Sports can be a great equalizer in life, but civil society, corporates, the media and the government must all collaborate, in the case of people living with a disability, to make this possible. Creating an enabling environment leading to more societal inclusion and further participation in sports by differently abled persons was the theme of a recent conference (March 25, 2014) that I attended and spoke at in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. Organized by Choice International (an organisation based in the UK with members of Indian origin), Yes We Too Can and Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu the conference featured speakers and participants from the Indian government, e.g. the Paralympic Swimming Association of Tamil Nadu, Youth Welfare and Sports Development Department, Chennai Metro Rail, an international (Indian) athlete Joby Mathew, corporates such as Tata Consulting Service, NASSCOM, ITC Grand Chola, representatives from the Indian Army, as well as a variety of differently abled people. If India, a country with 1.2 billion people, of which, according to the 2011 census has 30,000,000 differently abled persons, although this figure is probably close to four times this number based on World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, can lead the way, other countries in this region would have a remarkable example to follow and/or adapt. This has huge potential implications for creating inclusion, not only for the differently abled, but also for any person/group who feels left out of the mainstream.
Developing further awareness among corporates, regarding the issues facing those living with a disability was a point raised repeatedly by representatives from this sector. ITC and some other corporates have gone beyond this, hiring persons living with disability enabling livelihoods development, i.e. a life fulfilled with independence and dignity. This however, begs the question as to how many persons living with disability throughout India are in higher level corporate positions or on a more basic level how many persons out of upwards of 100 million people, a more realistic estimate of the differently abled, actually have gainful employment? However, I was very impressed with the caliber of those living with a disability who I met and the types of positions which they were in.
In my estimation, language, although people can point to semantics, continues to reinforce stereotypes, e.g. people at the conference referred to "them" and used the word "normal" to differentiate between so called able bodied and those with disabilities. Whenever I hear someone talk about something which they consider to be "normal" I tend to ask the question, what does this mean, i.e. if I'm considered this, then is anyone else in the world really "normal". We tend to use language to keep others at a distance, referring to "us" and "them" as opposed to "we". People may not mean to create separation, but in fact we do when we talk about "them" or "they" without specifying who we are describing. These words haunt me when I attend conferences dealing with people, as I hear people using you or me or us and them; rather than finding a way to say "we". Using these words keeps the creation of inclusive societies at bay.
Accessibility is a large issue in this part of the world; if a person with a physical disability is unable to travel or get into a government building, how are they to receive services, or on a more basic level, go shopping, visit friends, go to school, etc. (A recent basketball injury in Kathmandu caused me to be on crutches for a few weeks, enabling me to experience these difficulties first hand). The Delhi metro prides itself on being accessible and according to a Chennai Metro Rail representative, so will this new system slated for completion in 2015. However, although there are signs on the Delhi metro indicating that certain seats are reserved for those with a disability it isn't clear to me where someone in a wheelchair would actually be able to secure themselves. I wonder whether there are disability friendly restrooms anywhere on the metro line. There are also certain tourist attractions such as Dilli Haat which thanks to groups such as Samarthyan have been made accessible, although I continue to wonder about restrooms.
These are all valiant efforts, major steps in the right direction. From what I heard at the Chennai conference there is some commitment from the government and corporate sectors to do more. But real implementation takes a lot of time, as well as focused attention from civil society in pressuring these other sectors to follow through. It is easy to make promises, but becomes much more difficult when people perceive that making infrastructure accessible will cost more money. However, what is left out in this thinking is the social cost of maintaining exclusivity, i.e. disempowering people ultimately threatening the underpinnings of a democracy, creating further inequality. Additional in-depth thinking should be around how to bring more people into society as opposed to keeping them out. The later focused thinking wastes huge human resources especially in a country such as India.
The bigger picture, i.e. creating further awareness, leading to hopefully more inclusion, is how to bring all sectors together under a common platform. (This isn't only about those living with disability but involves decreasing existing inequalities throughout the world). The Chennai conference theme of inclusive sports is one method. In my mind, this is about creating an enabling environment in which anyone who wants to participate is provided with the opportunity. This could involve organizing competitions between Nepal and India and eventually a SAARC wide inclusive sporting event. (Does there really need to be a Paralympics and Olympics?) Promoting a differently abled sporting event is however not only about individual/team achievement and the medals that might be won, but is more about showing how sports can level the playing field and bring people together. Wouldn't we root for the athletes representing our countries, no matter what type of events they are participating in? If adequately covered by the mainstream media, as they would any other national sporting event, this can help to reduce barriers and create societal awareness leading to further inclusion. None of this is really that difficult, but it takes "will" from all sectors to show how sports, creating opportunities for participation can lead to a kinder, gentler society.