Sport for people with disabilities – promoting inclusion

By Andrew Bonani Kamanga

The benefits of active participation in sport and physical activity for people of all ages have been well researched and documented over the years.   

However, what seems to be lacking is the day to day promotion of sport and physical recreation to the public in general.

Active involvement in sport and physical recreation can reduce expenditure on public health especially when it comes to non-communicable diseases.

Credit can be given to most Southern African governments for making significant investments in sport development programmes and facilities.

However, as we celebrate these much appreciated investments in sport development, it is a fact that they have been made with only able-bodied people in mind.

People with disabilities have been in most cases, relegated into obscurity.

The financial allocations for sport with people with disabilities are peanuts compared to with those for able-bodied people.

Even the designs and construction of most sporting facilities do not take into account the needs for access for and utilization by people with disabilities.

Changes are being made in certain areas but it is important that policy and decision makers are sensitized about this historical imbalance in terms of allocation of resources and general focus.

The establishment of Special Olympics International by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in the United States in 1968 as well as the advent of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) in 1989 are welcome developments that have changed the face of sport globally.

Although, Special Olympics caters mostly for children and adults with intellectual challenges, IPC is more of an umbrella organisation for various types of disabilities and sports organisations.

These two international organisations are doing a great deal of work globally to promote sport activities for people with disabilities. Although the two organisations are now well established brands internationally, there is still a lot of work that needs to be undertaken especially in the rural areas of Africa.

There is need to combat old socio-cultural beliefs and traditions which negatively affect people with disabilities.

Disability is often associated with curses, witchcraft and bad luck amongst many African tribes and communities, even here in Southern Africa.

People with disabilities are in most cases hidden from public view and sometimes even shamefully chained in backyards and back rooms where they are out of sight.   It is a fact that people with disabilities are often ill-treated in some cases.

People with disabilities have as much right to participate in public life and particularly in sport, just as other human beings.

For the athletes involved, the joy of winning a medal at the Olympic Games is the same as that of the Paralympic Games.

However, the general public and others stakeholders such as sponsors seem to value more accomplishments at the Olympic Games than the Paralympic Games.

The fact that Paralympic Games are organised after the Olympic Games also does not augur well for the former.

The euphoria, energy and enthusiasm of fans literally dies down after Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Games. The Paralympics are treated as some petty side-show or after show and not the star attraction.

It might be a good idea to commence with the Paralympic Games in the host cities selected to host the Olympic Games. This could contribute to a much needed paradigm shift and attitude change amongst sport authorities and sponsors as well.

Furthermore, there should be a deliberate effort made by national sport authorities to foster formation of sport clubs amongst people with the disabilities. The club is the genesis and nucleus of sports development planning.

Other high level structures in the sports system are buttressed to a large extent by what goes on at club level.

National sports associations can have the best plans and intentions but if these are not reduced for implementation at local district, village and club level, then they are doomed to failure.

The high quality of sport in the Scandinavian countries of Finland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden is largely attributable to a strong sports culture based on locally based clubs run by volunteers.

It is not expensive or costly to set high standards and gradually work towards achieving set targets. Wallowing in self-pity, doing business as usual in the same old style and lamenting the limited resources available is actually more costly in the long run.

To this end, sport development planning for people with disabilities will enable Southern African countries to increase the number of clubs promoting not just active and healthy lifestyles but also producing athletes that make their way to the medals podium at the Paralympic Games.

The Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games of Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024 are realistic targets for quantitative and qualitative improvements in elite sports performance.  Sport development planning is the bedrock of participation and excellence.

It is the greatest investment that any sport system can make.  Southern Africa is no exception. As the old adage goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail”.

October 2017
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