The primary force behind the APD is undoubtedly Ms. N H Hema. With both legs and one arm significantly paralysed as a result of Polio in childhood, Hema herself was wheelchair-bound. But while she was mobile, it was not without difficulty. She recalls how obtaining a wheelchair itself was a grand task. Back in 1955, when she was just 17-years-old, her father, N S Ayyangar visited England, where he saw a three-wheeled scooter. However, every effort to find one in Bangalore, or have one made, met with disappointment. Even the Red Cross Home for paraplegics from the armed forces, which was already making tricycles for the army, could not find a way to make one for a civilian. On her visit to the Red Cross Home, one of the residents, N D Diwan, let her try out his tricycle. She found it so liberating that she went to the Home almost every day to repeat the experience. It became clear that one had to be obtained somehow. So, an uncle in England was pressed into service, and in 1955 a tricycle arrived from there, “Like a Rolls Royce in my life” is how Hema describes it now. It was hand-propelled, and could go at an amazing 30 kms an hour, given a good wind and a decent road.
Just like the wheelchair, she had to put in a fight to get other desires fulfilled too. And it is this struggle for acceptance and dignity as a disabled person in her youth that motivated her to set up an organization for the disabled. The roots of APD can be traced back to the meetings that Hema used to organize; where disabled people would share their experiences, talk about their hopes and problems and more than anything else, enjoy their rare social outing. However the feeling grew that, good as it was to meet, it was not enough. There was divergent thinking which, if not acknowledged and assimilated, could end in wasted effort and fatal division. 2 regular members of the group, Thomas and Diwan, were teachers; they had dreams of a school for disabled children. Another member, Lakshmi Menon, had brought in orthopaedic surgeons, who were inevitably keen to start some sort of medical center. Hema herself dreamed of economic independence for disabled people – as she had seen a flourishing workshop in Bombay. Somehow these differing strands had to be accommodated and given appropriate expression. After eight months of meeting, despite the divergent aims among its members, the formal inauguration of APD took place in the form of a training center, on 14th September 1959. It is from this date APD traces its history.
But it has been a chequered history none the less. Over the years, Hema has faced all kinds of obstacles – from convincing the disabled to earn a respectable living rather than beg (which was a fruitful option as in its initial years, APD had not gotten a firm footing on marketing its abilities), to scouting for old furniture – rugs, cushions, chairs – any throwout that could be used at the office, to stitching and re-stitching old clothes for uniforms for children whose parents could not afford the same. But she overcame all these obstacles and more. In fact, in time, not just Hema’s but dreams of all the founding members were realized in some form or another, although not while all of the dreamers still lived.