To mark United Nations’ International Day for Persons with Disabilities, this blog post is about para-sports, and how the people who play these experience networking and community feelings both offline and online.
Last month, between 7-11 Novmber, the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI)** hosted the country’s first ever international level tournament. It had teams from nine different countries compete and both women’s and men’s teams from India were runners-up in their respective events.
While it wasn’t possible for me to be present in New Delhi for this historic tournament, I have in the past had opportunities to watch para-athletes play different sports – Wheelchair Basketball, as well as Blind Cricket. Watching para-athletes at their training sessions and talking to both players and coaches on the sidelines between breaks has been instructive. These conversations have given me an understanding of the immense transformative changes in the life of a PWD who takes up a para-sport.
This blog post captures what I’ve learnt so far.
The benefits of playing para-sports are:
1. Immediate access to a network of teammates
who experience challenges similar to oneself. Life-long friendships are formed,
sometimes even professional collaborative associations.
2. There are crucial life-skills of teamwork and strategy that are picked up when playing sports – which can then be used when finding employment and fending for one’s livelihood.
3. In a world largely designed to exclude the needs of PWDs, players of para-sports experience a boost in confidence and self-reliance when they travel to various cities, participate in tournaments in different places and experience new cultures.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many of India’s para-sportspersons and their coaches turned to the internet to keep in touch with each other. Virtual training sessions and motivational webinars formed the crux of community interaction but the challenges of internet access faced by coaches and players who either organised or participated in such events has largely been undocumented by mainstream media.
In the absence of in-person training, there is great value in connecting with teammates virtually – whether it is participating together in a live-streamed training session, exchanging healthy recipes over a common social media platform or using an app to watch videos of past matches together in order to analyze mistakes & prepare strategy for future play. But these are exactly the sorts of experiences that are hard to have for a team of visually-impaired cricket players or a basketball team comprised of wheelchair users cooped up in their homes – more so because there is still a tendency to think of sport as a “hobby” rather than a transformative experience that teaches physical discipline develops strategic thinking skills and builds emotional resilience to take wins and losses in one’s stride. This means that device usage and a quiet space for a family member who is doing a mainstream job is prioritized over that for the para-athlete.
And while Covid-19 lockdowns in India have come to a halt, the reality of pre-pandemic problems of the para-sports community have come surging right back. In-person training facilities for para-sports are often hard to secure – for example, stadium flooring has to be conducive to wheelchairs and other assistive mobility devices; or acoustics may need to be conducive to hearing the rattle of the cricket ball used by players with vision difficulty; stadium rental for regular practice sessions is difficult to book due to a lack of funds and often rentals are by default prioritized for the training of non-para athletes whose teams generate more revenue and therefore have the capacity to pay.
So while para-sports teams and their managers continue to battle for sponsorships and equal access to on-ground training facilities, they also continue to miss out on the potential opportunities to harness skills and foster communities online. They are severely restricted to functioning in analogue while the broader sporting community (and indeed the rest of the world) routinely can and does harness the benefits of a digital life.
For instance, an internet that is
designed to ignore the needs of PWDs means that para-sportspersons find it hard
1. Comfortably access information on stadium availability schedules
2. Be able to access & use virtual training modules with ease
3. Book tickets online or plan travel for tournaments
4. Keep up with sporting news
5. Participate in virtually held strategy discussion sessions with teammates
To navigate meaningful online experiences, a para-sportsperson often finds herself/himself dependent on friends or family to access the internet & is often at the mercy of the schedules of others.
So where do we go from here?
I made a quick list of ideas. It is by no means exhaustive. However if you’d like to know about the power of sports to transform the lives of PWDs, and want to learn more, here are some things you could try to get yourself started:
- Reach out to para-sports organisations near you, ask to be in touch with some of the para-athletes
- Attend matches and tournaments –
observation helps you be more in tune with the challenges faced by teams.
- If your finances allow, offer to contribute to make practice sessions and tournaments possible.
- Begin thinking about offline and online environments and features that would make them more inclusive and welcoming spaces for everyone.
Let’s be more conscious about how we
design our environments. As any sportsperson will tell you, when we play together
as a team, we are always better for it.
** Disclosure: I donate funds to WBFI
This post is a part of “International Day of Disabled Persons” blog hop hosted by Sakshi Varma – Tripleamommy in collaboration with Bookosmia. #IDPD2022Bloghop. Access all posts of this bloghop at https://tripleamommy.com/2022/12/02/idpd2022-lets-make-this-world-a-more-inclusive-space