Gautam Lewis

Old Bedalian and Founder and Director of Freedom In the Air

What is your current role?

Founder and Director – Freedom In the Air

Freedom in the Air (FITA) is a not-for-profit organisation that is committed to opening horizons for people with disabilities so that they can fly higher socially, physically and professionally. It is a privilege to be able to introduce a disabled person to the freedom of flight and the boundless possibilities it offers up.

Learning to fly rebuilds confidence and restores self-esteem. This, in turn, empowers people to explore their potential by extending their personal boundaries. In the air, we all fly at the same speed; nobody is disadvantaged or disabled.

We are working with Cranfield University of Aerospace to make flying easier and more inclusive for pilots with limited lower limb disabilities, thanks to a new portable handheld device for rudder control. Its sole use is to allow full rudder and steering authority on the ground and in the air, removing the need for legs and feet.

In what way did your time at Bedales influence your education and career progression?

My time at Bedales inspired me to do all sorts of things. Like lots of Bedalians, we all have something very unique about our personality that lets us do things that perhaps others might not consider doing. There was always a “can do attitude” amongst all the teaching staff who guided me. If I had ideas in Art, Design or extra curriculum activities, my teachers always found a way to support my ideas and help realise them. I would often spend hours just sitting with teachers not necessarily talking about school subjects but chatting about anything.  
As one of two people with disabilities during my time at Bedales, I was never considered to have a disability, in terms of how I was defined and who I was. This by default made me stronger and nurtured my own way of looking at my disability. In a positive way. Bedales taught me a lot about independence, being self resilient, have dreams and ambitions. Of course all this was enhanced by all my friends across all years.

What is your fondest memory of Bedales?

There are too many to pick one – but they all revolve around the feeling of having freedom, being in a safe place with great friends. Sitting on the orchard, being a dorm boss with great people, being naughty and trying to get away with it. I think it is the people I will think fondly of. Be it the kitchen staff, to the grounds keeping team, to the reception team and finally to the teachers and friends I made and still have. There are no strangers at Bedales, only friends.

What is your favourite pastime?

Flying Aeroplanes.

What is your proudest achievement?

Helping to save lives in India through my work in Public Health Campaigns, focusing on immunisation against preventable disease, such as polio. This is with UNICEF, WHO and Rotary International. My life with polio started when I was a small boy in India aged about 18 months, of the poor, industrial twin city of Kolkata & Howrah. Having been abandoned at three years old after contracting polio I was taken to Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity where I stayed for years before having a further two years of operations at the Rehabilitation Centre for Children (RCFC) just outside the city.

When I was nine, my mother and I arrived in London. Here, schooling began at Hill House, followed by Bedales - a stark contrast for the boy who had once boarded with, and was one of, India’s poorest children.

Call it ‘full circle’ to be able to do what I can to make sure that many will go on to live happy and productive lives, having been spared the cruel, lifelong consequences of polio that I know so well. To think that I may have saved some lives and prevented some people living with post-polio paralysis through my vaccinations that day makes me very proud.

Year of leaving Bedales:

1995