When 19-year-old Avani Lekhara won a gold medal in shooting at the recently concluded Paralympic Games in Tokyo, she became the first Indian woman to achieve such a feat. She and a pair of ready athletes helped India collect 19 medals, including five golds, a record.
That was almost three times the medals won by their healthy counterparts in Tokyo a few days earlier. Their brilliant performance was an example of the triumph of the human spirit against the fierce expectations of the athletes who prove that there is prowess in handicaps.
The applause came thick and fast. Our Prime Minister said the momentum India has gained in sports cannot stop. He also offered congratulations by telephone to a number of medal winners. Olympic gold medalist Neeraj Chopra congratulated javelin throwers Devendra Jhajharia and Sundar Singh Gurjar who won silver and bronze respectively at the Paralympic Games.
Industrialists also jumped on the bandwagon. Mahindra Chairman Anand Mahindra, always generous in gifts to achievers, announced gifts for the gold medal winners specially designed to help people with disabilities. Rajeev Chadha, head of MG Motors, made a similar announcement, as did Vikram Kirloskar. Some winners were also offered a brand ambassador.
All these are very good and in order. What is of the utmost importance, however, is to increase our country’s ability to turn the festive mood into recognition, support, encouragement and awareness of the rights of people with disabilities, to make their lives easier and better.
India is certainly not known for being friendly to the disabled. There is still a long way to go when it comes to removing infrastructural, institutional and behavioral barriers for them. For starters, most public places and buildings lack the basic amenities such people need in their daily lives; Educational institutions in the country do not have basic sports facilities for people with disabilities who are not even given the opportunity to participate in the annual sports or other games.
There is a lack of technology and multi-sensory essentials to enhance potential talent and ensure effective participation of persons with disabilities.
With our Paralympics taking home more medals from Tokyo than our regular Olympians and with the sport in India now in the spotlight, our athletes with different disabilities deserve a level playing field to be treated on an equal footing with the other players. All they need are equal rights, facilities, support and encouragement.
Needless to say, the performance of our para-athletes is exemplary given the many limitations they face on a daily basis.
Despite the setbacks, she excelled in the global arena through sheer hard work and determination. It’s not that the Paralympics are any less competitive. Thousands of participants from more than 100 countries compete fiercely for those coveted medals.
What’s even more remarkable is that most of our para-athletes come from humble backgrounds and live in rural or semi-urban areas where sports facilities are lacking. It was nothing but their audacity to play a sport they loved and excelled in despite their flaws from an early age.
Bhavnaben Patel, a silver medalist in table tennis, was diagnosed with polio when she was a baby; Another silver medalist Nishad Kumar whose right hand was chopped off by a lawn mower when he was just eight years old suffered from Covid-19 earlier this year. Gold medalist Avani Lekhari was confined to a wheelchair after serious spinal cord injuries in a car accident.
Silver-winning discus athlete Yogesh Kathuniya reportedly said he is still training without a coach!
While our athletes with disabilities are slowly gaining recognition and support and things have improved marginally in recent years thanks to the government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme, much more remains to be done.
Apart from providing good infrastructure and sports facilities for people with disabilities from early school and organizing mainstream sports at the state and national levels, inclusive opportunities and policies should be an urgent priority. An essential need is also more media attention for para-athletes and their inspiring stories, their sporting events and sponsoring them for sport-related recommendations.
There are about 26.8 million people with disabilities in India, accounting for 2.21% of the country’s population, according to the 2011 population figures. Today, that number could be much more.
It is indeed high time that we, as a nation, wholeheartedly support and encourage people with other disabilities (including athletes) and bring about an overall change in attitudes not only towards them, but also the way we view disabilities.
(The writer is an independent journalist from Bengaluru.)
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