care of myself, so this is definitely very empowering. On the professional side, I believe the most defining moment was when I realized that my life story influences the lives of people in a positive and profound way. Listening to my story or reading about it, was something that actually changed them. There are so many instances and I probably need to think hard to pinpoint one because till date I receive so many messages from people all over the world saying that I listened to my story and then they think that “if she can do it I can do it”, “if she doesn't complain, then I won't complain either” and other, simple things like “when I feel down, I look at your post where you are so happy, you're strong, so I should do the same”. I found out that my story, my public/social media presence is actually influencing so many people's life that made me think about my accident in such a meaningful way. I believe this life that I'm living has such a beautiful meaning… My accident, it hurt me a lot, it hurt my family a lot sure, but I think something great came out of it and it's been going on. This achievement I would definitely say it's something that keeps me going. We're all human of course and it's not possible to stay positive and strong all the time. I get down, I lose hope, I feel physical pain, there are challenges that come in my way. Nevertheless, when I feel sad, I read these people’s messages and it gives me hope again. There are people who are counting on me, I have a social responsibility towards them. I'm not just another motivational speaker. I'm actually someone who's helping people cope up and move on. I think hope is something that we all need in life there's no life without hope you can lose your hands and you can still lead a great life; but you need hope for that. I think these personal and professional achievements I would say are closest to my heart.
CF: Who is your role model and why?
Malvika: My role model I would say is my mother. If not for her I don't think I would have gotten this kind of support. Her determined spirit of wanting to make me come out of this trauma is admirable. She's a very positive person and she's not someone who would want to complain or blame or look back. I think her theory in life is always to move forward. Whenever we would face any challenge she would only say “what’s next?” or “how do we solve it?”. I think as a family my dad, my mum, my sister and me we learnt together to move forward. Both my father and my sister also played a wonderful role in my life. But my mum really, I would say, pushed me to become my best version. I think I am my best version when I am with her. Sometimes when I will try to say that I cannot do something because I don't have hands, I think it would take me a long time to convince her. She knows sooner or later I would be able to do that. If that is really a physical activity that i cannot do she would understand of course, but if it is just a mental block, she would really push me forward. I think that’s what a mentor does and I am so glad that I was born to her. She empowered me from day one after my accident. She even helped me to see my accident as my reboot. For many years I've been used to celebrate 26th May as my birthday. Those days I think it’s my phoenix, because the phoenix rose from the ashes. After my accident I had to learn everything again: how to walk, how to eat, I had to learn everything from scratch. My mother was next to me and she made me this independent person. She kept me involved in the process of course. She likes to say that “you can tell everything you want to tell to someone, you can tell them all the positive things and you can push them and you can give them the resources, but if the person refuses to accept the help that they are given or accept the resources and opportunities that they are given, no one can help them in the end”. If you ask her, she always says that “if you decided that no I am going to sit and cry about my accident and I'm not going to use this resource or this help, then I don't think that I could have helped you”. It's definitely a teamwork. Nevertheless, I consider her to be my role model on how life should be. I've learnt from her to have determination and a positive spirit. She's also very kind person, she's very generous and that's something that I aspire to be too.
CF: Of great significance was the day you received “Nari Shakti Puraskar” award from the President of India. We celebrate this moment with you as a community of women who stand for equality in female leadership. How has this award affected you personally? What did it mean for your activities regarding female empowerment?
Malvika: It's truly the biggest honour I have received from the President of India. I was chosen by the minister of Women and Child Development in India. The day I heard that I was going to receive this award, I still remember that day it was in March in 2018, it was one of the greatest days of my life. I was scared also when I found out about this, because I didn't know what it meant. I knew I was doing something good of course, but this was a very big honour and I was scared, I was afraid of what should I do next to to keep up to this prestigious award. The day of the award I only tried to stay in the moment. I received the award at Rashtrapati Bhavan capital of India, New Delhi. It was a very beautiful day; my parents were with me. I don't even remember thinking about my accident or think anything about my disability or anything for that matter. I was receiving the award for the work that I was doing focusing on women empowerment. Being a woman with disability has double challenges: one because you're a woman and second because you're someone with the disability. I have faced that and I still do. There are so many stereotypes on people with disability. There are some improvements of course, but there are still lot that need to be done. We can never say that our work here is done. Even today, there will be a lot of people who may look at me and only think of my identity as a girl with the disability. They might think of me poorly or feel sorry for me for my disability. There are still many people who do that, and I think it's time to change everyone's attitude. I know it's going to take a lifetime to do that, but I'm very hopeful that at least I will stand for what I believe. When someone like me receives an award, you do not think of them as just someone with a disability; you think of them as a person, you see their work, you see their experience, you see why they received the award and why this work is important. In that sense, moving on from that award it only meant that I had to be even more responsible with my advocacy and I had to do even more to bring about this inclusion and bring about equality. If I could solve one world problem, it would be inequality. It is something that constantly makes me sad that hurts me. This award focuses on that and it made me feel appreciated. I hope that it only helps carry forward my message to more people and to make them understand that we must respect women, we must understand what feminism is, we must understand what gender equality stands for and to stand up for women's rights. Definitely this award has changed my life.
CF: On this year’s International Women’s Day you were selected to take over the social media accounts of the Prime minister of India. What was the message you chose to communicate on that historical day?
Malvika: This year on Women’s Day another incredible honor that I received, to take over the social media accounts of India’s Prime Minister, the honourable prime minister of my country. Many messages were shared on this day. I think the most important message that I talked about was acceptance and it's my life story. In the end my accident has taught me everything. It has taught me that the day we accept our losses is the day when we truly embrace ourselves. Only then we can move forward with the clarity of those we can and those we cannot do. Who would have thought
that I I would survive a bomb blast at the age of thirteen? I cannot imagine even thinking that something like this would happen to me. There is no way anyone has control over our lives. What we can control though is our attitude towards life events. Attitude is a very special word to me. It is the focus of my PhD thesis, the doctorate that I received in 2017, to understand “the discriminatory attitudes towards people with disabilities”. I always talk about attitude; how we face our challenges and how we decide to lead our lives is what matters most. In these tweets I got to share about my accident, I got to tell the millions and millions of followers that prime minister has, that giving up is not an option. Everyday there are so many reasons that we all can give up on life, but I think it's truly never an option. I also talked about education; how it is indispensable for change and how we need to educate young minds about these discriminatory attitudes. Young people are future leaders and they are the ones going to decide the future of our world, so I think we need to try to make them understand what inequalities are and how they are supposed to treat or interact with someone with disability. Working towards a “social model of disability”, I think that's what I was trying to highlight with my tweets that day. To dismantle superstitious beliefs too, because I think it often comes in the way of progress. I got an overwhelming response from so many people and I think definitely that day was an amazing amazing unforgettable day that I got to connect with so many people around the world.
Thank you so much for this inspiring conversation.
Written by Eleni Gkiola.
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