Deepa Malik won a silver in the shot-put event in Rio Paralympics 2016, becoming the first Indian para-athlete woman to win a medal in the games. The Indian Paralympian contingent has done the country proud. But for many Indian para-athletes, following their passion is synonymous with a fight against indifference, disrespect, lack of support and inhumane insensitivity.
Deepa Malik won a silver in the shot-put event in Rio Paralympics 2016, becoming the first Indian para-athlete woman to win a medal in the games.
The Indian Paralympian contingent has done the country proud. But for many Indian para-athletes, following their passion is synonymous with a fight against indifference, disrespect, lack of support and inhumane insensitivity. Two golds, a silver and a bronze. We weren’t even halfway through the 12-day Rio Paralympics 2016, when we clinched gold in the men’s high jump event and a bronze in the same discipline. A silver came soon after in the shot put event, with Deepa Malik becoming the first Indian para-athlete woman to win a medal in the games. The medals’ tally of the small 19-member Indian Paralympian contingent has now surpassed the laurels that the largest-ever Indian Olympic contingent — 117 athletes — managed last month. But for many Indian para-athletes who excel in their sport, the grim irony is that the very country they do proud often treats them with indifference, disrespect, discouraging lack of support and at times an inhumane insensitivity.
“There’s prejudice, there’s fear. There’s a culture in India that a ‘disabled’ person is a ‘different’ person, who isn’t ‘perfect’,” rues para-cyclist Aditya Mehta, who has won two silver medals at the Asian Paralympics 2013, and holds the Limca record (2013 edition) for fastest 100 km with an artificial limb.
Aditya, who usually stays away from the limelight, forced himself to be the talking point recently because he was left humiliated, discouraged and disheartened by the behaviour of Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) during the security check at Kempegowda International Airport (KIA), where he was asked to remove his prosthetic leg. Through social media, he narrated his experience and said that there could not have been “ a worse treatment for an amputee”.
In another post, the athlete who is also the founder of the Aditya Mehta Foundation, which has 500 volunteers that help amputee soldiers from the central armed forces rehabilitate and train in various sports disciplines such as cycling, swimming and badminton, stated what a senior official explained to him: “the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security doesn’t have enough funds to have body scanner which could be a sensitised way of checking.”
‘Treat us as equals’ “My current world ranking is 16,” proudly declares national para-badminton champion, Girish Sharma, adding, “Yet I am not even treated as an equal. People don’t know anything about me. And whenever I am mistreated at airports, I have to inform them that I am a national level sportsperson who has won several glories for the country and request them to treat me with respect.”
It’s often sympathy or admiration tinged with incredulity that comes the way of para-athletes. But their prime need and rightful due, they say, is simply being treated as equals. “Having a disability is a huge part of my identity. I can’t do anything to change it,” says Manasi Joshi, a national level para-badminton champion who won a silver medal in the Para-Badminton World Championship held in England last year. “However, I would love to see a change in mindset. There is almost always just one type of story in the media about us — despite disability, they are able to reach new heights; or despite losing a leg, she became a national-level champion This is not the only kind of news we want people to associate with us. We would love for people to know about our current achievements, international rankings, future projects. We don’t want sympathy. We want people to be proud of us. Disability can happen to anyone: rich, poor, child, adult, man, woman. Once I have told people about my amputation, they usually say something along the lines of, ‘Wow! I would never have known!’ in a congratulatory manner, as if they’re actually saying, ‘Well done, you can pass as able-bodied!’ Able-bodied people, even some disabled people, would see that as a compliment. But I don’t appreciate that. We need a major shift in the mind-set. In India, we either have an ‘aww, that’s a horrible thing to have happened to you’ or ‘aww, how brave of you to have continued with your life’. Unfortunately, we never have a normal ‘hey, how is life ’ We are equals, treat us as equals,” Manasi asserts.
