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By Rishika Mendiratta (Founder and Managing Editor at KhelAdhikar)
Not a disabled athlete, simply an athlete– Oscar Pistorious
Sports is a great equalizer and can be the primary vehicle to help India reach its destination of an inclusive society. Through sports, athletes experience equality, freedom and a dignifying means for empowerment. Sports becomes an alternative which is almost unique in their lives. Access to and participation in sport and physical education provide an opportunity to experience social inclusion for people otherwise marginalized by social, cultural or religious barriers caused by disability. Therefore when the disabled athletes receive medals, they are viewed by many people, including policy makers, as heroes who have overcome adversity. Gradually with each athlete’s experience, there comes a lasting legacy of attitudes changed and an ability to welcome and accept that which is different. The Khelo India initiative has been initiated to provide people with a platform to become better humans. The inclusion of disability sports in one of the twelve verticals of the Khelo India programme raises hope for the future. We are slowly moving to the paradigm of “kheloge to banoge lajawab” as the defining factor of our prospective inclusive society. This article attempts to analyse the status and the role of the disabled athletes in the country and the possible impact it can have in making the world’s largest democracy, the most inclusive country as well.
Consider this, “What will be the first thing you do if have to go to a flat on the 4th floor of a six storey building and the lift became dysfunctional?” The normal reaction nowadays involves cribbing, reconsidering the choice to go to the 4th floor and then again cribbing while climbing the stairs.
When for the privileged able-bodied section of the society climbing stairs seems like a herculean task, why are the disabled not given the basic facility of ramps in the public places? When it comes to sports, there is only one Center for Excellence for Disabled Athletes in the Country in Gandhinagar (Gujarat) which was also established in 2017.Unfortunately the sports infrastructure for the disabled in India is not only deficient in terms of accessibility of grounds and sporting equipment but also the rudimentary facilities such as sanitary facilities in the stadiums are not disabled friendly. To top it all, there is only a miniscule percentage of schools in the country who are actually providing facilities for disabled athletes. If the schools do not become inclusive then as a logical corollary the Khelo India School games will also not be able to become inclusive which primarily rely on the bottom-to-top approach. This in turn will again become an impediment in the aim for an inclusive environment of the sports in particular and the society in general.
But are adequate measures being taken?
Addressing Dalits as Harijans did not automatically make the society less divisive for them. It was certainly an attempt to change the pattern of inclusiveness for the shunned section of the society. Whether such a methodology was successful is a matter of individual perception, although the Dalit lynching incidences even in 2018 tell their own story. In India as per the census of 2011, 2.21% of the Indian population i.e. disabled 26.8 million is disabled. Therefore the mere rechristening of the disabled as “Divyaang” has to be followed by executory policy changes to assure that it is not a mere PR tactic for media recollection.
Even today the disabled athletes are treated as second-class citizens. The situation holds true even at the international level. As there was no centralised media coverage for the Rio Paralympics, 2016, Britain had to send their own media channels to capture the events. These incidences show how we still have a very long way to go from apathy to empathy for the disabled athletes. It is an undisputed fact that playing any sport at the international level is in itself a challenge. This is multiplied when you are a disabled athlete. This is because a disabled athlete competes not only against the opponent but also against societal barriers.
The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities only has the responsibility for the development of Special Schools. The other schools come under the Human Resources Department. There is no mention of specific allocation of funds for taking initiative for making the schools more inclusive. There is no specific mention of allocation of any funds by the Human Resource Department for inclusive development of the schools. In such a scenario of regulatory fragmentation, the government has no structured framework for improving access to sports facilities for the disabled in India.
Section 30 of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (The Disability Act) provides for appropriate action by the State Government for the development of disabled sports in the state. The deficiency of visible efforts by the states for the implementation of this provision speaks volumes of the seriousness given to the “Divyaang” in India. The Disability Act was enacted in the year 2016 but till now various states have not yet notified the rules. As we croon over the incentives of the National Health Protection Scheme announced during the Budget Speech, 2018, the Divaang again are left high and dry as no money is released for the Swavlamban Health Insurance Scheme launched in 2015.
