Getting a leg-up

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Getting  a leg-up

Resident Jigar Shah refused to be struck down by polio when he contracted it at the age of two. He’s been up and about and says that when God takes something out of our bodies, He compensates by giving us abilities in other areas

By Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Fri 19 Apr 2013, 11:59 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 9:57 AM

One man’s curse is another man’s blessing: that’s how Jigar Shah sees life. The Dubai resident was “gifted” with polio when he was two years old, he says. He calls it a gift because there was an element of surprise involved. “All precautions and vaccinations [to ward off polio] were taken after my birth,” says the 42-year-old Gujarati, who was raised in Mumbai. “My mom was a doctor so it wasn’t that something had been missed out. But somewhere down the line, something had obviously gone wrong.”

Today, four decades later, he says he’s never experienced any off-days or frustration because of his disability. Life has been a blessing.

It all started one night in July of 1972, in the small town of Vapi, 150 km north of Mumbai, when Jigar was diagnosed with polio. “The doctor was smart enough to recognise the polio and didn’t attempt to curb the accompanying high fever (which could’ve made matters worse).” There weren’t too many trains between Vapi and Mumbai back then but by 9am the next morning, he landed at one of India’s best medical facilities that specialises in disability: the All India 
Institute of Physical Medicine and 
Rehabilitation. The polio had already advanced to Jigar’s waist by the time, but the hospital was able to contain the spread. He lost the use of both legs but, over time, learned to use callipers and crutches to get around.

At his dad’s insistence, Jigar enrolled in a mainstream school in Bombay 
(instead of a special needs school), bef-ore going on to do his engineering in 1991 while living in a hostel in Belgaum for six years — formative years that he says transformed his life. From his experience, he believes that if a child is able to talk, listen and use at least one hand, he/she should be enrolled in a mainstream school so that they can “grow normally”. “Growing normally is mandatory,” he asserts. “It will be challenging but it’s what’s best for the kids, else they’ll become too dependent on the system… For us disabled people, self-reliance is not an option; and for that, a mainstream education is needed.”

It was ‘mainstream atmosphere’ that pushed him to keep up with his peers, especially in engineering college. “I usually had assistance during class but exams were a whole different story,” he says. “Drawing on an engineering drawing board, for example, requires two hands. I cannot stand without a third support (like a crutch or a wall) so that was challenging. But it was there that I decided I would not get my work done by others. Some teachers even asked me why I joined engineering… that I should’ve opted for a more comfortable job in my father’s business. But those comments only fuelled my resolve to complete the job.”

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Though college tested his mettle, Jigar says hostel living made up “the best times” of his life. “[At parties], all of us would drink, dance and fall. People would lift me back up and I would dance again,” he recalls, nostalgically. “Perhaps I’ve been blessed with a slightly different mentality… but my disability never stopped me from doing whatever I wanted — except maybe during sports at school.”

Jigar quickly worked his way up the ranks from trainee engineer to project manager for a Tata Group company to his position as services sales director for Dubai-based company Invensys, overseeing the Europe, Middle East and 
Africa territories today. His career has seen solid growth — but it hasn’t been entirely without discrimination. “In the beginning, I’d applied several times to a large multinational company in India. I always believed in mentioning my 
disability in my CV. This company was my dream job but I never got a response back. I finally reapplied, removing 
all mention of my disability from my resume — and got a call almost immediately. I don’t know why their system failed to register I was a former applicant but I went down, cleared the written tests and attended the interview, which went really well. One of the senior interviewees even said he’d love to take me on — but I never heard back from them. They couldn’t ignore my disability during the interview — but they didn’t 
address it either. I wish they had.” That was 23 years ago.

Things have changed so much now, he notes. “I’ve been blessed every step of the way — even when it came to finding my soul mate.” Jigar’s wife, Tarulata (born the same year Jigar contracted polio) fell prey to polio “in between vaccinations”. She only lost the use of one leg but didn’t wear callipers or braces for a long time, due to the “stigma” her family was scared of. As a young woman, too, Tarulata struggled. “Every marriage proposal [for her] was an exercise in 
humiliation because they [prospective grooms] were either incredibly old or extremely disabled,” Jigar explains.

Though Jigar came from “a good family and had a good career”, when it came to marriage, it was always his disability that came to the forefront. Every other merit got pushed aside. “Tarulata turned out to be the perfect match for me,” he grins. “Destiny brought us together to the same matchmaking ceremony. I was on a client customer visit and travelled all night by train to reach the place. We didn’t ask too many questions. In this kind of marriage, we don’t look at caste, creed etc but as it turned out, she was from the same caste, language, sub-cast and sub-division...”

The couple met in May 1998 and got married in July of the same year. It’s been a marriage like any other — but a happy one, no less. “If you stand outside our apartment, you can listen to our music. She’s Gemini, I’m Sagittarian — we have our differences of opinion but we have learnt to live with them. We agree to disagree.” The couple, who’ve lived in the UAE for seven years now, have a son studying in grade four, Ishaan, who they’re determined should lead a “normal, unspoiled” life. “Ishaan has his questions. Sometimes, after looking at other parents, he shouts at God through the window about why He made his own handicapped... but otherwise, he’s highly cooperative. He’s learning that his parents have certain limitations so he can’t just jump all over us, but he always takes care of us in front of others and makes sure he doesn’t offend us in any way.”

Travelling is Jigar’s passion — and his work profile sees him out of town at least 15-20 days in a month. “Airport lounges have become my second home,” he says. “But travelling has also helped me break my own myths and retune my expectations about society at large. The people I meet are of three kinds: sensitive, oversensitive or highly ignorant. Not everyone will bother to hold the door open for you. They’re either too busy to notice you need a hand or just inconsiderate — but these are all learning experiences. They give me a chance to be self-reliant.”

Jigar’s principle of self-reliance is something he learnt from his dad. “His constant trust in me made me go get things for myself. He allowed me to take decisions at the right age, rather than imposing his own. Most times when I fell, he wouldn’t help — unless he saw I was really struggling. He helped me by not helping too much — and that’s become a major part of my life.”

Getting his licence and a car were two major accomplishments for him, in that respect. “Till about 5-6 years back, I was completely dependent on others for transport. It took two months to initiate the application process and get all the necessary approvals for my licence. The driving institute I was with had just one vehicle that was specially fitted to suit my needs — so I had to rework my entire schedule to suit the vehicle availability. It was a difficult journey but, by God’s grace, I got my licence after four months on the first try. After that, it was another struggle to find a suitable car with the right hand controls — and another 10 days before I could get it fitted for my needs (by a contact in Ras Al Khaimah) and it was suitable to drive.”

Through all of this, Jigar believes it 
is his attitude that helps him enjoy life everyday. “My name in Urdu means courage and guts. I’ve always surrounded myself with positivity. Maybe that’s what got me to where I am today… I bel-ieve that when God takes something out of our body, He compensates by giving us abilities in another area — it’s our duty to find out where. Right now, for me, life is good. I couldn’t ask for more.”

(Do you know anyone who refuses to let his/her disability get in the way of their routines and dreams? Write to karen@khaleejtimes.com



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