Better infrastructure Their fight is to give and get acceptance, equality, a raised sense of sensitivity and awareness to have an open dialogue about challenges and better infrastructure. None of them (para-athletes) want to be seen with pity or sympathy, let alone crave empathy. They just want to be looked at with normalcy, and they need a system that backs them up like it’s their own backbone.
“We are a country with over 1.3 billion people and 20 million people are specially-abled. Doesn’t that figure speak for itself and scream about the need for better infrastructure ” questions Manasi.
Nikhil Kumar Guptaa, a para-athlete promoting the game of rugby for the specially-abled, agrees and shares some valuable points to make our current infrastructure disabled-friendly: “First and foremost, we need to have accessible stadiums across the country. Transportation, parking, designated entrances, movement and circulation in and around the stadium, vertical and horizontal circulation, lifts, ramps and staircases, toilets, restaurants are several other important things to be kept in mind when designing or redesigning a stadium. It is possible to have high levels of inclusion and accessibility, irrespective of having old grounds.” He adds, “How will an athlete practice if he doesn’t even get into a stadium without any hassle Also, in India, we need to have a proper team of physiotherapists accompanying our athletes wherever they go. Fitness centres and training facilities should be made specially-abled friendly and coaching needs to be taken care of by qualified professionals.”
Need for classifiers Indian para-swimmer Niranjan Mukundan, who won eight medals, including three golds, at the recently concluded IWAS (International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports) U-23 World Games in Prague, Czech Republic, and was crowned Junior World Champion in 2015, emphasises the need to have classifiers in our country. He reveals, “Disability sports classification is a system that allows for fair competition between people with different types of disabilities. Historically, the process has been by two groups: specific disability type sport organisations that cover multiple sports, and specific sport organisations that cover multiple disability types including amputations, cerebral palsy, deafness, intellectual impairments, les autres and short stature, vision impairments, spinal cord injuries, and other disabilities not covered by these groups. Amputee sports classification is a disability specific sports classification used for disability sports to facilitate fair competition among people with different types of amputations. This classification was set up by International Sports Organization for the Disabled (ISOD), and is currently managed by IWAS who ISOD merged with in 2005. Several sports have sport specific governing bodies managing classification for amputee sportspeople. All athletes who take part in international competitions have been classified internationally by an independent panel. We, in India, are sadly not able to organise or facilitate this classifier. And an athlete, who is qualified to take part in any international competition, firstly needs to go aboard to get him/herself classified, which is not right as not many can afford it. I strongly feel that this issue should be looked into.”
Motivation is key Para athlete and long jumper Jagseer Singh, who won gold medals in two international events in the run-up to the London Games, finished seventh in the Beijing Paralympics four years back and the Arjuna award winner feels that motivation is the greater factor. “The government really needs to encourage and motive our players. Able body players play for the country, so do we. There shouldn’t be a differentiation at any level. All we need is love and motivation.”
Airport humiliation I frequent Delhi and Bengaluru airports. I have never been asked to take off my leg there — they use a handheld ETD machine (to detect explosives) as well as doing pat-down checks (to detect any hidden item). Similarly, at airports in Paris, Madrid, Budapest etc., I was never asked to take it off. But in the Mumbai airport, when I asked them to check it with an ETD machine or do a pat-down check (procedures followed at most airports), they not only refused but retorted by asking me — ‘Can you tell us the full form of ETD first ’ and ‘don’t tell us how to do our job’,” says Antara Telang who came in the spotlight when she tweeted about her harrowing experience earlier this year.
Antara, who runs a start-up, got her prosthetic six years ago at the age of 18, when a tree fell on her, causing one of her legs to be broken into two, and the other being completely crushed. It was painful, she recalls, “But what in life doesn’t cause discomfort A little sensitivity will go a long way. We are totally game for all the security checks and procedures but don’t humiliate us. I have reduced my air travel. I can’t see my leg being screened with shoes, mobile phones, and laptops. Do you know how humiliating it can be They can’t treat us like third-class citizens and carry a rude ‘just don’t care’ attitude towards amputee travellers.”