After a tragic accident in 2011 that led to her left leg being amputated, former software engineer Manasi Joshi took to badminton as a form of rehabilitation, having played the sport since she was six years of age. Steadily rising the ranks in para-badminton championships ever since, Joshi made history in 2019 when she won her first gold at the BWF Para-Badminton World Championships 2019 in Basel, Switzerland, taking down defending champion Parul Parma. Adding to her list of recent laurels, the athlete recently became the second Indian woman—joining the likes of Frida Kahlo, Naomi Osaka, and Dipa Karmakar—in having a one-of-a-kind Barbie doll fashioned after her. The doll was launched by the American manufacturer Barbie on the occasion of International Day of Girl Child (October 11) to celebrate the sports star as a role model for girls across the globe.
In a time when we are struggling to make sense of the senselessness that plagues our world, the para-badminton athlete is a delightful breath of fresh air. Why? Because Manasi Joshi is real. She doesn’t sugarcoat her answers, but the purity and positivity with which she does answer is way sweeter than any sugar. “I’m resilient and adaptive,” she says, matter-of-fact, in response to how she has coped with a bike accident nine years ago where she lost her leg. Understandably, she went through the natural process of anger and sadness, but soon enough she realised that the incident was not in her control, and yet her recovery totally was. It was a chapter in her life that she quickly accepted and made the most of by seeing how strong she could become with only one leg. Her physical rehab made her rediscover her childhood love for badminton, and in little time Manasi’s sheer dedication and grit made her a para-badminton World Champion.
And then this happened. “I got a call and was told that Time magazine wanted me on their cover as a next-generation leader, and two days later I was told that a Barbie doll was going to be modelled on me… prosthetic leg and all.” This was big. Committed to shining a light on empowering role models, Barbie introduced Manasi’s Shero doll along with inspiring athletes from around the globe, and Time touted her as one of ten trailblazers forging new paths, crossing boundaries, and creating a positive change. “It all happened together and this recognition makes me feel so great… great that I can make a change.” Manasi seems to have accepted her new-found fame as an inspirational force, with a sense of innocence and responsibility.
“I’ve taken on such a big responsibility unknowingly on my shoulders… I chose to play badminton for myself and only kept pushing myself to see how strong I could become. I never knew people would be so inspired by me,” she says with pride, but more so with a sense of obligation. It’s clear to Manasi that recognitions from institutions like Time and Mattel will help focus attention on the plight of so many more differently-abled people and can steer society to demonstrate empathy and celebrate inclusivity.
Manasi is quick to understand that she needs to make the most of her situation. The skeptic in me can’t help but wonder how anyone could make a career out of something barely anyone knows about. Pat comes her reply, “Yeah, I know all this is fine, but I need to figure how to monetise this so I can work on it full time. If I pursue para-badminton and can make a proper career from it, it will be quite mind-blowing… you see, the recognition will help so many people who are not even acknowledged because of their disability.”
It all may seem a little ambitious given that we have a long way to go in educating a population about the needs of differently-abled people, let alone make a sea change in our system. But if there’s one thing that Manasi will not let go of, it’s this goal. “Maybe it’s a distant dream to see the world as one that embraces inclusion regardless of anything, but I want to be someone who can contribute to this dream.”
And I truly hope Manasi’s dream comes true. Inclusion is something that must be championed, more so by resilient champions like her. It’s time to celebrate a new Barbie, prothetic leg and all, because for me and the world at large, Manasi Joshi’s inclusion in it, makes it a much more inspiring place to live in.