By Bharath

The COVID-19 pandemic that has been raging on for over a year now, and the second wave that has hit recently, has put a lot on Gokul Retnakar’s plate. He has a house under construction where he plans to move in soon with his wife and twin sons at Nanthancode, Thiruvananthapuram. Overseeing the work eats up quite a bit of his time, but that hasn’t distracted him from many other projects that he, and Can Walk, have set out to do.

Because, for some time now, having a lot on his plate is not exactly uncharted territory for Gokul.

The origin of Can Walk

Gokul, 36, became a paraplegic at the age of 22 in a car accident in 2006, right after his Bachelor’s degree graduation. The incident occurred when he was returning from a road trip to Ernakulam with a friend, and was taking a nap in the backseat. The next few years passed by in a state of stagnation and denial, in Gokul’s words. He returned to college for an LLB degree in 2009 and co-founded Can Walk along with a few friends in the same year.

But the need for financial independence hung over him like Damocles’ sword. That very reason made him take up a job as legal advisor in 2012 at an NAPT (National Academy of Pre-recruitment training) city branch, which proved to be a turning point in Gokul’s life. He soon progressed to running one of their franchises itself in Thiruvananthapuram. This provided him the financial stability in life – helping him turn Can Walk operational to his marriage in 2017 and his several projects currently.

Registered as a Non-governmental organisation (NGO) society under the Charitable Society Act of 1955, Can Walk has conducted more than 40 events across Kerala, connecting and helping people with physical disabilities in numerous ways. These include road-safety campaigns, medical camps as well as sponsoring wheelchairs and other facilities and the latest being a series of undergoing webinars. The importance of expanding Can Walk’s activities to broader walks of life had always been at the back of Gokul’s mind though, and in 2015 the idea of establishing a Rehabilitation Centre associated with the organisation first took shape.

A benefaction ceremony organised by Can Walk for providing differently-abled persons with tri-scooters/artificial limbs utilizing the M.P. fund, conducted at Central Stadium Basketball Court in July 2015

A One-day camp organised by Can Walk

“For all the events until then, we never had to publicise or reach out far to get monetary contributions. We managed with what we could raise in our own close circles. But we knew that we required much more funds for this plan,” Gokul says.

Being someone who’s been deeply involved in the activities for and within the paraplegic community, Gokul was considerably aware of the governmental schemes, funds and provisions available for the community. They formulated a project proposal in 2015 based on their ideas and objectives, but never got around to it back then.

“Something or another, personal or not, would come up and our plans would get delayed. This went on till 2019, when we decided to kickstart the project again.”

While the pandemic situation slowed down the process considerably in 2020, things have finally been falling into place this year, Gokul says. He visited many locations in and around Thiruvananthapuram with his team, and finalised on renting a place near Kovalam for the centre. They would initially be conducting physiotherapy and occupational therapy sessions for the members. Gokul’s plan is to start with a group of around 10 paraplegics first, and slowly bring in bigger batches in the future. As with all other activities of Can Walk previously, there wouldn’t be a commercial side to this at all, he explains.

“Except for a minimal amount the members would pay to take care of their regular expenses, we aren’t planning on setting any mandatory admission fee,” Gokul clarifies.  

The Attappadi project

When the pandemic crisis had turned things topsy-turvy last year, Gokul realised that setting up the rehab centre integrating all the precautionary and control measures for the paraplegic attendees as well as their bystanders, would’ve meant a revamp of the model they’d already devised and proposed to the government officials until then. While most people may have considered this to be a roadblock and simply preferred to have waited out that period, Gokul’s thoughts took a different direction.

“Having travelled across the state for our road-safety campaigns, we’d noticed how paraplegia can affect people in different ways, depending on their social, economic and cultural backgrounds. It was this realisation that made me want to visit Attappadi and understand the ground reality there.”

For long, Attappadi has been labelled as one of the most backward villages in Kerala. Spanning across an area of 745 sq. km, it is divided into three panchayats – Agali, Pudur, and Sholayar. Attappadi has a considerable Adivasi community, comprising almost 44% of the total population. The region has suffered from problems of high mortality rates, malnourishment, illiteracy and numerous issues related to under-development. While several welfare schemes have been introduced and implemented by the governments in the past decades, Attappadi still struggles with all the aforementioned problems – majorly among its Adivasi population.

So, Gokul knew that the challenges faced by the physically disabled community here had to be much more complex and something to be analysed from a broader picture.

