An Interview with Divya Sharma, the Winner of the President's Medal for Contribution to Disability Sector and Personal Achievements

Divya Sharma: A Vision beyond Eyes 

An Interview with Ankush Bharti

In this interview, Divya shares her journey and experiences, motivating us to believe in ourselves and never give up on our aspirations.

Welcome to this exclusive interview with the exceptional Divya, a talented freelance writer, disability activist, motivational speaker, and content creator for Radio Udaan. Divya's story is truly inspiring, as she has conquered numerous challenges and overcome obstacles to achieve her goals. Despite being visually challenged, Divya has not only completed her education, but has excelled in her career and has been recognized for her outstanding contributions to the disability community. She is also a skilled Blue Belt in Karate and hosts three weekly shows on Radio Udaan, where she inspires and empowers people through her motivational talks. In this interview, Divya shares her journey and experiences, motivating us to believe in ourselves and never give up on our aspirations. So, let us delve deeper into the story of this remarkable woman.  

 1. Hey Divya, tell us about yourself. 

I am a woman who happens to be visually challenged (Glaucoma). I belong to a small city named 'Naya Nangal' in Punjab. I use screen reader software to operate mobile and laptop. The school authorities told me to leave the school because of my vision impairment in class 7th, and none of the schools in my city gave me admission because of my disability. Later, I did an MA in English from Punjab University. Currently, I am working in the freelance writing business. I have been working in this industry for more than five years. I have clients from across the world. I am also a disability activist, a contributor to magazines and newspapers, a motivational speaker, a Blue Belt in Karate, and an RJ and Content Manager of an online Radio Station named Radio Udaan. It is run by visually challenged people and is heard in more than 115 countries. I hold three weekly shows: 'Inspirational Wings', 'Vocabulary Dose' and 'Mystery of 26'. The purpose of my shows is to spread optimism in the lives of people and to empower them. My English shows help people strengthen their English.

I have also been honored at different levels and a few of them are like:  

·         On 12th December 2016, I received a Punjab State Award from Shri Surjit Kumar Jyani, Cabinet Minister, Social Security and Women & Children Welfare for my contribution towards the disability community.

·         On 14th august 2016, I received 7th NCPEDP-Mphasis Universal Award by Central Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Shri K P Gurjar at New Delhi.

·         Received Award of Honour from National Fertilizers Limited for my achievements in August 2016 etc. 

2.  What challenges have you faced as a person with a disability during your childhood?

As I am visually challenged, life has not been easy. Until class 7th, I went to a mainstream school with my twin sister. I was permitted to sit in a classroom and pass every class based on a verbal test of some chapters. In class 8th, I had to leave the school, and no other school in the city gave me admission. No school knew how to deal with a person with a disability. I appeared in class 10th board exams as a private candidate and scored 80% marks. When I was distributing sweets at that time, there were some people who, instead of praising the good marks, said thank God You at least passed the exam. This type of mindset has always been a great disappointment. I have observed society looking upon us with sympathy at every stage of my life. Even when I visited my extended relatives, they used to greet my sister and brother but behaved as if I was not even there. Such kind of indirect humiliation always pinched me. 

I appeared in all future exams correspondingly and finally did MA English from Punjab University. At that time, books were not readily available online. I had to scan entire books to access them on the laptop and study them with my Screen reader. During my graduation and post-graduation, I worked hard on my technology skills without formal training. I learnt about screen reader software JAWS and later on talkback on my own. From working effectively on the laptop to managing websites, posting blogs and writing for magazines, I did everything in my small town, Naya Nangal.  

3.  Tell us a bit about your family.

We are a middle class family of six people. My parents have always been excellent support. They never stopped me from trying anything. They brought me up like a normal child. My siblings always tried their best to help me in any possible way. Since I grew up with my twin sister, I learnt many important personality and body language traits that, generally, persons with disabilities miss out on. My mom retired from the academic field (National Fertilizer Limited Nangal Unit school) in 2020, and my father has been in the finance line (private sector). The sixth member of my family has always been a pet dog. Initially, I had a Pomeranian, then a Labrador and currently a lemon beagle. My pets have always been a great source of strength for me. Since my siblings went to bigger cities for their education, my parents were primarily outdoors for work; I was home alone studying and working on myself. In such times, my pet dogs proved to be comforting and compassionate companions for me. They never discriminated against me because of my disability.

4.                 What inspired you to post your journey through social media?

Awareness is important. If a person gets to know the opportunities, possibilities and other essential things in time, they can do wonders. For example, in my case, the school authorities didn't know how to deal with visually challenged persons, so I had to go through the trauma of being denied admission to the school because of their ignorance. If I spread my story through social media, people will know how persons with disabilities work and can carve a niche for themselves. Hence, this awareness will spread further, and if even a single person gets positively impacted by my story, it will fulfill my purpose.

