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Freedom!

March 19, 2003 14:55 IST

Freedom!

Eight-year-old Ambrose got down from the school bus with his mother's help. He suffers from cerebral palsy and cannot walk or stand on his own. He is a bright mind trapped in a disobedient body.

The moment Ambrose saw a lady standing near the bus, his face lit up. He lunged forward, hugged Elizabeth Herridge tightly and refused to let go until he was made to sit on his wheelchair.

Elizabeth Herridge, wife of British Deputy High Commissioner for south India Michael Herridge, looked on as Ambrose touched the sides of his wheelchair several times and laughed. He was particular proud of his name, painted prominently on it and decorated with pictures of butterflies and flowers.

Ambrose's wheelchair was made especially for him by a prisoner at Garth Prison, Leyland, Lancashire, UK.

If Ambrose remained at home while his friends ran around playing a week ago, today he is merrily exploring his surroundings in his wheelchair. He is a much happier child and tells every passer-by in an ebullient, if not very clear, manner that his wheelchair is "superb."

Elizabeth Herridge's involvement with the physically handicapped began with her voluntary work at the Andhra Mahila Sabha, a voluntary, non-profit, non-government organisation which runs a residential school for polio-afflicted children of poor parents, a vocational rehabilitation centre for girls and a sheltered workshop-cum-school for mentally retarded boys in Chennai.

It used to take 13-year-old Rakesh half-an-hour to crawl from his room to her hour-long English class.

"He never gave up. He was so determined to learn that he somehow managed to reach me. That was when I felt he needed a wheelchair. But I found it extremely difficult to get a soft wheelchair here in India," says Elizabeth.

It took her three months to organise a wheelchair from Germany.

That was three years ago. To her horror, she soon discovered there were many people who needed the freedom wheelchairs could give them. "In the UK, all those who need wheelchairs have one. They are made to requirement since the person using them spends a lot of his or her time in that chair. I was shocked to see so many people practically immobile here because they could not afford a wheelchair."

She paid for Rakesh's wheelchair from her own pocket, but was unsure how to help the others. How many wheelchairs could she afford to buy? Then, a friend told her about refurbished wheelchairs made by prison inmates at Garth.

Elizabeth made a trip to England to visit the prison. "How many wheelchairs are you going to ask for? Three? Four?" her husband asked. Elizabeth surprised herself by asking for 100 wheelchairs! Garth agreed.

Back in India, she identified 100 children and personally took their measurements. The list, and their photographs, were sent to Garth. When the custom-made wheelchairs were ready, she faced another problem: how was she to transport them to India?

British Airways stepped in and transported them for free.

Elizabeth, who is in the third year of her mission, has helped 350 people get their own wheelchairs. The Garth prison inmates now make wheelchairs exclusively for her. She regularly sends back photographs of the children in their new wheelchairs and their happy messages to the prisoners at Garth.

This year, the UK-based Inside Out Trust acquired 125 wheelchairs for Elizabeth. After the prisoners refurbished them, they were transported to India by UK-based BAE Systems. The cost of the wheelchairs was borne by Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited transported them from Bangalore to Chennai.

Elizabeth says with a twinkle in her eyes, "I give the wheelchair to a child, he looks bewildered for a moment and, in the next second, he is gone! He is enjoying freedom of movement for the first time in his life."

Her biggest success is a boy called Manikantan. Though six, he was a tiny fellow who confined himself to a corner. Everybody ignored him. It was his "beautiful smile" that grabbed Elizabeth's attention. In no time, she arranged a wheelchair for him.

For the first time, Manikantan wheeled himself to Elizabeth's classroom with a book tucked into his chair. For the first time, he didn't have to look up at the others. Instead, he looked into their eyes and chattered happily. "From then on, he was confidence personified," says a proud Elizabeth.

Manikantan flashes a disarming smile at all those who visit him. "I am happy," he says. "Very, very happy."

Radhika's brother Marimuthu could walk till a year ago. Now, he is immobilised by a rare, incurable, progressive disease called Morquios. The same fate awaits Radhika. Nobody knows how much longer she can use her legs. They stay at the Andhra Mahila Sabha because their parents are poor and cannot afford to treat the children.

"After I gave wheelchairs and hearing aids to both children, they are spinning off all the time. They are very special to me because they are always smiling. When they first saw the wheelchairs, they didn't want to use them here because they felt they would spoil them! They asked me if they could they take them home instead. I gave them a pair to be used at home and a pair for use here," says Elizabeth.

Once, while driving through Chennai, she noticed a man with no legs under a tree. He moved around on a skateboard, even darting across busy roads on it. Angamuthu used to work as a watchman till he was run over by a jeep. He lost both his legs in the accident.

Elizabeth organised a wheelchair for him.

Now, Angamuthu can barely remain still. He is exploring the city once again, making up for years of immobility. "I do not know whether he believed me when I promised him a wheelchair. I took his measurements six months ago. But when the wheelchair finally came, he was so delighted that his eyes filled with tears. Now I cannot locate him at all. But his happiness and his not being there under the tree on that road makes me really happy," says Elizabeth

She confesses she has become very ambitious about her project. "We will leave Chennai in June. Sometimes, I wonder what will happen then. It is not easy to organise work here when you are away. I need someone here to take the measurements. I need sponsors. I just cannot leave this work behind, unfinished. I will come back. I will definitely come back."

Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

Shobha Warrier