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India’s persons with disability await inclusive sports policy

A handful of sportspersons with disabilities have produced tales of struggle, and even triumph. But these are scattered instances, indicative of insensitive and backward policies, which fail to make sports accessible to about seven crore citizens of this country, examines Parvinder Singh.

Even as Indias blind cricket team celebrates a sweet revenge victory over their Pakistani counterparts, the media has earmarked unprecedented coverage to a sporting event involving persons with disabilities. Whatever may be the reason, the extraordinary treatment brings into focus the status of sports for persons with disabilities in India.

Picture of people abroad playing a game of wheelchair basketballIn a nation that is yet to make its basic infrastructure accessible to persons with disability, being a disabled sportsperson or even wanting to take up sports can be an experience in battling physical and physiological barriers. Indeed, a handful of sportspersons with disabilities have produced tales of struggle, and even triumph. But these are scattered instances, indicative of insensitive and backward policies, which fail to make sports accessible to about seven crore citizens of this country.

Salil Chaturvedi has been using a wheelchair since 1984, after being paralyzed below the waist in an accident. Chaturvedi is an avid sportsman and has represented India in wheelchair lawn tennis Opens in Japan and Australia.

He recalls his initial days of training at Delhis Khanna Stadium, when all he got was a ball boy in lieu of a tennis coach and his practice sessions were restricted to reading manuals for basic tennis techniques. To stress on how important it is to have trained and dedicated coaches, he cites an encounter with a British coach while representing India at the U.K. Open. This coach used to sit for five to six hours on a wheelchair just to fully understand the training needs of players. In just two days he taught me things that I had not known despite months of training, including the all important wrist action service.

Chaturvedi stresses that apart from the need for evolving a comprehensive policy to make sports more accessible to persons with disability, there is a need to change the way the association and sports bodies approach the entire issue. He recalls an incident that brings to light the apathy of sports officials, As participants in international tennis events, the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association gave us sports kits sponsored by a multinational sports brand. But to our shock we discovered that some of the items were missing. When we inquired, the concerned official said: Why would you need a jogging shoe? You cannot run.

Picture of a match in progress during the recent Indo-Pak blind cricket seriesGeorge Abraham, founder of the World Blind Cricket Council and organiser of the first World Cup Cricket for the Blind in 1998, says the Central Government has zero policy for participation of persons with disabilities in sports. He, however, stresses that the level of awareness, at least with regard to cricket for the blind, has been on the rise. Enthused by the successful conclusion of a cricket series between India and Pakistan recently, Abraham says he is hopeful about the future of blind cricket in the country. Union Sports Minister Sunil Dutt attended the Indo-Pak series and I am confident that he will do some serious work in this direction.

Abraham, who is visually impaired, feels that the issue of the participation of persons with disabilities in sports cannot be addressed by the creation of a separate national level federation or any such body. This will only lead to segregation, he says, while adding that the need is to make existing sports bodies at various levels accommodative of the needs of persons with disabilities with respect to their participation in sports. But this will not be an easy walk.

A case in point is Abrahams unsuccessful bid to get support from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (B.C.C.I.) for the Association for Cricket for the Blind in India (A.C.B.I). "It [B.C.C.I.] is funding programmes like cataract and eye donations but does not respond to blind cricketers. In 2001, when Bangladesh played a Test series against India, its Board invited us to give a half-hour demonstration of our game during the break of the first Test," Abraham was quoted as saying in a section of the press. But he remains hopeful, and says: It is just a matter of the right people being at the right places.

On the issue of special coaches and trainers too, Abraham advocates an inclusive approach. We tried out a special physical trainer during the first World Cup for the blind. It was a total disaster! he recalls. There is a need for more and more mainstream professionals to take up coaching and training of sportspersons with disability, he opines.

Picture of blind footballers in action in an international matchPradeep Lal, a veteran wheelchair lawn and table tennis player, says the present sports infrastructure is totally inaccessible to persons with disabilities. How many stadiums are accessible to wheelchair users? he questions. I cannot think of any, apart from the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium.

Regarding the demand for the creation of an exclusive sports body for dealing with the issue, he says, In a country where sports in general is not a priority area, demand for so-called exclusive facilities is not a good idea. We must look at changes within the existing infrastructures to make them responsive to the needs of persons with disabilities. He claims that alienation of disabled sportspersons from their non-disabled counterparts would inadvertently create situations of conflict.

He says its just a matter of time and strong resolve on the part of persons with disability before the countrys policymakers wake up to the responsibility. Apart from policy and administrative interventions, an area that he feels needs attention is the diversion of technical and engineering skills in the country for creating special modifications, as well as sporting gear that is needed for persons with disabilities, who wish to take up sports.

While the demands for positive action by the government continue, incidents of its lack of initiative continue. Kanpur-based disabled table tennis player Preeti Dixit has been selected for the Asia and South Pacific Table Tennis Championship, which is scheduled in Malaysia from 19-23 June, 2005, but she may not be able to make the trip due to lack of state support and sponsors. Despite a crippling traffic accident, Preeti has continued playing table tennis four to five hours each day. She has appealed to the government for assistance, and is hoping that at least members of civil society will respond. So far her appeals have gone unanswered.

The debate on the issue cannot be complete without a reaction from the government departments concerned, but our attempts to get one were responded to by a standard answer: Please check official website. But a glance at the Sports Authority of India (S.A.I.) website reveals a blatant absence of even occasional mention of sports for persons with disabilities.

In a damning report just tabled in the Parliament by the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Sports, the S.A.I. has been indicted for under-utilisation of funds. This showcases the irony of the present approach of the premier sports body, even as disabled people look for basic support and an inclusive sports environment in the country.