Visually impaired since the age of six, Preeti Monga, founder trustee and CEO of Silver Linings Foundation is an inspiration to everyone, disabled or not. The foundation works for people with disabilities and women; and even assists in recruiting and placing people with disabilities into proper jobs.
She is also a motivation speaker and life coach, corporate trainer, disability rights activist and an author and believes in having a powerful and positive personality.
Clearly, Monga lets nothing hold her back.
Excerpts from an interview.
Tell us through your experiences how a disability can affect a person’s life.
My parents discovered my visual disability when I was just six years old. But they never changed their behavior towards me after I went blind, which really was the most important part of my upbringing. In fact, as a child, I didn’t really understand blindness, so whenever I was taken to the eye doctor, my only concern was that I shouldn’t be prescribed spectacles as I didn’t want to look ugly on my wedding day.
Outside my home, however, and in school, I faced social rejection, shame, sadness and fear.
At the age of 13, when I was in class 8, I was thrown out of school just because I was blind. No other regular school wanted me and my parents tried to admit me into a school for blind girls, but it was in poor condition.
So I had no option but to learn by myself, at home. It was hard. There was no technology or other assistance available to me except the radio and my parents.
My parents were fantastic. My mother would close her own eyes to learn how it was to be blind, and develop effective ways to teach me. But life was painful and lonely, though since I did not want to hurt my parents farther, I took my bumpy life journey with fake enthusiasm till it became my second nature.
In my 20s, I started worrying about my future. What could I do? The only thing I could think of was to get married and have a great home and children.
And then I learned that no one wanted to marry me because I was blind.
So I found my own life partner, married him at age 21, and then, two hours after signing the marriage register, discovered he was a compulsive liar, an alcoholic and an abusive man.
The first five years of my married life were torturous. I had two kids, and their father turned on them too. I knew if I wanted to give them a quality life, I had to seriously do something about getting out of this mess. And that meant becoming economically independent. But how? I had a broken body, a shattered soul, no qualifications, no money and a huge disability. The only skills I possessed were being a good homemaker and a reasonably good typist.
After pondering for more than a year, it struck me that I could be an aerobics instructor. I had to almost force Veena Merchant, the lady who had brought aerobics to India, to train me as an instructor. In 1988, I became the first and only blind aerobics Instructor ever known. Then I opened my own classes in two locations in South Delhi, and they were a success.
In addition, I volunteered with a school for blind children, began to write for newspapers and magazines, started selling pickles on the street and door to door, and worked at the National Association for the Blind as a computer teacher.
My sale of pickles won me the job of marketing and sales manager in the pickles company.
What made you set up Silver Linings Foundation?
I had become a disability activist, with a burning desire to prove that disability need not really mean inability. To this end, I did awareness talks and programmes in schools, colleges, companies and wherever I could manage to get in.
This led to me being invited to various forums as a motivation speaker and I soon became a life coach and corporate leadership trainer and a consultant.
So in 2007, I founded an NGO called Silver Linings. Since I was unable to get funds for the NGO, I realised I needed a self-sustaining company to support it, and Silver Linings Synergies Pvt. Ltd, an executive search company and a training outfit, was launched in 2010. After clashes with my partner, in 2014 I set up Silver Linings Services.
What are you working on now?
We have two projects currently: ‘Fusion’ and ‘Dignity’. Fusion is a face-to-face social networking platform to bring together people with and without disabilities to build friendships, relationships and partnerships. And Dignity trains and empowers blind girls who have just finished school and need to learn social and other skills to get into the mainstream.
Who is your inspiration?
My aunt, who gently helped me adjust to my disability by reading out to me the wonderful and inspiring story of Helen Keller.
Helen Keller, who couldn’t hear, couldn’t speak, and couldn’t see. She is my biggest inspiration.
And Rajender Johar, who is completely paralysed but runs an organisation called ‘Family of The Disabled’. He started with only Rs 500, and 27 years later FOD is serving thousands of disabled people.
What are the skills women need to become successful entrepreneurs?
Very important: Believe in yourself. Women need to understand that we are equal citizens on this globe. We have equal responsibilities and equal rights. And once you start believing in yourself, do your duty no matter who says what.
Divorce the log kya kahenge attitude and move forward.
She may be blind, but she’s far from disabled. Meet Preeti Monga, founder trustee of an NGO and an executive search firm