The going was tough but she kept going. And made it, too. Considerably. Meenu Bhambhani has post polio paralysis in her left lower limb since she was five-months-old.
Her parents tried every form of treatment - allopathy to quackery, but soon realised that “this will stay with me.” What they did next is to give her “the best possible education”.
Even though she started schooling a bit late, she has literally gone places with educational opportunity. Bhambhani took a BA (hons) degree in political science and public administration without the disability quota, an MS in disability and human development from the United States on a Ford Foundation fellowship and a PhD in English literature from the University of Rajasthan.
After being a lecturer in English in Government College, Kishangarh, Rajasthan, she joined the state education service in 2001. Among other assignments, she has been a consultant for South Asia Human Development at the World Bank in Washington DC. Bhambhani also took part in a United States International Visitors Leadership Programme in 2009. Winner of the individual category NCPEDP-Shell Helen Keller and other awards, Bhambhani is head of global corporate social responsibility (CSR) and diversity at Mphasis in Bangalore. At the award-winning inclusive organisation, in addition to strategising and implementing the CSR programme across its global locations, she is responsible for its diversity programme focused on persons with disabilities.
Her schooling was no cakewalk. “Yes, school was tough! Every year it was a challenge to convince the school to move classes to lower floors, exempt me from attending assembly as it was a lot of walk, help with carrying my bag, lunch box, water bottle etc to the classroom and back into the bus, asking the bus drivers to pick me up from home and drop me back,” she says.
Her school was not disabled-friendly and “sometimes even though the school management was sensitive, it did not trickle down to the teachers as any exemption was seen as inability to not overcome my disability and sometimes even taking undue advantage of my disability.”
Bhambhani gives the credit for her success to her education at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) which she attended with a “generous” fellowship from the International Ford Foundation. She was assistant commissioner, disabilities, Government of Rajasthan when she came to know about the fellowship (2001-2002). Though already in the field of disability then, she says she felt the need for skills in policy making and a “better understanding” of disability issues.
“I could not have chosen any other university other than UIC as that programme fit into my goals of being into disability advocacy, research and social policy in India.”
An education in Chicago added to her perspective, exposing her to a different way of learning – flexible but not lax.
“In terms of systems, infrastructure etc it was ideal especially since I had no experience of disabled-friendly systems and accessibility in India. My learning at the UIC shaped my understanding of disability…In terms of the education system also, it was extremely flexible and inculcated a lot of independent thinking. The faculty was supportive and strict at the same time. There was no compromise on quality,” she says.
Bhambhani has moved into the field of disability where her experiencesy helped her “connect with the cause and be a strong advocate for it.”
While she considers herself lucky to have realised her dreams of a good education, job, marriage, etc, she knows the challenges are not yet behind her: “I continue to face challenges vis-à-vis inaccessible transportation, not having enough choices for leading a full life due to inaccessibility and at times feel dependent and discriminated due to lack of adequate policies and systems that prevent discrimination against persons with disability,” she says.