Can we afford this kind of neglect by the government towards the disabled sportsperson in the country?
The answer lies in the struggles of the disabled athletes. Deepa Malik, India’s one of the most coveted disabled athletes of all times has raised concern over the quality of coaches. As per her, there are not even specialised coaches for disabled athletes in India, while other countries provide for a trained staff with medical assistance for at international competition. In the Para Swimming Championships which were held, in 2017 in Berlin, the athlete Kanchamala Pande’s appointed coach never showed up with her for any matches or practices. Shiva Prasad, is a wheelchair tennis player. He represented India in Malaysia Open as well as the Bangkok Cup 2016. He does not have any coach to train him and no funds to have access to private coaching. Thus he trains himself by watching the videos of other WheelChair tennis players. His dedication also resonates the sorry state of affairs disability sports in India, As per the Paralympian Devendra Jhajhria, the Central government has been taking some measures but the states have not been replicating these at the regional level.
I’ll rise up
I’ll rise unafraid
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again (Rise Up – By Andra Day)
The normative standard of an inclusive society is considered to be the ultimate destination of any policy initiative of the disabled in the country. These goals appear to be a mere chimera in light of superficial attention given in the budgetary allocation by the government for the year 2018-2019. The allocation for the Khelo India Games has increased to Rs. 1943 from Rs.1542 crores but the allocation for disability sports has been reduced to a paltry sum of Rs. 1 Lakh from the Rs. 4 crore allotted previously. The incorporation of disability sports under the ambit of Khelo India is given as the reason for this segregation. If this rationale is to be accepted as a valid justification, then keeping a namesake separate fund for disability sports raises several questions. The national federation and the state governments have been long infamous for their unequal treatment of the disabled athletes. Saheb Hussian, 5 time winner of Senior National Para Athletics Championship could not participate in international tournaments because of inadequacy of funds. This deprived him from qualifying for participating in the Rio Paralympics in 2016. He won a gold in T12 disqualification category by finishing the race in 11.44 seconds. The timing of the bronze winner Paralympics 2016 in the same category was 11.39. The neglect of disabled sports, cost a deserving player to showcase his mastered athletic prowess and the country lost a chance of a potential medal.
The only disability is the inability to see ability – Vikas Khanna
Funding has been a big hurdle for disabled athletes. For participation in Paralympics there is a mandatory requirement to participate in international competitions. As there is no government and federation support, the determined athletes have taken to crowdfunding initiatives. Even the Paralympian Deepa Malik had to resort to such means along with motivational lectures to raise money for her participation. Mohammed Farooq, is a wheelchair badminton and table tennis player and cricket who has participated and won several medals in various international events, all at his personal expense. Running from pillar to post for coaching and funds turned out to be a futile exercise for him. Being a rickshaw driver while managing his family and passion for sport became difficult for him, he was shunned at the entrance of the Secretariat of the Chief Minister’s office and had to resort to public funding. This comes after the harrowing experience of another disabled athlete Kanchanmala Pande, who had to beg and borrow in Berlin during the Para Swimming Championships, 2017. This happened as the sanctioned funds did not reach her. The Paralympics Committee of India and Sports Authority of India conveniently blamed each other and evaded responsibility for the incident. Still determined as she was, she qualified for the Championship getting laurels for the country that could not even fund her basic expenses.
It is time the government and the citizens rise above using their casual sports fanaticism to pride in selective nationalistic fervour.
Making Sports Accessible For All should be the vanguard of the Accessible India initiative. For example to recuperate from the social distress after the humanitarian crisis in the Sukma District of Chattishgarh, United Children’s Fund (UNICEF) started an initiative of Khel Mitrons, where the volunteers are playmates of children, educating them through sports and related activities. This is because sports inculcates respect and appreciation of the differential qualities. It builds the power of tolerance and fosters the spirit of mutual existence. This ultimately transforms into social capital generation which has the power of transforming the country into an all-embracing society.
