On March 20, 2012, Shubhra Mishra’s mind was occupied with the pressures of working as a systems engineer at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) as she walked to her office in Chennai. But an accident, in which a lorry driver hit her from behind, disabled her, with no movement below her neck and limited sensation in her arms and hands.
“I don’t remember any of it. People told me later that I was taken in an auto to a nearby hospital. For more than two months, I was in the ICU and I was worried that my voice wouldn’t return again,” says Shubhra, speaking to TNM, eight years after the incident.
She was 25 at the time and in the years since the accident, Shubhra says she has painstakingly gone about adapting herself to live with quadriplegia. “You think that your life is heading somewhere and all that changes in an instant. You need to be ready for the emotional part of it as much as the physical difficulty,” she says in hindsight.
After she was discharged from the hospital, she moved from Chennai to Bengaluru in 2012, a mammoth task in itself since she had to travel in an ambulance. “We decided to move to Bengaluru for physiotherapy and because institutions like NIMHANS were based here. My physiotherapist was also from St. John's Hospital based in the city. I was paralysed below the neck and found it hard to even sit up during the day for long periods. Everyone at home had work to do to adapt to my life,” she says.
She decided to return to her work at TCS in 2014, this time in the Bengaluru office. “We wrote to the HR head for India - Ajay Mukherjee - and we explained the situation to him. He approved it and he wrote to all resource management groups that I should be included along with her conditions,” she recalls.
“I started working from home with TCS here (in Bengaluru). Everyone now asks me how I work from home! I have been doing it for years and people now realise how difficult it is. You end up living a life of discipline,” she says.
When she started working in Bengaluru, not many people in her own office knew about her condition. “Initially, a number of people asked me why I wasn’t coming to the office. But over the years, people have understood and have been extremely supportive. They see to it that I am not overburdened,” she says.
Shubhra never lost her adventurous spirit and after five years of working with TCS in Bengaluru, she decided to pursue a masters degree. She wrote the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) examination, for which she had to travel from Bengaluru to Hyderabad. “It was a big challenge again. There was no space to take my wheelchair through the aisle in the flight and even at the exam centre in Hyderabad, I had to deal with a scribe who was unable to write on the paper properly,” she says.
“My score was low but we wrote to the IELTS detailing our struggles with the examination. They said that they don’t get a lot of candidates like me,” she says.
In her second attempt, which was held in Bengaluru, she cleared the IELTS exam and is now waiting to pursue her masters at Stockholm University. “I have deferred my semester for now due to the COVID-19 pandemic but I intend to join it next year,” she says.
Shubhra credits her family, especially her father, who died earlier this year, for helping her rebuild her life after the accident in 2012. “My father was quietly supportive and I learnt so much from him. He actually left it for me to fight it (adapting to life with quadriplegia). He would support me whenever I needed it and I thank him for that,” she adds.
Shubhra says that there is a lot more that needs to be done to make spaces in a city like Bengaluru accessible for people with disabilities.
”Accessibility needs to improve. People don’t even realise that something that is straightforward for them is a herculean task for us. For instance, the passport renewal office did not have a place where my wheelchair would fit and they could not take my picture. There are many places that are not inclusive of someone in a wheelchair,” she says.
Throughout her life, whether it was securing her job or writing the IELTS exam, Shubhra says that she has had to write a series of letters explaining her situation before she was considered. She also says that she was able to face these problems because she was financially stable. The details are complex but the cost of managing life as a person with quadriplegia is daunting, she says.
“We looked for a nurse to take care of me, but any big organisation offering nurses would cost too much. The problem of fiances is huge if you are in my situation and lucky ones like me can cope with it,” she says, adding that accessible mobility, government grants and programmes will help people with disabilities.
For now, Shubhra is simply hoping to continue her work and quietly inspire the people around her.