Meet the Mach
An Indian Disability Sport Leader Builds for the Future
Like millions of young people around India, Justin Vijay Jesudas had always assumed academics would be his pathway to success.
Born and raised in the city of Tiruchirappalli, five hours south of Chennai, Justin spent little time playing sports. Instead, he focused on school, where he excelled in every class. In addition to his in-classroom success, Justin’s father, a member of the Indian Air Force, influenced him to become involved with the National Cadet Corps, where he was chosen as one of the best cadets in Tamil Nadu.
By 2009, Justin had completed his master’s degree in public administration from Madurai Kamaraj University and was thriving in the corporate world. He was a manager with Cognizant/UBS, developing market strategy and managing research and analytics for the company. He was regularly traveling overseas for important business meetings. He felt invincible.
It was that year, however, that Justin’s life unpredictably changed, as he was injured in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
For almost two years, Justin refused to believe he would never walk again. Eventually, realizing he was fighting the wrong fight, he decided to shift his mindset.
“Until then, I only focused over my disability and the part of my body I had no control over—my legs,” Justin says. “I wasn’t focusing on the parts of my body that I could still use. My parents and wife were taking care of me around the clock, and I didn’t want that for them anymore. I decided I was going to become stronger and become independent again.”
For Justin, the vehicle for achieving independence became sports. He began lifting weights at home, and was soon transferring himself in and out of his wheelchair and driving again. Filled with new confidence, he tried wheelchair basketball, then one day nervously decided to visit the local swimming pool.
“In the back of my mind, I kept telling myself that as long as I held my breath I could float,” Justin laughs. “When the lifeguards saw me, they were wondering what to do with me. They put me in the water with a floater around my waist and after five minutes I took it off.
Justin’s life as a swimmer took off from there, and soon afterward he was competing at the state Para swim championships, winning four gold medals in his classification. In 2015, he won three golds at the Can-An Swimming Championships in Toronto and finished in the top 20 swimmers at the IPC World Championship in Glasgow, Scotland. Swimming served as a launching pad for Justin to become involved in shooting again. He is now competing to earn a spot in para shooting at Tokyo 2020.
Justin believes that his own experiences testify to sport’s power to allow people with disabilities to live full and worthwhile lives, especially after traumatic injury.
“Sports allow you to reenter society with absolute confidence,” Justin says. “You don’t have to feel ashamed. It gives you courage to face society as who you are. And, unlike music or art, the added advantage of sport is that it keeps you physically fit.”
In addition to his athletic career, Justin serves as a director for The Spinal Foundation, where he develops sports programs focused on promoting individual independence and giving people with spinal cord injuries access to pursue competitive careers. He also volunteers with The Ganga Foundation and continues serving as an associate director with Cognizant, where he has worked since before his accident.
Despite his own successes, Justin emphasizes that life in India can be very challenging for people with disabilities. When he travels outside of his home—the city center, the mall, or beaches—he rarely sees another person in a wheelchair. According to the last Indian census in 2011, 2 percent of population has some form of disability—approximately 27 million people—though Justin believes these are conservative numbers.
Outside of large-scale inaccessibility, strong attitudinal discrimination in India keeps people with disabilities from becoming empowered. People with disabilities, whether they are educated or athletic, are often pitied and seen as incapable.
“Despite this, if you look at our performance at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, our disabled athletes won more medals than our Olympians,” Justin says. “This is a clear statement that we have all the potential to be successful.”
As he joined the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Justin worked to instill his vision for establishing a center for sports excellence in his community. This center will be the first of its kind in Tamil Nadu, and will be accessible and inclusive, providing competitive and grassroots sports tracks to serve a diverse community of individuals. On the program, he worked with mentors Karin Korb and Amy Rauworth from the Lakeshore Foundation, a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training site and one of the premiere centers using sport for rehabilitation, recreation and competition. With the expertise of mentors who are familiar with all the aspects that go into building successful adaptive sports programming, Justin is one step closer to seeing his dream become a reality, and to building a bridge between the U.S. and India.