Beauty lies in the strength of the beheld –Sheryl Rebeca
The insufficiency of the governmental efforts has been counterbalanced by individual and non-governmental organisation initiatives. Para Sports Foundation, is a not for profit organisation that conceptualised the concept of Wheelchair Cricket in India and, the first ever Wheelchair, T-20 Cricket league was held in 2017. In a cricket frenzy nation such as India, wherein we are winning accolades even in the Blind Cricket Tournament, this kind of an initiative was a silver lining for other disabled athletes. They finally experienced playing the sport they enjoyed so much.
Deepa Malik has also founded an organisation, “Wheeling Happiness” to support disabled athletes. Other initiatives also include organisation of Sports Day for the Disabled Children by organisation such as Concern India Foundation and Secure Giving Organisation. To see disabled kids going from “Sir Nahi Hoga” to putting their efforts and crossing the finish line amidst all the public support and cheer is certainly reflective of the inclusive society we aspire to be a part of. Another novel initiative was kick-started by Mission Smile of publishing an Amputee Calendar as part of its Rising Above Project. The organisation Adventure Beyond Barriers has come up with a befitting example of an all-encompassing project for disabled athletes. It has started India’s first blind sighted cycling expedition which has participation from tandem pairs (with each having a visually-impaired cyclist) in their journey from Manali to Khardung La. Such initiatives exemplify the beauty of an inclusive society. Turning Wheels is another disabled friendly project, where Planet Abled (A travel agency for the disabled) started a travel series that captured the trip of the disabled from Delhi to Goa. This was a one of its kind experience as it captured the blissfulness of life which we all forget to appreciate in our egotistic views of perfection of the human body. Another NGO ADAPT (Able Disabled All People Together) has collaborated with the Goa Tourism Department to make the beaches accessible to the people with disabilities.
Nothing about us, without us- Motto of the Disability Rights Movement Worldwide
It had been the constant lament as the sports organisation and the sports ministry were always headed by the politicians rather than former athletes and coaches. The dismal state of affairs of governance of the Paralympics Committee is evidenced by its suspension three times over the past 10 years. Finally, in 2017 Acche Din (Good Days) came for the Indian Sports when the mantle of Sports Ministry for the first time was given to Colonel Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore (India’s first ever individual Olympic medallist). This could certainly be a harbinger of the much needed change even in the category of disability sports.
When disability in general is perceived in India to be a handicap, whether improvement in opportunities in sports can provide the desired impetus that for the much-needed change?
The answer in my personal opinion is yes. The success of Devendra Jhajharia, Mariyappan Thangavelu and Deepa Malik in Paralympics brought disability sport to the limelight. This also changed the perspective of the government. Khel Ratna, the highest sporting honour had never been given to any disabled athlete before 2017. Devendra Jhajharia became the first recipient of this laurel in the previous year. This is an encouraging factor because when sport at the highest level becomes accessible, there is a hope for other similarly placed people to overcome societal obstacles. The Government and media recognition of their wins instils a belief that disabled people can be successful not only in sport but also in their life.
“Pursuing sports has given me a new identity. I was tired of people looking at me with sympathy. I wanted to prove a point that not being able to walk does not change anything. I am still alive and kicking. All these awards and recognitions have helped me to erase that ‘disability’ part from my personality” Deepa Malik
Being a women in India has its own set of social challenges. Equality for women in the society is still a work in progress. Even in sports, a comparison between the male and female sport evidences the inequality in the pay scales, media coverage and sponsorship opportunities. The recent disparity in the BCCI contracts for males and female cricketers speaks volumes about the scenario of being a women sportsperson in the country. But if you are disabled women then the societal pressures are manifold. If a disabled women wants to pursue sports, this situation gets tougher. In 2012, out of the slot of 10 Paralympians which India was allotted, no women was considered. This being solely a merit based decision comes seems highly presumptuous. Recently there have been studies which show that there is a social rather than medical perspective on disability. The social view shows us that people with disabilities are less restricted by their own impairments than by the barriers put on them by the society. Beti Padhao needs its counterpart in Khelo Beti so that women in general and disabled in particular have a level playing field in the country.
