A healthy spirited boy of 11, Lalithkumar Natarajan suddenly found himself confined to bed. It took a few months for the doctors to arrive at the diagnosis – Transverse Myelitis, a condition where the spinal cord is inflamed and makes one a paraplegic (paralysed chest down).
He dropped out of school in his hometown Tirupur, and with that all his dreams of the future came crashing down. With incontinence being another major impediment, Lalith found himself spending long hours in bed, immobile, with nothing to do and no focus in life, for the next few years.
But his will power and determination brought him out of this state. He started his education from where he left off in the homeschooling/informal mode. Today, 37-year-old Lalith has a string of degrees attached to his name – Bachelor in Social Work (BSW), B.Sc. in Psychology, MBA, M. Phil., and is pursuing LLB.
He became a soft skill trainer, worked in a bank, turned a HR professional, started his own HR consultancy firm in Tirupur and now he is the Founder of the NGO ‘Love and Acceptance’ that works for the rights of people with disabilities, especially those with spinal cord injuries.
All through these phases, his love for body building and biking stayed with him, and it is the latter passion that has brought him into the limelight now. Lalith is going on a biking trip from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu to Khardung La in Ladakh, said to be the highest motorable pass/road in India, if not the world. The trip will be flagged off from Kanyakumari on June 12.
A paraplegic on a bike? Yes, this has been made possible with his retrofitted Royal Enfield Classic Desert Storm 500 cc bike.
Though Lalith was involved in various activities, there was always this lacuna that he couldn’t ride a bike. When he wrote to Royal Enfield about a retrofitted bike, he did not get an immediate response. But he kept at it and finally, the company helped him customise his bike with the specifications he desired – to operate it legs-free. Instead of a third wheel, he has a side carriage to lend support and balance to the bike. The moment he got the bike, he made up his mind to do something challenging with it. Lalith is the first person with disability to hold a license for a retrofitted 500cc bike.
With guidance from retired Army Major Venugopal and his son Vishal who go on cross-country biking trips every year, Lalith charted out his route – Kanyakumari, Salem, Chitradurga, Kholapur, Pune, Surat, Ahmedabad, Ajmer, Delhi, Amritsar, Udhampur, Kargil, Leh, Ladakh. The father-son duo will also accompany Lalith on their bikes on his 4,000-odd km journey that will span nearly 20 days. Five persons from Chennai will also accompany Lalith in a car to support his endeavour.
But Lalith does not want to go on this trip just as an adventure. He wants to spread an important message – that every person with disability has a right to inclusion and accessibility, be it place of study, work or leisure. And, to emphasise this, Lalith was in Coimbatore on June 10 to participate in the inauguration of an accessible washroom, built by Swarga Foundation, an NGO that works for people living with neuro-muscular disorders. The washroom, the first of its kind in a Corporation School, was inaugurated by Coimbatore Corporation Commissioner Dr. K. Vijayakarthikeyan at the Corporation Boys Higher Secondary School, Ramanathapuram.
Lalith interacted with the school children, explained inclusion and accessibility, and urged them to help their fellow schoolmates with disability to help use the washroom. He also took them around the school playground on his bike. Swarga Foundation, which sponsored his helmet and wheelchair, gave Lalith a mini flag-off from Coimbatore. A few biking enthusiasts, including veteran Major Venugopal and his son Vishal, followed Lalith out of the school and did a round of the neighbourhood on their superbikes.
On his return Lalith plans to make a stopover at Delhi to try and impress upon Prime Minister Modi on starting nation-wide Centres for Disability Education, Employment, Advocacy, Research and Rehabilitation (CDEEARR) under the aegis of his NGO. He also wants Project ‘Helping Hands’, which provides free wheelchair, commode chair, and urinary catheters to those with spinal cord injury disabilities and mobility disabilities, to go pan India.
Though no corporate has come forward to sponsor his trip that is expected to cost around Rs 5 lakh, a few individuals have helped him out. It is noteworthy that those accompanying Lalith on the bikes and car are paying their own way.
Though he has the unstinted support of his family and well wishers, and the constant presence of his personal attendant Narayanan, he is prepared for a challenging journey as he knows that most of the places he will be passing through or staying at will not be disability-friendly.