As a one-year-old toddler, Padmavathi had barely started taking baby steps when she fell ill with polio and spine scoliosis that led to 90% of immobility in her body. With limited resources to make their daughter’s life comfortable, her weaver parents in Khammam, Telangana found themselves at a crossroads. Her mother, P Kusuma, was determined to not let her daughter’s life wither away. Her prayers were answered when Clara Heaton, an Australian physiotherapist, and head of the St Mary’s Polio Rehabilitation Centre in Khammam, took Padmavathi, then aged six, under her care.
“From the age of eight to 15, I underwent seven surgical corrections. More than the physical pain, after every surgery I would get anxious about recovering in time for my school exams,” recalls Padmavathi who completed her SSC, Intermediate and graduation without letting the treatment get in the way. “I never had a long-term dream. Every day was a hope. As long as my brain is working and I can see, I felt I should focus on completing my studies. Clara Heaton was a major influence and guided me all through,” says Padmavathi who inherited her mother’s singing talent and was a regular participant on stage in school. “When I was getting opportunities to sing and perform outside school and college, Clara advised me to stay focussed on studies and pursue my hobbies only after completing my graduation,” smiles Padmavati.
She arrived in Hyderabad to participate in a singing competition conducted by Vamsee Ramaraju, founder of Vamsee International. He encouraged her to train in mythological drama. She won appreciation for playing the roles of Srikrishna, Satyabhama, Panduranga and many more. She toured all over India performing on the stage. She was selected for the National Award in 2009 for Outstanding Creative Individuals with Disabilities.
The search for employment proved to be the toughest period in her life. “At that point, I understood how physically-challenged people are at disadvantage in our country. I wanted to set right the situation somehow; the thought of starting an NGO came from that need,” says Padmavathi. “Clara Heaton felt that more than normal people, a person with disabilities would be the right person to understand and guide other similar people,” she adds.
Padmavathi started the Institute for the (dis)Abled (Divyang) in December 1999 with the intention of providing differently-abled children vocational training in computers, tailoring, music, acting and dance, all with the support of philanthropists. Now the institute also shelters nearly 52 senior citizens, most of them physically challenged.
Married and a mother of an 18-year-old son, Padmavathi is emphatic about not becoming dependent on anyone. “I am extremely independent and want to fight for the rights of other differently-abled people to become independent. I have been campaigning for the implementation of 2016 RPWD that promotes and protects the rights of people with disabilities in various aspects of life,” says Padmavathi who’s keen to take up a political role in future.