In Rights of People with Disabilities Act 2016, there was a paradigm shift when the focus of the Act shifted from social welfare to human rights. The main objects that the act seeks to achieve include non-discrimination, full and effective participation and inclusion in society, respect for difference and acceptance of disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity, equality of opportunity, accessibility, equality between men and women, respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities, and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities. Another milestone of The disability Act is the provision of a specific section dedicated for the protection of the disabled athletes. The primary step now should be the enactment of the rules by the states to ensure the proper implementation of the legislative objective.
There have been talks about the integration of Paralympics with Olympics. Whether such a move is necessary towards the inclusiveness of the sports?
The answer cannot be a definite yes as a separate identity for the Paralympics may be more beneficial for the societal awareness of the athletes. But such a policy has been a success in the case of Commonwealth Games which became completely inclusive in the year 2002. The 2018 games, have set a new benchmark with equal number of events and medals for the men and women category, which has raised the bar of inclusivity and equality.India could consider making school games itself inclusive in an attempt to bring inclusivity at the grassroot level. This could later be implemented for other national and international events.
Sport can create hope where once there was only despair- Nelson Mandela
Internationally Ukraine is considered to be the kindest country because of its policy on the disability athletes. It has a policy called as InvaSport. The policy is a distinctive initiative as it is aimed at creating one sporting school for the disabled children at every region. This helps in empowering them, enhances their confidence and also helps in their rehabilitation. There are specific training centres which are exclusively dedicated for the training of para-athletes. This has worked wonders for the nation. In 2016 Rio Paralympics it secured a third position in the medal tally, above the United States.
India could consider this as an example and work towards the establishment of a National Policy for Para sports.
The Grass is not always greener on the other side. It’s greenest where you water it.-James Fratzke
The NDA government has also taken some proactive steps to ensure the development of the disabled athletes in the country. Khelo India, the flagship programme of the Government was revamped in 2017. There are 12 major verticals to be addressed by the programme and one of them is focused on persons with disabilities. It provides for financial assistance to the disabled athletes on a case to case basis. Even the pension scheme for the Paralympians will not be at par with the able –bodied athletes. The aim of the scheme is to ensure that funds will be utilised for classification of athletes, and setting up or supporting Specialised Sports Training Centres for people with disabilities.
India can move towards the path of holistic inclusivity by increasing awareness along with accessibility. This could be by increasing the media coverage of the disabled sports. This will eventually also increase the sponsorship for them as it will increase their recollection in the minds of the consumers. Another worthwhile government effort in 2018 to pave way for the inclusion of the ‘persons with disabilities’ has been to introduce a chapter on differently-abled sportspersons in the school curriculum from 2019 onwards. Other measures could include making schools more disabled friendly and making the process of inclusiveness participatory by making it mandatory for school children to at least experience playing one disabled sports. We not only have to let them become a part of us but also simultaneously become a part of their struggles and lives to celebrate their existences just like any of ours. This is because there is no short term fix but only a long term investment of changing attitudes.
It is time that we rise above the super-scrip stereotype wherein only the success of the glorified few is appreciated. Efforts should be made to make the society an all-embracing place wherein their success normalises and equalises the perception of the disabled people as an integral part of the society.
Let’s hope that the World’s largest democracy sets an example for the world to be more inclusive. Let us do our parts by embracing the concept of oneness and interconnectedness of our beings. Let us reach out to them and help in overcoming the stigma associated with disabilities. Let’s make Khel Khel mein badlo duniya a reality.