India’s splendid show at the Tokyo Paralympics has inspired many people with disabilities to get into sports; here’s how they can complete the exciting yet challenging journey that will get them there
India won a total of 19 medals–five gold, eight silver and six bronze–at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. While we celebrate the massive achievement, one cannot help but notice a coincidence—India sent 19 athletes to the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Five years later, and the Tokyo Paralympics, the country took home as many medals!
Says Deepthi Bopaiah, CEO GoSports Foundation: “I was at the Rio Paralympics. It had a large contingent of 19 people from India, but at Tokyo, we had 54. This means in about five years, we tripled the number.” The 2020 Paralympics had to be postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic.
Stating that the disability movement in India has seen many changes recently, such as greater awareness and government schemes for para-athletes, Bopaiah informs that the first person to win a medal for India at the Paralympics was Murlikant Petkar in 1972.
“After that nothing happened for years. At GoSports, we wanted to change the narrative around disability sports and started the Para champions programme in 2015. So far, people have always viewed disability with sympathy. But it is not about that. You are competing with 80-90 other countries in your sport and you have to be the best in the world to win a medal there.”
Sports as soft power
Sport changes a disabled person profoundly, by empowering and allowing her to realise her full potential. Take the case of shooter Avani Lekhara, who became the first Indian woman to win two Paralympics medals in Tokyo 2020, despite her having turned completely paraplegic waist down and becoming wheelchair-bound after a car crash in 2012. She started with shooting in 2015 and recalls, “Nothing was easy. At that time in India, there were no specialised parashooting coaches and equipment. We didn’t know what equipment to use and what classification I fit into, according to my disability. I realised that my wheelchair is my legs. I tried to research to get the perfect wheelchair according to my size and weight. I also had to find the perfect rifle for me–something that would be a little lightweight. Some customising had to be done according to my body so that I could maintain the weight during the whole match. Like that I had to figure out a lot of things.”
But shooting gave her new confidence. After she won top honours at Tokyo, she earned accolades from PM Modi, a custom-made car was gifted to her by industrialist Anand Mahindra, and she was felicitated at her school with kids hooting ‘we want to be like you Avani didi’. Lekhara feels vindicated. “If I can travel the world on wheels, win medals and make my country proud, I feel I can practically everything I want in this world,” she says.
How to start
Athletes with disabilities are eligible to participate in any sports activity, and at the highest levels. But how does one get started?
The first step is awareness of the kind of disability one has. Says a spokesperson from TechSci Research, a research-based management consulting firm in Delhi NCR: “Adaptive sports, often known as disability sports or parasports, are played by people with limitations. There are four types of disabilities–deafness, visual impairment, physically disability, and intellectual (mental) disability. Athletes on a wheelchair would have mostly suffered a spinal cord injury, rendering them unable to control their extremities voluntarily. Autonomic dysreflexia is one of the most severe conditions people with this injury face. Those with injuries at or above the T6 spinal level are more likely to develop this syndrome. Moreover, individuals with cerebral palsy are also significantly impacted by spasticity.”
He added, “The special Olympics and Paralympic competitions are open to athletes with intellectual disabilities. Athletes with ‘Down’s Syndrome’ make up a substantial component of this category. Then there are the amputees. They compete in their respective sports using prosthetics.”
It takes some time adapting to the new disability. Next comes the task of figuring out which sport to play. Experts say most people, especially those with a spinal cord injury and on wheelchairs as a natural rehab methodology, are recommended to take up swimming. Most people actually take up swimming first and then realise that they can try other sports as well. Once you pick up a sport and learn it fully, you need to clear the state level, national level, and international level, in that order, to get to the Olympics and Paralympics. Be prepared to commit 5-6 years and a considerable amount of money towards the sport.
GoSports’ Bopaiah says that the parallel of the Olympics is the Paralympics. The venue is exactly the same, though the event is held three weeks later, as infrastructure needs to get ready and modified from an accessibility perspective.
Just like you have the International Olympic association, you have the IPC or the International Paralympic Committee which started the paralympic movement globally.
“They have events just like Olympics, such as canoeing, cycling, archery, and athletics. However, there are a lot of events in which we Indians don’t even participate,” she says.
To enter the fray and become a para-athlete in India, you should be certified as a person with disabilities on your ID proof. There is a separate disability card to medically prove that you are disabled.
