When the world (and society) tells you that you can’t do something, most people may take it at face value. But Sunil Jain has never taken no for an answer, and with that attitude, it’s little wonder that he has accomplished so much. An IIS fellow, chartered accountant, and founder of the NGO, Astha – we can’t help but wonder if Sunil ever sleeps or eats! Surely there aren’t enough hours in a day? We may never be able to match his energy or dedication – but we can certainly appreciate and share his story.
Forging Your Own Path
Sunil’s story began, in a way, when he contracted polio at the age of 18 months. After years of treatment, Sunil found himself at crossroads. He had to make decisions about his future and choose a profession. Though he initially wanted to be an engineer, he decided not to pursue that line for practical reasons. Instead, he ventured into chartered accountancy. Having always been a clever student with an affinity for numbers, Sunil knew he had chosen the right path. That’s not to say that he didn’t face difficulties attaining his dream.
Sunil says that initially, everyone wanted him to take up whatever job he could get, “People were urging me to just take care of my future financially. I was against that. I said no, I don’t want to do that. I want to explore.”
Ever inquisitive, Sunil says that he always wanted to explore and understand the world around him. This thirst for knowledge and determination to expand his own horizons has contributed greatly to his success.
He explains that after he graduated from school his real struggles began, “That was when the real fight with life itself started, I think. I started fighting and became a chartered accountant. After becoming a chartered accountant, people said ‘you won’t be able to work for an organisation.’ I took it as another challenge to start my own firm.”
Today, Sunil Jain not only has a successful career as a chartered accountant but provides employment for persons with disabilities. Something that he is, quite rightly, proud of. However, despite having a thriving professional life, he found himself wondering if he was content and had accomplished everything he wanted to. The answer was a simple no, but it changed the direction of his life.
Starting A New Chapter
Sunil’s quest for contentment led him to found Astha, an NGO that works towards bridging the gaps between abled and differently abled persons and forging a new kind of understanding between the two. Astha also provides the means and motivation for persons with disabilities to pursue their passions and realise their dreams.
Sunil has a poetic metaphor to describe initial interactions between differently abled and abled persons; he calls it Jugalbandi. What does that mean? In Indian classical music, Jugalbandi is a performance given by two solo musicians. The word means “entwined twins”. And much like two musicians who come together to make music, Sunil feels like disabled and abled people also begin their interactions hesitantly and then transition into creating something absolutely beautiful and memorable.
Jugalbandi is also the name of an event that Astha organises annually. Each year, the show features performances by disabled artists, musicians, and dancers. In 2014, Astha also conducted Jugalbandi Sports, which gave disabled athletes a chance to showcase their talents.
Contributions On Many Levels
The team at Astha have several initiatives under their banner. One important aspect of their work is their determination to empower more disabled persons to vote and take an interest in the democratic process.
Sunil says, emphatically, “People with disabilities cannot sit at home and be deprived – they have to vote.”
The project encompasses spreading awareness, helping disabled persons register to vote, and ensuring that the elections are more accessible. It works with the authorities to make sure that the required amendments and procedures are in place to conceptualise and frame efficient and practical policies and laws.
Astha also provides the means for disabled persons to follow their hearts and break into mainstream professional roles instead of opting for ones that are considered appropriate for them. Sunil says, “We tell them don’t focus on your disability – we will help you achieve your passion.”
It’s Sunil’s passion for sports that has motivated his next project: The Academy for Excellence and Research in Sports for the Differently Abled. This passion project is fast becoming reality and Sunil hopes to be able to provide world-class facilities and training for disabled athletes, giving them the opportunities they require to become champions.
His fascination with sports is simple, he believes that with a disability comes psychological barriers as well as physical ones. He says, “Sports are a scientific way to break these barriers. Sport can make people more confident and ensure that they appreciate other people.” The academy will also feature chances for integrated sports – ensuring that people will be, literally, on the same playing field. His love for the game led Astha to undertake their first sports tournament – The Tabebuia Open, a wheelchair tennis competition held in Bangalore in 2016.
The Winds Of Change
Sunil’s dream is to be able to offer sports to disabled kids at a grass-root level. He believes that this can only improve their lives and give them the motivation required to become achievers. A prime example? Vishwas, a para-swimmer who Astha has supported on his journey. Vishwas is a double amputee who has never allowed his disability to take away from his desire to succeed. His strength and determination have allowed him to win medals at international competitions. Sunil’s vision for the academy will ensure that hundreds of talented sports persons, like Vishwas, will have the backing and training required to aim for the gold.
Like many others, Sunil can see the flaws in the education system that have led to many people, both disabled and abled, choosing mediocrity instead of extraordinary lives. He says that at a policy level things need to change. He muses, “Lateral thinking is dying, kids aren’t exposed to real challenges.” He is keenly aware that the mainstream education systems in place in India are not inclusive enough and can create barriers rather than break them.
We can’t help but agree with him when he says, “They keep pointing to great people like Gandhi and killing the greatness in every child.”
Choosing To Participate
Sunil’s dynamism and enthusiasm are reflected in every sentence he utters, but there’s one that really stuck with us – “I choose to live a life of complete participation.” We couldn’t have described him better if we tried.
Not only has he handled life’s challenges with grace, he also has one of the most positive outlooks we’ve ever come across.
He says, “I don’t believe it when people say society is not inclusive. I have not found, in my life, a single human being who does not want me to get what I want. To say that the society is not inclusive is a myth according to me.”
The joy and happiness he derives from trying new things and exploring the world hasn’t been diminished with age. Not only has he joined a gym for the first time ever, but he also signed up to do the TCS 10K on his birthday. He confessed to us cheerfully, “I can’t even wheel 2 km today, but I joined a gym and every day I practise!” Unfortunately, an illness prevented him from doing the whole 10K, but with support, he managed to participate in the category for persons with disabilities, a distance of 4.2 km. Needless to say, we weren’t surprised to see pictures of him at the finish line – that’s the kind of person that Sunil is. He makes his own way!
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