Sandeep Kumar was just seven when doctors gave him an expired penicillin injection. It left him in a coma for a year followed by paralysis in the lower half of his body. Today, this 24-year-old man, who is the first paraplegic to be employed in the aviation industry, glides around on a wheelchair at Delhi airport – helping other people with disabilities.
Sandeep Kumar woke up from a year-long coma at the age of seven and found that he could not move the limbs in the lower half of his body. The incident changed his entire life. Confined to a wheelchair, he began to struggle to do everyday things. There were no access ramps in his school, children and teachers there would treat him differently, and his condition restricted him from doing many activities that he wanted to do.
“In small towns, people tend to believe that once you are disabled your life is over. They told my father to discontinue my studies and open a small shop for me. When I joined the school again, many people told him not to waste his money on me. It was disheartening but I did not let this affect me. I had my family’s support and a positive mind. I continued my life with the same enthusiasm,” says Sandeep.
Most people would be demotivated with this sudden setback in life, but Sandeep dealt with the situation with a great attitude and determination.
“I had no other choice but to accept it and deal with it. Nothing would have changed my situation. So I thought I should channelize my energy into something else and not think about what I was missing,” he says.
He did not blame the doctor, nor did he question his fate. Sandeep continued his life with the same passion and will that he had always exhibited. He completed his engineering degree in computer science and was selected for a job by an MNC during campus placements.
But this was not his goal. Not willing to restrict himself to a cubicle, Sandeep wanted to explore the world, meet new people, and do much more.
He gave up the opportunity of working at the MNC and decided instead to work in customer service to help people in need. He joined one of India’s leading aviation groups, IndiGo Airlines. And today, this 24-year-old enthusiastic man is India’s first paraplegic to be employed with the aviation industry.
“Working in an MNC would have restricted me to one location. Here, I am a wheelchair-bound person helping others. I find this empowering at so many levels,” he says.
Powered by a wheelchair, Sandeep glides across the Delhi airport terminal to assist people in need. His job requires him to be always active.
He helps people with special needs with their boarding passes and gets them through security check. He also addresses other queries by passengers and helps them get resolved.
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“Up until now, the aviation industry did not hire people with disabilities. When I applied for the job I did not expect to get selected. I just thought I’d give it a try anyway. After three-four months I got a call from the airline that I had been selected and I joined them in October 2014,” says Sandeep.
Originally from Jhansi, Sandeep has been living alone for several years now and is completely independent.
He recalls an incident when a friend in school told him that he would not be able to become an engineer. “I got bad grades in my 10th class. That was the first time I heard of IIT and felt that I would like to get admission in this prestigious institute. My friend told me that I would not be able to do so because of my disability. That incident triggered in me a desire to pursue engineering. Though I could not get into any of the IITs, I managed to get admission in a government college in Kanpur. What is amusing though is that the friend who told me I could not do it failed to become an engineer while I went on to become one,” chuckles Sandeep.
Having faced various challenges in his life, Sandeep now understands the plight of people with disabilities. He trains the loaders at the airport to treat the disabled and the elderly with care and respect.
“The transfer from a chair to the aircraft seat is a painful process for someone who is old and/or disabled but it can be minimised with proper training,” he says.
In just a year’s time, Sandeep has become an inspiration to many at his workplace. “They always praise me for the way I dress up and behave in the office. It feels good when my efforts are recognised,” says Sandeep.
Having faced discrimination for most of his life, Sandeep feels a sense of normalcy now.
“I go to office like a regular person. I don’t feel that I am missing my legs. There are so many things that I can do. People have started treating me normally too. They don’t stare at me or give me special attention. This is what I want – a regular life,” he says.
Sandeep is also a good singer – he was part of a band during his college days and still performs occasionally. “My job keeps me occupied these days and music has taken a back seat but I still enjoy singing whenever I am free,” says Sandeep.
Sandeep now wants to set an example for people with special needs so that other companies in the aviation industry hire people with disabilities too. He runs an NGO called Ally Foundation, which focuses on empowering the disabled.
In addition to this, he has also set his eye on participating in the national Paralympics in powerlifting. “I want to write a book too,” he quickly adds, before signing off.