5.                 Could you please share your activities as an activist? How do you promote awareness regarding disabilities?

Well, when school authorities told me to leave in class 8th, I decided to bring a change in the society. I made up my mind to bring a change in the mindset of people. When I was doing my graduation correspondingly from Himachal Pradesh university, I was invited by an NGO' Umang Foundation' to address  a press conference at Shimla in April 2014. They wanted to spread the word in the state about the possibilities of technological advancements taking place. I talked about my life and how I perform my tasks with the help of screen readers (assistive technology). The event received prominent coverage both by print and electronic media. The impact of that conference was such that many visually challenged students in Himachal Pradesh enrolled themselves in educational institutions.

Next, with the vision to sensitize society, in 2015, I took a personal initiative and started visiting different mainstream schools to create awareness among students and faculty members about PWDs. During my visits, I used to give a demo about assistive technology/screen readers, talked about how visually challenged people work and interacted with the students & faculty members in the assembly. After my visits, these schools admitted students with disabilities without hesitation. The latest is one of the schools that has given admission to visually challenged and maimed students. I receive calls from parents/relatives/friends of students regarding disabilities. About vision impairment, I guide them, and for other disabilities, I associate them with the concerned professionals. As a speaker, I have also attended many college, corporate and institutional events and shared my thoughts about accessibility and inclusion.

During the covid19 pandemic, I couldn't pursue my physical visits to institutions for awareness sessions. But I didn't stop there; I attended online events. Corporate organizations also called me for zoom talks and sessions as a guest and speaker. My baby project has been visiting different educational and corporate institutions for sensitization sessions. I started it to ensure nobody has to go through the same trauma of being denied admission as I did.

6.                 What are your hobbies?

I have a bouquet of hobbies/interests. I like music and playing the harmonium, tabla, guitar and ukulele. Playing music, especially guitar and ukulele, helps me detox and feel relaxed. I also have a taste for cooking and exploring new software/applications. 

7.                  You are a financially independent young woman. Tell us more about your profession.

I have done an MA in English, and I didn’t want to get into the government sector. The field of teaching didn’t excite me much. Writing has been close to my heart. I explored opportunities in the writing field and one day came across a content writing opportunity. I gave an interview online and submitted my samples to the company. They took my interview online, and I started working with them right from home. Of course, there were some accessibility challenges, but I made my way through them all. When the pandemic started, the company went down, and the salaries were not on time. So, I started working with a company in the US. But after working with them for six months, one fine day, they told me to use specific software for my content. The software was not accessible. I told them it was not accessible and my screen reader was not reading it. The software procedure was just five minutes, but they refused to help. They said they could not help me with that. The head told me that you are excellent at your work, but you have to put in your papers because of the software's inaccessibility. It was a devastating time for me. It was the company that initially told me that they are inclusive and they believe in it. But when the time came, they stepped back. 

Then, I ventured into a full-time freelance writing business. I thought it would be safe and wiser not to keep all my eggs in a single basket. I started working with multiple clients, both from India and abroad. I have both b2b and b2c clients. Yes, there are accessibility challenges even today. There are many websites that I go through every day for research work, and they need to be made available. Sometimes, I lose clients because of inaccessibility, but there is some peace of mind that I have other clients with me. But yet, it is stressful and fluctuating, and I have to prove myself daily in this work. There is no off on Sunday or republic day. If I take a day off, I don't make money that day. In one line, I love this full-time freelance writing business despite all the hiccups I experience sometimes. I have been pursuing this career from my small city Naya Nangal. I approach my clients through LinkedIn and word of mouth. 

8.                 What are the main challenges faced by people with disabilities today? 

I feel discrimination has always been a big problem. Despite our abilities, efforts and passion, we are mostly seen from a sympathetic lens. I agree that the world is becoming more inclusive, and new laws, rules and regulations are emerging, but sadly, things still need to be better at the grassroots. People either pity you or make you an epitome of inspiration. They hardly accept you as an average person. Even if you have the skills, mostly you don’t get a job because of the ignorance of employers or recruiters.

On the other hand, since new application updates emerge every other week, the accessibility goes for a toss. For an average person, it is exciting to find new updates, but for a visually challenged person like me, updates mean again inaccessibility mostly. Since companies have to make apps or software accessible from the grassroots, they don't put much effort there. With new updates, they neglect the accessibility part.

9.                 What advice would you give to someone starting in the field of disability activism? 

Everyone has a different way of spreading the word, creating awareness and standing for others. To be in the world of disability activism, you must first become empathetic. Talk to people, learn about their struggles and do what you can do with all your heart.

10.              How has your experience with hobbies helped you in your other pursuits? 

My hobbies have been a great support system for me. There are always times when you feel alone; you feel disappointed, discouraged or disheartened. In such times, hobbies lift you and keep you going.

