Sport for People with Disabilities – The On-going Challenge

There is no doubt that people with disabilities (PWDs) face a lot of challenges in their lives, including discrimination in socio-economic and political aspects of life. In sport, this discrimination takes many forms, which include, among other things, a critical shortage (or downright unavailability) of suitably designed sports facilities that accommodate their peculiar needs.
Various organisations such as the United Nations and other international organisations have made pronouncements pertaining to the human rights obligations of people with disabilities. Most African member states, including Southern Africa have acceded to or ratified the UN Convention and other policy pronouncements that have as their overriding aim, the improvement of the plight of PWDs in all aspects of socio-economic, political and cultural development.
Indeed encouraging progress has been made, particularly in Southern Africa, regarding the involvement of PWDs in sport development. This includes, among other things, their involvement in the Supreme Council for Sport inAfrica (SCSA) Zone VI Under 20 Games.
Other organisations such Special Olympic and Paralympic organisations have now emerged to champion the cause of PWDs in sport. However, a critical shortage of funding for most of the organisations threatens to reverse the gains that have been made over the years. Maybe with the exception of South Africa, there is very little corporate sponsorship that goes into sport for PWDs. There is need for companies in Southern Africa to develop vibrant corporate social investments (CSI) programmes, which take into account the needs of PWDs, specially their sporting needs.
Governments on their own cannot be expected to finance all the programmes and projects required for sport for PWDs, especially for facilities development and procurement of special equipment, which is invariably required. However, the central governments should not be exonerated in terms of key policy directions, which they need to provide as well as other support services, for example, the removal of customs duty on the importation of sport equipment for PWDs, including wheelchairs.
Governments also need to undertake educational and awareness programmes geared towards changing socio-cultural attitudes to eliminate stigma and discriminatory bias in the operations of national sports authorities and society in general. There is need to establish or designate quotas in terms of funding for sport PWDs so that national sports authorities take measurable steps to invest in this aspect of sport development. More importantly for PWDs, sport and physical recreation is part of therapeutic interventions required to improve the plight of the lives of PWDs. Sport also provides a platform for the involvement of PWDs in public life. It makes them far more visible than in the past. In most African communities, parents tend to be ashamed of PWDs. They are generally hidden from public view. Even their parents tend to disassociate themselves from them. This is shown by their general absence from sports events for PWDs. In most cases, it is the caregivers and coaches who are found at sports facilities cheering the participants at sports events for PWDs.
The involvement of civil society or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in promoting sport and physical recreation projects and programmes for sport for PWDs is something that needs to be encouraged. Civil society and NGOs sometimes do have better and more effective outreach interventions that target people with disabilities. Having taken into account the afore-mentioned issues, perhaps the most important aspect of promotion of sport for PWDs is their direct empowerment to enable them to speak for themselves. PWDs should be enabled to determine their own development agenda and goals. The rest of society should, therefore, work to support them in reaching their goals but not plan for them.
The emergence of Oscar Pistorius and Natalie du Toit as sport celebrities for South Africa and the world at large should serve as encouragement for the relevant authorities to re-double their efforts in actively promoting sport for PWDs. The two athletes and others have indeed been excellent sporting ambassadors not only for South Africa but also for the entire Southern African region. There is no doubt that there is an abundance of raw talent in Southern Africa waiting to be developed and polished for exposure on the world stage.
Southern African countries should not just send teams to Special Olympic or Paralympic Games as political ploys but should foster tangible investments in sport for PWDs as part of comprehensive programmes to improve their lives. Sending teams to these games should be the proverbial “cherry on the cake” of robust, dynamic and visible development programmes of sport for PWDs. In addition, universities should also undertake research projects in order to generate knowledge, which will subsequently help create conducive environments for the full development of sport for PWDs in various Southern African countries. This is an ongoing challenge, which needs the support of all critical stakeholders ‑ including the media ‑ for meaningful progress and change to be attained.  
PWDs help society to dream big, develop resilience as well as unlock creativity and innovation in every aspect of life, including sport. The rest of society should support them by providing them with the stage to perform. This is a duty not a favour.

December 2012
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