PR Lead for Alexa and Echo Devices at Amazon
She is not defined by her disability.
In June 2011, Mrunmaiy was traveling from Nagpur to Mumbai with her parents. Since this was going to be a long 840km drive, they started their journey around 6:30 am. Mrunmaiy and her Dad both loved to drive, but because it was her car, she opted to drive first. They stopped off to have breakfast at a roadside joint about 10:30 am. Breakfast consisted of tea and Dal Wada which is quite famous in that part of the state. They phoned her sister in Gandhinagar to update her about their travel and just to chat for a bit. It was a weekday and Mrunmaiy was still actually ‘on the job’, coordinating a social media contest on one of her company pages with a team member. She needed to use her laptop so her Dad, a veteran long-distance driver took over the after-breakfast driving. The last memory she has of that day was checking her email on her laptop.
This is the day she sustained a spinal cord injury in her neck, resulting in complete paralysis below her shoulders, also known as Quadriplegia/or Tetraplegia. The day that changed her life forever.
Her injury is at the C5 level, which means her brain and nerves cannot communicate with the rest of her body and organs beyond the level of her shoulders. She cannot use or move around her feet so she is unable to walk. She has no trunk balance or back support that will allow her to turn around in bed or sit up by herself. She cannot use her fingers to lift things like a pen or a toothbrush, because she cannot control their movement.
Mrunmaiy has no memory of the accident. She has recreated what happened based on what what her parents shared and the photographs of her crushed car. With her Dad at the wheel, she was in the passenger seat and her Mom sat behind her. A truck suddenly came out of nowhere and rammed into their car from her side. Everything stopped.
At the time of impact, Mrunmaiy was wearing a seatbelt which restricted her body’s movements, but her neck sustained severe injury from the collision. Her Mom was also injured, with multiple fractures in her shoulder.
Her Dad, when recounting the incident remembers Mrunmaiy saying, after she was removed from the car, that she was not able to feel her hands and legs. He rented a car and took them to a nearby hospital. After basic first aid, they were driven to the city of Nagpur for her operation. Her accident occured on 11 June, and surgery took place on 13th June. For two months after her injury, she still had no knowledge of what had actually happened to her body. The doctors in Nagpur repeatedly told her to continue exercising and she will improve. Family members knew about it, however, but no one told her the reality of her situation. A doctor at the Indian Injury Centre in Delhi eventually explained it all in a very scientific manner and she immediately came to the realization that her situation was permanent.
With this shocking news came the immediate thoughts of “what will happen to all my existing plans,” she said. “I had a team on site in Poland, I had visualized my life with the guy who I was with before my accident . . . My worries and concerns were immediate. I hated the fact that a hospital staff would give me a bath every morning. I didn’t like somebody touching me all over. That was possibly the biggest thing I had to adjust to. Personal care done by somebody else. Thankfully, there were many people like me going through the rehabilitation therapy at the same time. So I did not feel alone.”
Life prior to the accident
Before her accident she was extremely outgoing and independent, living by herself in Mumbai city, which is known for its active lifestyle, a city that never sleeps. She moved here after post-grad., and was extremely proud of herself for being able to sustain a life for herself in the city, build a career and be financially independent. She purchased a car and would go on long drives outside the city whenever she had the chance.
Mrunmaiy reminisced, “I loved swimming. I could spend hours in the pool. Loved being out and about with nature. Dancing was a big passion. I’ve trained in classical Indian dance forms as well as jive and salsa. Socialising and going out to meet friends for dancing is something we did regularly. I was also an active participant at family functions.”
Post-injury determination to succeed
Getting a spinal cord injury is definitely life changing. In a matter of few moments Mrunmaiy’s life transformed from being an independent person to someone who is dependent on a helper for basic daily living activities such as taking a bath and dressing up. Initially, it took a big toll on how she perceived herself. Confidence and self-esteem were extremely low because of comparisons between her previous able-bodied self and the current version. Her lack of confidence was also due to the fact that she had no knowledge about spinal cord injury before her accident, and was not aware that her life could still go on despite all these difficulties.