Next comes “classification”, which means one gets classified based on the level of physical impairment. India doesn’t have international classifiers. So, anyone who wants to get classified and participate in international sport, has to typically go abroad to get his formal classification which is recognised by the IPC. The person gets a membership card and approval from the formal classifier.
Many institutes that train the disabled are the same that train the able-bodied as well. Their fee is exactly the same. However, some upcoming institutes cater solely to disabled persons, like Gaurav Khanna Excellia Badminton Academy in Lucknow.
Gaurav Khanna, a former badminton player, has trained several national and international para-badminton players, including both the gold medallists Pramod Bhagat and Krishna Nagar, and others like Suhas LY and Parul Parmar.
He says, “Every athlete is unique. Some may have gotten handicapped in an accident, others may have had polio. Some may have had above-knee amputation, others below the knee. Some may be using prosthetics, others a wheelchair. As a coach, one needs to overcome the shortcomings caused by that disability and strengthen other parts. It calls for an integrated and scientific approach that entails the services of a nutritionist, a psychologist, a physical and conditioning trainer-–the sum total of everything. You have different structures, rules, and requirements for every athlete.”
People with disabilities require special infrastructure that focuses on sports activities and transportation to specialised places like changing rooms, social areas, and activity spaces. Says a spokesperson from TechSci Research: “It’s critical to recognise the hurdles and limitations a disabled person could confront. For instance, developing a ‘sports chair zone is necessary.’ This is a zone where the circulation and the features inside it, such as doors and lobbies, are designed to make it easy and safe to use, manoeuvre, and store oversized sports chairs. Similarly, paths, ramps, steps, and handrails must be carefully laid out and detailed to allow everyone, especially individuals with disabilities, to walk conveniently and safely from their arrival point to the entrance.”
In order to assist blind and partially sighted people, all routes should provide sufficient audible and tactile information, reinforced by visual hints. The number of doors in a structure should be kept to a bare minimum, as doors obstruct the mobility of many disabled people and others carrying large sports bags through the facility. If not correctly constructed and specified, doors can be difficult to use. All changing areas must be constructed in such a way that they are accessible to those with disabilities.
Artificial lighting systems must generate a clear environment with a little reflection, glare, deep shadows, and widely varying lighting levels. Controlling the placement, quantity, and quality of both natural and artificial light should be the goal of lighting design. Specially certified wheelchairs or buggies with broader wheels should be used to safeguard the playing field.
Many companies and foundations offer scholarships to young achievers from humble backgrounds. Aspire Circle, for instance, has awarded scholarships to volleyball player and mountaineer Arunima Sinha, who is the world’s first female amputee–she lost her left leg– to scale Mount Everest. In 2019, she became the world’s first female amputee to scale the highest peaks in each of the seven continents.
Says social entrepreneur Amit Bhatia, Founder of Aspire Impact who gave Sinha a scholarship and to other sportspersons like her: “The story of disability and sports is a story of lack of encouragement as much as it is of lack of infrastructure. Anything that recognises their efforts makes them feel that they are not invisible and keeps them motivated. These people find their own ways of finding coaches, facilities because that challenge will not disappear overnight.”
GoSports has been working with many able-bodied and disabled persons in the Olympics and Paralympics for the past 13 years. Says Bopaiah: “When Abhinav Bindra won 11 years ago, shooting used to have 100 to 200 people at nationals. Today you have 3,000 kids who participate. You need that one person who can change things. That is exactly what has happened in the disability space. For people with disabilities, it’s not just overcoming the physical aspect, it is mental, societal, emotional–so many barriers and fighting so many biases. It’s amazing to see how sports for people with disabilities has helped them create a new identity.”
Table: What these Indian institutes charge for training people with disabilities in sports
|Institute||City||Course fee (Rs)|
|Gaurav Khanna Badminton Academy||Lucknow||20,000–30,000 a month|
|Mumbai||1 lakh a month|
|Zee Swim Academy||Bengaluru||4,500 a month|
|Basavanagudi Aquatic Center||Bengaluru||7,500 for 3 months|
|Raina shooting academy||Ghaziabad||8,000 a month|
|Purnatva Academy of Sports Shooting||Delhi||1 lakh for 3 months|
Credits: GoSports Foundation; Figures are drawn from websites, must be regarded as approximations