11.    What inspired you to pursue a career in writing, radio, and motivational speaking?

I have always loved to write, so I ventured into this line. I also have a personal blog wherein I share my personal experiences. Talking about RJ's journey is a voluntary thing I have been doing since 2014. My purpose was to enlighten people, help others and become a part of the change in the lives of PWDs. 

Motivational speaking is not what I chose; it came to me. Many people asked me to deliver talks on different occasions. I even did a motivational session at the first International Film Festival for Persons with Disabilities held in New Delhi in December 2015 with actor Tom Alter. There have been innumerable places I have given motivational talks. I always speak my heart, and the world takes it as motivational. However, I always try to motivate others because I know how it feels to experience setbacks and feel alone in the world of show-offs and perfections.

12.              What are the most important things for people with disabilities to focus on when achieving their goals? 

It is your self-belief, never giving up attitude and consistency. You have to keep on doing what you feel is right. Please don't listen to others, or you may become a victim of their thinking. You have to accept yourself and work on yourself. Financial independence is a must. I still remember a well-renowned person who told me once during a conference call that I am double disabled. He said, first, you are a woman and then disabled. At that moment, I laughed it out. So, the point is you work on yourself. Otherwise, comments like these will never let you grow.

13.              How have you seen attitudes towards people with disabilities change over the years? 

The attitudes towards persons with disabilities are changing gradually. Though more people are now engaging with PWDs and trying to understand their ways, still a large portion of the population hardly cares. I feel it is a long road.

14.             What advice would you give someone interested in pursuing a career in your profession?

Just be confident, work on your skills, stay updated and try to expand your network as much as you can. To be in the freelance business, you must work on cementing links and approaching new clients. You must always be ready with your samples and stay consistent. There are no free lunches!

15.              Who is your role model?

I appreciate the traits and habits of some people that encourage me. Everyone has some or the other trait to learn from. Even then, if I had to name one person, it would be my mother.

16.             Tell us about your daily schedule.

My routine is quite the same. I start my day with work and end it by early evening. Then I do my workout, which spans a minimum of 1 hour or so. Some days, I work on my radio show at night, while on other days I spend some time playing guitar or ukulele. In between, I play with my pet dog 'Magic' too. Indeed, there are variations off and on, but it is mostly how my routine unfolds. 

17.              You are into fitness. What is your advice to young girls who want to be physically fit?

Fitness is one thing that everyone should work on. Being a woman with a disability, I strongly believe in staying fit no matter what. I promote disability and fitness. I have attained five belts; the most recent is the blue belt in karate (martial arts). I seek to gain a black belt someday to teach it to other visually challenged women and men. I also do cardio and weightlifting practice at home. Currently, after the pandemic, I don't have a karate coach, but I practice all that I have learnt so far. I believe in a fitness routine. My advice is to spare at least forty minutes, if not an hour, in a day for yourself. Do some physical activity like walking, jogging, yoga and so on.

18.             Could you please shine some light on your life as an RJ? What should a person do if they want to be an RJ?

We started Radio Udaan in February 2014. It is an online radio station run by visually challenged people and is heard in more than 115 countries. We started it, but we were neither professionals in this line and nor had degrees in it. We started it for inclusion and to offer a platform for persons with disabilities to showcase their talents and participate. 

My experience so far has been phenomenal. It is voluntary for me, and I don't earn anything from it. But I feel good when I make an impact on so many lives. Practice makes you better at everything. Anyone who wants to be an RJ should be confident and sound with their communication skills and creativity. Staying informed is also critical.

19.             How was your childhood?

My childhood was good, full of fun, learning and excitement. I spent most of my time with my family, siblings, and pet dog. Of course, challenges were there because of my vision impairment, but those made me stronger. 

20.             How did you incorporate AI into your everyday life?

Well, I don't know which perspective you mean by AI. But if you talk about technology, it has become a backbone for me. Not just me for every visually challenged person. I know braille, but it is no longer an advanced way to study or work. I use screen readers, namely JAWS (job access with speech), NVDA (non-visual desktop access) and talkback. I also use bone conduction headphones so that my ears don't hurt because of consistent hearing. Bone conduction headphones send the sound through our cheekbone instead of our ears.

21.              Your message to our readers.

It is okay to feel the pain and get disappointed and discouraged. But it is not okay to give up and make the opinions of others the reality of your life. Be you, work on yourself and try to do whatever you can. If you are a person with a disability, don't feel bad. It is just a part of your life, not you as a whole!

22.             Your message to people who feel low by failures.

Failures are a part of our life. We can fail once, thrice and even more than ten times, but If we stop trying, that is an absolute failure. Pat on your back that you are not giving up and staying strong. The never giving up attitude defines you and not your failures.

Originally Published in the Volume 2: Issue 4 of The Holistic Pine (Print)

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