Gokul and team visited the SC/ST development office Agali to begin with, to collect the basic statistics and information for their research. They learnt that there were 168 people with Orthopedical disability under the Attappadi block according to the official data. A primary factor they discovered was that, while there were multiple state welfare schemes or projects under implementation for SCST/Tribal communities and the differently abled sections of the society, there was nothing at present that overlapped both the categories.

Their next step was to visit the households and gain a better understanding of a paraplegic person’s day-to-day life as well as their socio-economic conditions. Observing and understanding their life in close connection with Attappadi itself was extremely important according to Gokul, as one couldn’t presume things using the scale of urban settings or even most other rural places in Kerala.

At the same time, the visits also broke certain prejudices for them, like how they hadn’t expected seeing a close-knit community life pattern. Most people earned their livelihood through agriculture, which also acted as an integral factor for this.

“Unlike in a city, you don’t see people being too fixated on or overly conscious about the physical disability of a family member here. They all live within very close social circles which in this case tends to be a positive thing,” Gokul recalls.

Yet, he understands that it can have its cons as well, since the chances of domestic abuse generally increase in such an over-dependent environment. And hence, their pilot project’s objectives will also have to address and work on a multitude of such aspects.

For a start, Gokul is planning to involve only 20-odd paraplegics from the region and hold a camp for them spanning at least across a month. There are a few physical locations suitable for the same, which they can discuss with the Panchayat(s) once the proposal is made. The limited number of attendees initially will help them provide individual care and attention (it’s also a much-needed precaution owing to the pandemic situation). The members will be selected mostly from nearby localities, with those who can commute from their homes daily allowed to do so, and the rest provided accommodation there.

“We’ll certainly need a good support-staff strength, preferably those from the Attappadi region itself. As I said before, a cultural understanding of the region and the people’s lives is an essential element for this project,” Gokul says.

The paraplegic members will be given training on a number of things that’ll help them with their regular life and schedule, around the home and while travelling outside. From his own personal experiences, Gokul realises the importance of proper counselling as well, which he plans to include. And lastly, for each individual, they plan to identify respective skill-sets, which they can then further work on to help them achieve self-employment in the longer run.

It has been a few months since the proposal was made, but Gokul did expect the process to be delayed owing to the pandemic and the elections in the early part of the year. Now that the latter has been over, he hopes to get some positive update in the near future.

Travel Plans

In addition to these Can Walk initiatives, Gokul also has a personal plan to travel the world a bit. With his friend Aravind, a fellow paraplegic he has known for a while, Gokul plans to go on a trip later this year, covering three countries in a car customised for their operational and travel conveniences. The goal isn’t simply sightseeing Gokul says, but also, “To meet up with people having physical disabilities across different regions and cultures through our journey and to understand their life and struggles better.” These experiences will offer a lot of wisdom in the execution of his projects as well, he feels. 

Social awareness & Representation

‘Velivanu Velicham’ – An awareness campaign against substance abuse organised by Can Walk for SC Development Department of Kerala

Having said all this, Gokul feels that no matter how many such innovative plans and projects come up, it’s never enough until and unless the root problem is addressed – lack of social awareness about physical disabilities.

While we’re still fixated on the medical model of addressing the challenges faced by the differently abled communities in mainstream society, he feels that it’s more often than not a reactive measure, than a proactive one. The key was to look at a social model and its related framework changes as a long-term and fool-proof method for their integration. This involves changing the attitude of the whole society, and in more ways than one.

“We’re supposed to change the infrastructure around us to be accommodating for a wheelchair-bound person, but there are newer buildings springing up every day without even a ramp. This is a massive anomaly, and we’re not calling out these things as much as we should.”

The society’s empathy, appreciation and sensitivity towards the disabled communities, while often well-intended, are often patronising and misplaced, he feels. And this holds true even for those who’ve a close family member or an acquaintance who’s a paraplegic or with some form of physical disability.

Finally, like with all other marginalised sections of the society, a call for proper representation seems to be the need of the hour here too, Gokul says. And this shouldn’t just be a small percent of token representation in job sectors or educational institutions (although representation here is integral too). From the local bodies in a region to the highest levels of a state and at the centre, we need enough official representation from people within these communities, who have firsthand experience of what they are fighting for and making decisions about. Otherwise, the existing cycle will never break for the better.

“Hopefully, the coming generations embark on that journey and make great strides.”

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By Bharath