From bomb blast survivor to disability rights activist

Malvika Iyer, a passionate disability rights activist with an immense spirit and an almost unbreakable will (picture courtesy of Malvika Iyer)
Malvika Iyer, a passionate disability rights activist with an immense spirit and an almost unbreakable will (picture courtesy of Malvika Iyer)

The Accident Has Brought Out The Very Best In Me

During a recent visit to India, a friend of mine mentioned Malvika Iyer. A bomb blast survivor in her teens, Malvika is now a well-known motivational speaker and disability rights activist. He offered to introduce me to her and shortly afterwards I had the pleasure to get to know her during a phone interview. Right from the moment our Skype connection was live, I felt that Malvika is someone with an immense spirit and an almost unbreakable will. Here is her inspirational story.


The Moment That Changed Malvika‘s Life Forever

Malvika lost both her hands during an accident when she was only 13. That was back in May 2002. By that time she and her family lived in Rajasthan/India. Malvika had a day off from school and was trying to repair one of her favourite pairs of jeans. A pocket had torn. So she had applied some glue, was then looking for something to apply more pressure and make the pocket stick again. 


There was no hammer in the house. But she found something else instead. A few months earlier an ammunition depot close to her home had caught fire and the area was still littered with shells. Defused ones, people thought, that did not pose any threat to the local community. So Malvika picked up a grenade, brought it back to her room and used it to hammer down on the pocket of her jeans. 



That was the moment that changed her life forever. The grenade exploded, instantly ripping off both of her hands and severely injuring both of her legs. Her parents rushed her to the hospital, but by the time they arrived she had lost a lot of blood. Initially the doctors were sceptical about Malvika‘s survival chances. But she pulled through - and started her amazing journey from bomb blast survivor to disability rights activist.


Malvika's Road To Recovery

Malvika lost both her hands during the explosion. Shrapnels had penetrated her legs and initially the doctors thought they had to amputate one of her legs. But in the end they managed to save it. Malvika‘s recovery took almost two years and more than a dozen surgeries. Back then it was very hard to find the information you needed to make informed decisions and get the support Malvika and her family needed.


The accident happened in Rajasthan. But the family soon moved to Chennai, where her mother was originally from. Especially the wounds on her legs took a long time to heal. It wasn‘t until November 2003 that Malvika was able to take her first steps again. Until today, almost 15 years after the accident, Malvika still has problems walking for more than a few minutes. Pain is a constant companion. 


But Malvika was not only dealing with her physical wounds and the challenges of living a life as a bi-lateral amputee. While her family and friends were of immense help, the wider society pitied her. People stared and passed comments, others predicted she will always be dependent and a burden to her family. Malvika felt very uncomfortable by the attitudes many people showed towards her. She tried to stay polite and respectful, which was not always easy.


Malvika was always an active outdoor child who loved sports. She was not much into academics but had a passion for dancing; especially the Kathak dance. After the accident she had to learn everything from scratch again; everything she needed to master her day to day routine: Walking, eating, washing yourself etc.


Despite all that had happened to her, Malvika kept her spirits. Her mother was a constant pillar of support. She was the one who left no doubt in her daughter‘s mind: You will survive. You will walk again. And no matter what, I will be there by your side. Even today, you can still feel how thankful Malvika is for her mother‘s love and support. And how proud she is for all that she did. Even when you only speak with her via Skype, this thankfulness radiates from her voice.


One day Malvika attached a pencil with a rubber band to the remains of her arm and started writing again. It allowed her to connect with a  friend from school in Rajasthan. While it was good to be in contact again, she felt left out when her class mates started to prepare for their board exams. That was when Malvika took a bolt decision: „I will sit my exams, too. I have missed most of 9th and 10th grade, but I will sit my exams. And not only will I pass them, I will do well.“


So Malvika enrolled in a private coaching course, preparing for the exams. Not being able to write, she hired a scribe. For three months she fully concentrated all her energy covering what her friends had learned in the time she was in hospital. She sat the exams - and to her own surprise she scored 97%, ranking in the very top of her year. She caught the attention of the local media and was invited by the then President of India, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. 


The teenager who almost lost her life in a horrible bomb blast in Rajasthan was suddenly a celebrity, receiving official recognition for her struggle, for overcoming immense obstacles and for being academically brilliant. She was offered places in schools and colleges and realised that she will be able to pursue her education. „Looking back“, Malvika says, „attending coaching was my first real step to recovery and an independent life.“



From Bomb Blast Survivor To Disability Rights Activist

Her education led her to college in Delhi. Initially for a degree in Economics. But the college days were not easy. Malvika just wanted to be a normal student, be like all of her friends. But her daily routines were exhausting, walking was difficult, even standing for a longer period was a major challenge and she felt uncomfortable with her artificial hands. She felt excluded, tried to hide her disability, covering her arms and hands with long sleeves. And she dreaded the possibility of having to shake someone‘s hand. Withdrawal followed.


