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#WonderWoman - Ketna Mehta is giving people with disabilities wings to fly

In our month-long series #WonderWoman, we profile the extraordinary Dr Ketna L Mehta, founder of the NGO Nina Foundation. In the face of a debilitating spinal cord injury, she fought back and that's not all. Through her organization, she has been reaching out to many others who have faced similar circumstances.

Ketna Mehta, Editor and Management Advisor, Welingkar Institute of Management, is an adventure sports enthusiast. Be it paragliding, or wheelchair basketball.

It was 1995 and she was 32 when she had a paragliding accident and irreversibly and permanently injured her spine. "It was a turning point for me and my family", she says.

In those dark hours, her family was a huge source of inspiration. Her sister, Dr. Nina Doshi, and her doctors worked not only her injury but also her psyche. They made her push limits, be independent and pursue her professional and personal goals regardless of her physical limitations.

Dr Mehta did that, and more. She went on to do a doctorate in management, as also win several awards.

A new journey

Then suddenly one day in the year 2000, her inspiration and her bedrock, her sister Nina, passed on suddenly. It was then that Dr Mehta and her younger brother Dhaval decided to start a foundation in Nina's memory.

There are over 1.5 million people with spinal cord injury in India, which makes it the second largest population in the world with this disability. Spinal injuries are caused by road traffic accidents and falls from heights, also tumour and TB of the spine. This is a permanent disability which transforms a person's life, and rehabilitation is key for a life with dignity.

For 18 years now, Nina Foundation has been supporting people with spinal injuries in multiple ways.

There were many challenges and obstacles when we set out. There was no comprehensive spinal cord injury rehabilitation centre in Mumbai There was no awareness of the critical period after an accident, called the `Golden Hour', that can minimise the extent of a spinal injury. Even low-cost facilities like scoop stretchers weren't there. `The gap was huge. - Dr Ketna L Mehta, Founder, Nina Foundation

The challenges faced by uneducated women were even more, she adds, "This is due to the lower status given to the girl child and women. Implementation of the RPWD Act 2016 is imperative for eliminating this discrimination. As a management professional, Dr Mehta's attitude is to regard any problem as a challenge, because there's the possibility of a solution. "That too in coming up with a solution where none exists'.

Besides counselling patients, Dr Mehta attended conferences on spinal injuries and networked with doctors in India and abroad. She researched various therapies and treatments across the world.

She felt that active rehab was a critical requirement. More professionals needed to be made aware of it. The Nina Foundation organised conferences on active rehab and invited physiotherapists and occupational therapists.

"We set up the first spinal injury helpline. People from remote parts of India started connecting with us. Our biggest strength is our great team of doctors and peer mentors. A lot of our focus is on instilling confidence and independence in people with spinal injury. We do this through work-related therapies, employment and education seminars, as well as donations of assistive devices and appliances", adds Dr Mehta.

Efforts that have transformed the lives of countless patients, including Chhattisgarh-based Ashish Mukherjee, who sustained severe spinal injuries in a bike accident in 2001.

"My elder sister Rajshri told me to join the Nina Foundation's WhatsApp group and I told her that I did not see the point. I was in despair and thought there was no NGO for people with spinal cord injuries, nor was the government interested in understanding our challenges. I am so glad I changed my mind and joined the group because this is the only foundation in India that wants to help and support people with SCI, says Mukherjee.

Wheelchair basketball player and cricketer Anthony John agrees. John suffered a spinal cord injury in a bike accident when he was 20 years old.

"Nina Foundation helped me with a Roho Cushion which is the most effective and expensive way to recover from a pressure sore. They also helped me immensely with a donation of a Ottobock German wheelchair for my daily use, which is unheard of by most NGOs. My confidence soared and I started earning and supporting my family. From a person who would think 10 times before leaving his house, now I do what I feel like doing. Nina Foundation gives me wings!.

The Nina Foundation also instituted the Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day on 25 June. "We wanted to make this a day of hope, awareness and solidarity, said Dr Mehta. "Instituting a spinal cord injury day for the first time since 2009 has been a game changer in generating interest amongst the society, says Dr Mehta.

"It's not only the assistance they give paraplegics in terms of resources, the greater thing they offer is hope, says Ernest Fernandes, a faculty member of the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies in Mumbai. "What they are offering is a sense of support, someone people can talk to, share their concerns and anxieties with. That's the great achievement of Nina Foundation, something they can be truly proud of.

Going ahead, Dr Mehta's vision is to advocate for spinal cord injury as a distinct disability in the RPWD Act 2016. "Our mission is to also set up a world class spinal cord injury rehabilitation centre in Mumbai and to set up a registry to collect data on number of spinal cord injured. Only then will the government, healthcare sector, citizenry and society be geared up to create a rehabilitation mindset in India".

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