“Now, I have accepted my current situation as it is,” she said. “I depend a lot on the people around me and the infrastructure, to go about my day, and life in general. There is no cure for a spinal cord injury. The paralysis, the disability, is permanent. This acceptance has helped to focus my thoughts on what’s next…. instead of thinking ‘why did this happen’ or feeling sorry for myself.”
Since her injury, she has worked with multiple counsellors and therapists who helped her to realize that she is best motivated and feels good about herself when she is in the action mode. There is obviously nothing she can do about her disability, but “there is a lot that I can do about how I feel about it, and how I do not let it become a barrier for living life the way I want it.”
In India, you don’t see people with disabilities in public spaces such as malls, movie theaters, restaurants and so on. The reason is a combination of inaccessibility and the various stigma related to disability. Whenever she goes out, people stare at her, and her wheelchair. Initially, she was very irritated by this. “Having all eyes on you when you are not feeling confident about yourself can be very unnerving. But when I look at it from the other side, people stare because it is something new, something that they do not usually see in their daily life. This was another thing which I learned to accept,” she said. “If I keep thinking about what others think, I will not be able to live freely. So now I just don’t bother if people are looking at me. I just do my own thing.”
Doubts in the workplace
At Mrunmaiy’s workplace, at that time, it was not common to see someone with a disability working at par with other people. Doubts exist in their minds ranging from capability, to how to interact with an individual who has a disability. “Initially I would feel bad about myself and my reduced body functions because I could not work the way I used to do before my accident. Additionally, I also built up a perception that my colleagues thought less of me because I now have a disability.”
She felt hesitant to speak up or give her opinion. She also questioned whether she was doing enough to earn her salary. She would go the extra mile, worked late into the night, so that no one could question her efforts and output. But over time she realized that it was not a sustainable way of working. She once had to write a list of things she did at work in preparation for a review and was quite pleased with her achievements. But she still thought “from the employer perspective, why did they still continue to have me on their payroll? Why did they not ask me to leave? They were definitely seeing value in what I did . . ? And then I thought, who am I to question my capabilities. If I don’t believe in myself-nobody else will.” She wrote this on a sticky note and put it up in front of my desk. Having this positive thought in front of her each day helped to build her confidence when interacting with colleagues and business partners. Mrunmaiy also realized that your perception of yourself impacts how others view you. “For example, if you have accepted your situation and are committed to live life to the fullest, that is how others will also see you. I have the same conversation with my colleagues like any other, related to work or fun times.”
Pursuit of dreams
Mrunmaiy acknowledges that self-acceptance and letting others know that you are happy with the way you are goes a long way. People will no longer talk to you about how sad they feel about your situation, instead they often offer to collaborate to help you succeed. “I used to love swimming and spending time in the water before my accident. On one of my conversations with fellow person with a disability, I shared my desires of being able to do all these things again. One of them had taken up swimming even after becoming a quadriplegic and that inspired me to do the same.” She had a tough time finding a swimming pool and an instructor in her city who would work with her because every one declined to take up the responsibility of having a person with disability in their swimming pool. She had shared her interest with family and friends and a very close family member had a swimming pool in their apartment and their instructor was willing to take a chance on her. He had never worked with a person with disability, nor had he ever heard about para-sports, but still he was open to the thought of training her. “Had I kept my thought to myself, my search would have stopped there and I would have given up. For me this always stands out as an example of if you really want something, the universe will conspire to deliver it to you.”
Many similarly perceived roadblocks and questioning herself continued, but ultimately she has learned to overcome them. “I always look back at how far I have come and this motivates me to keep going on. That is why I never give up.”