Things changed while pursuing her Master‘s degree in Social Work. Malvika began to realise that she needed to fully accept her body as it was, with its perceived weaknesses and the limitations it placed on her day to day life. „I am different and always will be. Hiding my disability and not accepting it was not helping. Only if I embrace it“, so she told me, „will I be able to life a fulfilling life.“


It was during this period - field training for her Master‘s course - that Malvika had the chance to work with children with disabilities. That proved to be another one of those moments that put her on a new track. She noticed that she was able to easily link with the disabled children, to encourage them by listening emphatically, by openly sharing her own story. Creating an atmosphere in which people with disabilities feel accepted and understood was something Malvika wanted to be part of. Letting society know about what needed to change was something she wanted to focus her energy on.


In 2012, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the accident and encouraged by her experiences with the disabled children, Malvika went into the offensive. Instead of trying to hide her disability she used Facebook to make her story public. Right away the feedback was amazing, far beyond anything she had imagined. Her increased presence on social media led to invitations to talk in schools and companies, during conferences and with the media. Her audiences - disabled and non-disabled alike - felt inspired to take on the challenges ahead of them and were thankful for Malvika's stories.


These engagements led to her TEDx Talk in Chennai (watch the video, it oozes hope and a positive spirit). Her moving story carried a simply message: Sometimes a horrible incident takes away a lot from us - in Malvika's case it took away her hands and her ability to walk for longer distances, it took away her health and almost her life. But if you don't allow it to take away your spirit, beautiful things can happen. „In many ways this accident has brought about the very best in me“, Malvika says. „I almost died. This new life of mine is a gift, a second life. And I want to use every day of it the best I can.“


Seeing the reactions in her audience, listening to people's feedback, experiencing how sharing your own story can cause a positive change in other people's lives, Malvika knew that public speaking was her calling. This was how she could give back all the support she had received; this was how she could let others benefit from her struggles and insights. Not just in India, but all over the world.

Her journey as a motivational speaker has been a life changing experience for Malvika. One that culminated in her talk at the United Nations in New York in March this year.


Having a steadily growing audience led Malvika to broaden her message, addressing a wide range of disability issues. All the topics relate to her story, but go beyond her personal experience. For years she has been a committed campaigner for inclusion and the rights of disabled people. Her activism is complemented by her PhD, focussing at people‘s attitude towards disability. At the same time she is interested in processes that change the perception of and attitudes towards people with disabilities. Malvika is keen on developing modules to sensitise children from an early age about inclusion and a disabled friendly society. „My goal is an inclusive society, where people with disabilities are not just tolerated but truly welcome.“ Her efforts have won her the Women in the World Emerging Leaders Award in April 2016.



Reflections About Malvika‘s Journey

Just before we ended our conversation, Malvika proudly said: „I have no regrets! I even started dancing again. Not as gracefully as before, but dancing nevertheless.“ Listening to her, hearing the optimism in her voice, I feel deeply humbled by her story. 


Looking back at the last 15 years, Malvika points out key lessons that helped her to move on after the accident. 


Don't dwell on the past

„Don't look back. Don't dwell on why something happened. It will get you nowhere but kill your spirit. Not being able to dance and run etc. is upsetting, but there is no value in dwelling on it, it will not bring my hands or legs back, so why bother. The past is the past and there is nothing you can do about it. Be patient. That is one thing I learned. And I am very thankful for this skill. I learned that if I wait I get what I want. Give the healing - the physical, the psychological, the emotional healing - the time it needs. Take one step at a time to get better.“


Accept your body as it is

„Accept your amputation; accept your disability; accept your body, despite all the limitations and the pain. I am proud of my body, not despite the amputations and the scars but because of them. This acceptance is the biggest reward we can give to ourselves. In a society which values fit and healthy beautiful people this is not always easy. But how can I expect others to accept and respect me if I have problems doing this for myself. I shine from the inside.“


Be yourself

„I initially got a pair of hands. Beautiful artificial hands. And they helped me in the beginning. But often I fount these hands too heavy and uncomfortable, especially in a hot and tropical climate. I was mostly wearing them for short periods of time. But that was not me. I was wearing them to please others. So one day I decided to leave them. I feel more confident without them. I can use the bone in one of my arms as a finger, that helps me in my day to day work. I am fine without my hands. I am me without them.“


Be thankful for supporters - and don't be afraid to ask for help

„For me the support of and encouragement from my mother was very important. She was a pillar of strength when the days were dark and I was losing hope. It is important to walk these journeys together with your family and friends. Children must know that they can always rely on their parents. That will give them the confidence they need to fully focus on the healing. My mother left her job as a teacher to care for me. She always stayed positive and focussed on what needed to be done - one step at a time. My mother always believed in me, despite my disability, for what I was, not for what my body looked like. Her strength and optimism allowed my to keep up my spirits. She taught me not just to accept my fate, but to embrace it and love myself. While the rest of society pitied me - which was not helpful - my mother made sure I will recover, will heal and will live a good life.“


Allow beautiful things to happen


„I never planned to be a motivational speaker and disability rights activist. It happened because I saw the opportunities coming out of my accident. And I allowed beautiful things to happen. I also allowed mistakes to happen. We live in a very competitive world and things are not easy. But your life does not need to be outcome driven. You can design your path while you walk it.“


Post by Bjoern Eser, the creator of The Active Amputee; based on an interview with Malvika Iyer earlier this month.