Published: 01st July 2020
Being Sai: How the wheelchair never held this Hyderabad youth back from skydiving or going to Antarctica with Robert Swan
Now that Sai Prasad Vishwanathan has been to Antarctica, gone skydiving and pursued his MBA from ISB, he has been conducting counselling sessions for over 35,000 students and is helping out a lot
You know how they say that life is good when you live for yourself and great when you live for others? Sai Prasad Vishwanathan learnt this slowly and steadily. He was born with meningomyelocele (a condition where the spinal canal and backbone don't close before birth) and with another condition that left him with no control over his bladder. As a result, he had to change multiple schools and was ostracised as well. "Because I spent a lot of time alone, I took to books and watched cricket. Soon, I realised that it is only education that will help me through this," says the wheelchair-bound youngster. He soon began to identify himself with cricketer Rahul Dravid, who unlike master blaster Sachin Tendulkar with his natural talent, had to really grind it out. The Tiruchirappalli-born too burnt the midnight oil and his first achievement was being the state first rank holder in the EAMCET (Engineering, Agriculture and Medical Common Entrance Test).
Sai Prasad went on to study in the US, become the first Indian with a disability to skydive from 14,000 feet, go on an Antarctica expedition with Robert Swan (first person to walk both poles), complete his MBA from Indian School of Business in Hyderabad (ISB) and also co-found Sahasra, a counselling programme for students. Thus, the Hyderabad-based youngster, who today works as a Technology Risk Consultant at Deloitte, not only learnt to live the good life, by refusing to be defined by his disability, has helped others do the same as well, setting an example as he continues to lead a great life that is dedicated to others.
We get in touch with the 34-year-old to find out how he directs the money collected via the workshops he conducts to offer scholarships to the disabled and economically backward, how he helped his own and others during the lockdown and why, indeed, a life lived for others is the greatest life ever lived. Excerpts:
Skydiving | (Pic: Sai Prasad Vishwanathan)
We have to start by asking you about your skydiving experience while studying in the US at University of Wisconsin.
After pursuing Electrical and Electronics Engineering from CBIT, Hyderabad, my decision to go to the US to pursue my MS in Computer Science with the help of a research scholarship raised a lot of questions. But I wanted to make a statement that even disabled people can pursue their goals. My decision to skydive was also driven by the thought, in our nation, that disability is attributed to karma. When I read the Bhagavad Gita, I understood that humans are made of five elements, namely earth, water, sky, fire and air, and only a fully-abled person can experience all the elements. I wanted to prove that this is not the case. I knew I would be making a statement if I could show the world that I, with my disability, can experience all the five elements, and I did. Because after that, a lot of people reached out to me.
ISB must've certainly been the turning point in your life as that's where you co-founded Sahasra. Tell us more about it.
After my graduation in MS, I went to ISB to further my knowledge. ISB admitted me with a scholarship. I co-founded Sahasra, which means a new beginning. The objective was to help eliminate any physical, mental, emotional and financial barriers that keep students from achieving their dreams. In an attempt to do so, I started workshops where I would go from college to college with this two-day workshop. The workshop would include a two-hour stand-up comedy version of my life story, then, we ran through various career choices, the competitive exams they would need to prepare for, how to present themselves in an interview and lastly, I would open the stage up for a talent show and encourage students to show off their talent.
The first workshop was conducted in April 2010 at Centre for Visual Information Technology (CVIT) and 700 students attended it. Every student had to pay a minimum of `500 and the entire amount collected was given back as a scholarship to two to three talented yet financially-backward students. Over the last nine years, I've conducted the workshop for over 35,000 students in 30-35 colleges, including a few in Andhra Pradesh. We've raised scholarships of over a crore and managed to distribute them to 300 to 400 students. I've also identified students interested in pursuing MBA programmes and trained them. All the scholarships and mentorship is offered through my other initiative, GMAT Analytics.
My father would ask me to give commentary during cricket matches and that really helped me with my communication skills, says Sai Prasad Vishwanathan
Now that everything has gone online because of the pandemic, what have you been up to?
Recently, I conducted Zoom sessions with GITAM Visakhapatnam's Entrepreneurship Cell; BITS Pilani, BITS Hyderabad and many more. We have been able to create trust and action-oriented outcomes through the workshops. Also, in the last six months alone, I have been working with 120 students online and they will be attempting their competitive exams in a few months. We want to create a Super 100 model where we pick the most challenged and determined students looking for support and who need mentoring. In the last four years, there have been about 250 people who have been successful after the year-long mentoring that I have been providing.
Tell us more about how you hand-pick disabled and financially-backward talents with aspirations to pursue their higher education in prestigious institutions like ISB.
I was the first person with a disability to get into ISB and after that, there have been three others. For an institute that only admits students on the basis of merit, this is a compliment. I am hoping these people will drive a positive change in society. I have also paid the exam fees for roughly 13 students. About four of my students have got full scholarships. About seven to nine lakh rupees has been distributed to book exam dates, helping them apply to schools, preparing them for interviews and so on over the last five years. There are about 76 batches of five to ten people who have worked with me and together, we have achieved their dreams.
In conversation with penguins | (Pic: Sai Prasad Vishwanathan)
And how have you helped people during the pandemic?
When the pandemic hit, the narrative was about how people with disabilities need help and support. Under such circumstances, I wanted to show that we can contribute as well. I managed to hold multiple fundraising campaigns via career counseling sessions and put that money back into the system. About `15 lakh was directed towards migrant labourers. We also purchased three electric chairs for the disabled and so on. We raised Rs 30-50 lakh and supported four critical surgeries.
Would you say India is a disability-friendly nation?
Having lived in the US and other countries as well, I can say that the definition of disability-friendly varies. In the US and Europe, they built a system and then allowed it to take care of you, therefore, they are more infrastructural-friendly. In India, we might not have the infrastructure but there are people to support you.
Foreign countries are system-oriented, India is people-oriented. But which is the better approach? There is only so much that people can do therefore, it is time that India makes a shift to create a system that supports. India is disabled-friendly in a different way, with the power of people. There are slow-paced changes being made and we must continue in that direction to make ourselves infrastructurally-friendly and system-oriented.
"While in Antarctica, I would eat a lot of avakkai (a pickle with mango and spices) and curd rice and joke that it is this combination that has got me far," he says
Infrastructure aside, how can India be more disabled-friendly?
- At the university-level, a dedicated inclusive centre of resources needs to be established with one faculty, one student, one administrative staff member and one counsellor who is ready to hear the requirements of students at any point
- At the time of recruitment, emphasise on the fact that they need to see our strengths. Because most of the time, they ask demeaning questions like 'Can you travel?'
- Corporates should provide insurance for candidates with disabilities, especially insurances that cover pre-existing medical conditions
- First Indian with a disability to set foot and live on Antarctica
- First Indian to skydive, which also went down in the Limca Book of Records
- Bagged the CavinKare Ability Award for all-round excellence in 2009
- Awarded the Helen Keller Role Model Person of the Year 2010 by India's Home Minister
Receiving the Helen Keller Role Model Person from P Chidambaram | (Pic: Sai Prasad Vishwanathan)
For more on him, check out instagram.com/happy.blissfull