Overcoming Barriers and Embracing the New You

Anyone who has ever grappled with the horrific life-transforming challenges, suddenly thrown at their way, would completely agree that words can never do justice to the unimaginable trauma and hardships involved in rebuilding the life from scratch and embracing the new future. A future that is unseen, unknown and unsure.

One such incident unfolded on 26 November 2005 on the Thanksgiving Day in Maryland, USA. She was about to wrap up her PhD in Environmental Engineering at the University of Maryland and foray into the professional world. Her life seemed just too perfect -- a post-doctoral position with one of the top researchers in the field, a job offer from a top-notch research firm and a prestigious award from the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) for discovering an unknown source of air pollution. This was a dream coming true for a student who was always considered talented and an eager achiever. “It was perhaps one of the happiest days of my life. I was literally jumping with excitement as the future looked so promising and I couldn’t just wait to start a new chapter,” says Prof. Anubha Goel, Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Kanpur.

Taking a break from studies that November day, Anubha was returning home after a short trip to the grocery store for a pot-luck party planned that evening. At a two-lane drive, just a few minutes away from home, a young man – drunk, with a suspended license, driving an SUV and on the opposite side of the road – lost control and drove his car on hers. Her car fell into a ditch and she passed out instantly. The firefighters who cut her out of the car thought that she wouldn’t survive. With an extensive brain injury, a fractured skull and numerous broken bones in the face, her chances of survival were indeed minimal. She slipped into a coma and regained senses only after eight weeks. For the next two months, she remained hospitalized. She did come back to life but as a different person. The accident had left her physically disabled with a partial loss of vision and short-term memory loss. And that is when her arduous uphill climb begun which she describes as painful and difficult, on one hand, and mostly solitary, with only a handful of companions, on the other.

“The new I was different. And accepting that you need to change, learn everything again and follow through is the hardest part. The loss of vision was the harshest blow as I had always been an avid reader till then. But now even the simple tasks like reading newspapers, restaurant menus, emails, and bus and road signs, posed a challenge. I couldn’t drive, could not cross roads, and could not travel alone. So, in short, I had lost my independence, the most precious of all the human gifts.”

In traumatic experiences like these, you either emerge stronger with a greater self-esteem or lose your way out. Being a strong-willed woman with a fiery passion for life, Anubha fiercely fought back. And her family, friends and colleagues ensured that she remained unfazed by the physical limitations and adapted to her new life like any other normal person. “If the road is hard, you need to peddle longer and more vigorously to reach the final line. Physical limitation doesn’t make you any less than anybody else. You just do things differently and perform better in some other field that others are not. I received an enormous and overwhelming support from my family and friends who believed in me and made my long road to recovery easier.”

The process of restarting her life all over again was slow and painful. Anubha re-educated herself to perform day-to-day activities like brushing her teeth, tying shoelaces, memorizing the names of family and friends, grocery shopping, walking carefully on the road without bumping into people/things, crossing roads, etc. The rehabilitation center worked with her for six to seven hours every day to reconnect her brain nerves and rebuild her memory. Gradually, she became more accustomed to the situation. She figured out better ways of communication and transportation, and started relying more on public transport for physically challenged/disabled people. She also became more comfortable asking for help and directions, which initially had been too difficult for her. She clearly remembers how hard it was for her to ask a librarian to fill up a form on her behalf when she ventured out for the first time after her accident; and her mother who stood right behind her refused to pitch in. As she says, “my mother had to raise me twice, yet she remained stoic concealing her hurt, pain and fear which became my real strength.” The next obstacle for Anubha was to familiarize herself with her research work without straining her remaining vision. The biggest support, in this context, came from the Adaptive Technology Laboratory at the University of Maryland. She was introduced to scanners that could control the font size and software that would read out to her. After one and a half months of trials, she finally settled for the one that suited her. She started listening to audio books, instead of reading them. These facilities, along with her advisors’ efforts, enabled her to complete her work. She went on to publish a peer-reviewed journal article and won the Dean’s Dissertation Fellowship.

In May 2007, exactly a year later than the original plans, Anubha graduated with a doctorate degree. An epic moment that continues to remain etched in her memory. Following this feat, she took up a consultancy position in Baltimore and worked there for a while. In 2010, her longing for home drove her back to India where she joined IIT Kanpur as a faculty in the Department of Civil Engineering.

How has life been in India? “Not easy! While the IITK community has been extremely helpful and friendly, the people outside are not too accepting. Most of the public as well as private places are not too disabled-friendly. But I am optimistic that things would surely change under ‘Accessible India’ campaign.”

It has been a long winding road for Anubha. Though the scars of the event continue to persist, she has come far away unscathed. In her words, she is more emotionally available now and takes pleasures in the simplest of joys like the smells of changing seasons, the freshness of first rains, the warmth of morning sunrays and the laughter of children. She continues to feed her curiosity and concern on the state of environment through research, greatly values her interaction with students and travels across the globe for work. Staying true to her independent spirit, she even drives a three-wheeler bike to work. She has become more vocal about the hazards of drunk driving and is a founding member of the ‘Cell for Differently Abled Persons (CDAP)’ which was earlier known as PwD cell (Persons with Disabilities) on the IITK campus. The cell aims to promote inclusive education and make everyday life of challenged community on campus hassle free and spread awareness. Currently, the CDAP is working towards making the IITK infrastructure including the signages more accessible. Recognizing the capabilities of people with challenges and accepting them in the normal fold of life is another area which interests her. Since she is the first challenged person in her family, it has been a huge learning curve for her and she firmly opines that societal and family support makes all the difference.

Anubha ends up the conversation in her true vivacious style, “Life’s richness lies in its unpredictability. What you take for granted might not be there tomorrow. It’s not what life brings your way; it is how you deal with it that makes the difference. As the famous saying goes ‘You create your own destiny (Vivekananda), accept and embrace your new self and carve your niche in society.”


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