When a freak shooting accident made Rajendar Johar a quadriplegic, this one-time occupation therapist rose like a phoenix from the flames of his former life to become a great humanist and social worker, says Jamuna Rangachari
There are some people whose purpose in life appears to be to redefine the word impossible for themselves and others. One such is Rajendra Johar. His life is hinged on a supreme irony. “I, an occupational therapist who helped the sick get back on their feet, became reduced to a quadriplegic state through a freak shooting accident,” he observes, wryly.
The freak shooting accident that he refers to was in March 1986. Intruders fired at him in his house, which they had come to loot. For challenging them, Rajinder Johar got a bullet in his chest, but the real damage was caused by another one on his spine leaving him paralysed from the neck downwards. The doctors had told him he was 100 per cent disabled and would not be able to do much with his life. As it happens, that prediction could be considered to be famous last words.
For six years after his accident, he remained deeply depressed. After that, something within woke up and took charge. “On my own, I evaluated my condition and decided to do something, instead of resigning myself to the end of the world,” he says with a palpable passion. Once he began, he was hard to stop. For one thing, there was born in him a deep urge to reach out to others like him, condemned to live outside the mainstream. He longed to empower them, and give them the strength they needed to take back the reins of their lives.
First, he needed a suitable pen. He went to several places, hospitals, NGOS, therapists and asked all of them what device he could use. There was nothing available. Ultimately, it was his brother, Surinder, who invented a device that could be attached on his shoulder and enabled him to write.
With this and the minimal support of volunteers and well-wishers, he founded The Voice, which in 1992 was one of India’s few magazines on disability. The Voice shut down after 20 years of publication and has been replaced by a quarterly called The Fodder that contains news, snippets, cartoons, jokes and inhouse developments of his ‘new family’.
His ‘new family’ is linked by an NGO he founded and registered in 1992 called the Family of Disabled (FOD) to help disabled people to the maximum extent possible. To access such people, he contacted hospitals and resource centres for information on the disabled, and drew in those who responded into the warmth of his family circle. Knowing how easy it was to give in to despair, he ensured people received a fresh lease of life through counselling, group activities, promotion of individual talents, cultural events, news on medical advancements and, in some cases, monetary help too.
Now, the foundation offers services like self-employment under Apna Rozgaar Scheme, sponsorship of the education of disabled students, distribution of aids for the disabled, and promotion of disabled artists and artisans. It works with persons with all kinds of disabilities, the physically disabled, hearing impaired, visually impaired and leprosy-cured people.
In 2001, he started Beyond Limits, a show of disabled folks’ artworks with just about a dozen people, which has now grown by more than three times. In 2004, he also began an initiative that collects waste material from people and recycles them. In all his initiatives, the aim has been to spread awareness and get some monetary help for ‘his Family’.
“What the Family does is to instil self-esteem and the feeling that a disabled can be of use to society. In short, it promotes positive thinking,” he says. Lots of volunteers help in whichever way they can and some have even opened centres of the NGO. “I joined FOD in 2011, immediately after my retirement. My needs have reduced and I am fully content with what I have,” says Gulshan Rai Malhotra, who operates the centre in Gurgaon.
He says with verve, “One day, not very far off, we shall indeed make everyone more aware of all that the disabled can do.” Slowly but surely, Johar and his family’s efforts are paying off. FOD was featured on Aamir Khan’s TV show, Satyamev Jayate in 2012, and the public donated Rs 88 lakhs. The Reliance Foundation, which sponsored the show, matched the amount. Although a stupendous amount, Dr Johar was equally excited about the fact that someone had even donated a single rupee after the show.
This financial support has enabled him to restart one of the long-cherished projects of the organisation which was to build a multipurpose centre for the disabled in Delhi. “At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done. Then they see it can be done. Then it is done, and the entire world wonders why it was not done before,” Dr Rajendar Johar says, quoting the impresario, Arindam Choudhary, on the journey of his life.
The quote epitomises all that he has achieved in his life despite his physical challenges. How many of us, with all our faculties intact, can claim to soar so far above the survival needs of the ego and focus selflessly on the larger good? Dr Rajendra Johar shows us one can achieve anything regardless of our challenges, if we never give up on our dreams.