As a person with spinal cord injury, she encounters many medical and psychological situations whch she believes an able-bodied person will not understand or relate to. “For example management of bowel and bladder,” she shared. “My injury is incomplete-so I get a lot of spasticity (tightness of muscles) in my legs and body. I feel uncomfortable in extreme cold and hot environment, for example meeting rooms and restaurants which have a very cold temperature. I do not discuss these things with my able-bodied friends or colleagues. But I can have a conversation lasting for an entire week on a WhatsApp group of fellow people with Spinal cord injuries. The reason I’m sharing this in detail is to give you a perspective that everybody has their own set of challenges that they cannot discuss with everyone. My situation has made me more conscious about a similar situation of others and understanding that they might be going through something about which I have no awareness/ knowledge.”
Technology has been a great enabler for Mrunmaiy and it makes her feel more independent, allowing her to get things done by herself. “I’m really glad to live in a time when there is advanced technology such as voice recognition, which helps me to overcome the limitation that I cannot use my fingers for typing.”
On a daily basis, she uses the following technologies and gadgets:
Dragon Dictation software It transcribes whatever she says into a text document on her laptop.
A touchscreen smartphone Currently she uses an Apple iPhone which has great accessibility settings, including an assistive touch. She has also used the Samsung Galaxy range which is equally efficient. Smart phones also have a dictation option which makes it easy for her to type.
Amazon Echo smart speaker to set reminders for taking medicines. She uses it to set timers for her morning routine for getting ready. Also for listening to audiobooks, music, watching TV shows and movies, ask for information, and many other things. Some of the things she enjoys about this one specifically is that it can be used to control the light in her room, change channels on TV and adjust volume. It is difficult for her to use remote controls and press buttons.
A motorized wheelchair helps her to move around independently.
A hoist which she uses at home. It makes it easy for her helper to lift her from the wheelchair and place me on the bed and vice versa.
Working at Amazon
Mrunmaiy has been employed at Amazon for the past 3.5 years. When applying for the position, she was up-front with them about her disability. She went through the regular interviewing process as any other candidate and was offered the position to lead public relations for Amazon Alexa and Echo range of devices. Before applying to Amazon she had approached a few other organizations as part of her job search, but she would clearly sense the hesitation in the minds of hiring managers when they were interacting with her. In India, there is a stigma associated with disability and very less awareness about how people with disabilities can contribute to the workplace. “I consider myself lucky to have come across an inclusive organization such as Amazon and also all the people involved in my interview loop who evaluated me based on my abilities and not my disability.”
Her work focuses primarily on building awareness for Amazon Alexa and Echo range of devices in India. “If you look at the history of consumer technology, whether it is using computers/ laptops with keyboards, or smart phones/tablets with a touchscreen interface – you have to touch the device to get things done,” Mrunmaiy explained. “However with a cloud-based voice service such as Alexa, you can ask for music, information, control smart home appliances, set up alarms and reminders and do much more with simple voice commands. This is a new way of engaging with technology. I evangelise the usage of voice technology by educating users about how Alexa works and the world of possibilities it brings with it. I do this by educating/ engaging with media and influencers that help us to reach end-users.”
Mrunmaiy loves to travel. Most weekends, you will find her taking a long drive outside the city of Bangalore with her parents. In India, most of the ‘touristy’ destinations are not wheelchair accessible, so travelling with family, especially her cousins, is an extremely fun experience because they happily lift her wheelchair to get her to where she wants to be. “That is the only way I can explore new places.”
Mrunmaiy maintains a blog where you can read her travel stories. www.mrunmaiy.com
Reminder to People with Disabilities
“I’d like to remind my fellow people with disabilities that our disabilities does not define us. It is just one aspect of who we are. Please dare to dream big and have the courage to pursue and work hard towards your goals. Living with a disability is not easy, and we cannot expect everybody to understand our challenges. Inaccessibility exists. Biases exist. Despite every limiting infrastructure, thought and barrier, have faith that you can create the life you want and live it to the fullest.
Read more about Mrunmaiy: