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Staff Blog: Children with disabilities are the gatekeepers of sport

Head of Programme Development at International Inspiration (IN), Poonam Sattee, writes about her recent trip to Bangladesh, where IN works in partnership with the Centre for Rehabilitation for the Paralysed (CRP) to deliver the Access & Empowerment programme, funded by Comic Relief.

The key purposes of my visit and many of the IN monitoring and evaluation visits is to see how the programme is operating on the ground; observe activities and make recommendations and ensure our learning from the programme is disseminated and incorporated into future work and to build capacity around safeguarding.

An overarching objective of the Access and Empowerment programme in Bangladesh is to address the barriers that children with disabilities face when trying to access education.  CRP provides assistive devices to children with disabilities such as wheelchairs and frames so they are able to access school buildings and they work with schools to ensure classrooms are physically accessible and children with disabilities have access to basic facilities such as toilets and drinking water pumps. These small changes can make a huge difference to the lives of children with disabilities so they can lead a life exactly the same as their peers. CRP is unlike no other charity that I have worked with. The scale of its operations are incredible – comparable to the NHS in terms of the breadth of the services it provides and has a presence in 9 other locations across Bangladesh – working to ensure their services are able to reach the most marginalised.

Getting it right
Across the sport for development sector, I have seen so many examples of where we just don’t get it right sometimes. Placing the child in a wheelchair in goal at a football match isn’t participation; it’s tokenistic. Or the mandatory inclusion of girls in a team and yet the team still exclude them as they play; it just doesn’t work. Children end up feeling more excluded than ever and can lead to an experience that is both damaging and negative of sport.  CRP is one of the best examples I have come across of how to truly ensure sport is inclusive and how when it is done right, it can be the most empowering experience and I was able to see this first hand at an organised sports day event.

All the activities were designed according to ability to ensure equal competition and  play (e.g. separate races for those in a wheelchair and those who use long trolleys and for patients with additional disabilities, they were given extra time or allowed to begin in front of others.) Even the spinal cord injury patients who had just emerged from surgery were involved through participation in the memory games where they looked at a series of objects and had 2 minutes to remember as many as they could. It is highly competitive in one sense because the determination of each participant and their excitement was clearly visible from their faces! On the other hand, there is an overwhelming sense of community and  achievements are celebrated collectively, which for many patients, their participation in these events was something inconceivable before they began their treatment and rehabilitation with CRP.

A woman I met, Komola, told me that months ago her spinal cord injuries were so serious that she was confined to bed but thanks to CRP, she is able to move independently in her wheelchair and take part in the sports day. Sports are helping her to fine tune her coordination and motor skills, improve spatial awareness and mobility and improve her coordination. The pride in her eyes as she told me her story showed me that sport has touched her life more than words could ever express.
Facing discriminations

Discrimination against children with disabilities continues to be deeply ingrained. Disability is so often misunderstood – where many blame disability on bad karma from a previous life or believe that disability is catching, and therefore families exclude children without disabilities from interacting with them. As children with disabilities are consequently hidden away in the home and without access to health care, education and other services, their future remains bleak and breaking this cycle continues to be a challenge.

How do we break this?
Through sport… Well in fact, through children with disabilities being the gatekeepers of sport.
Within schools, CRP have distributed sports materials so children can continue to play sport outside of school and it is the children with disabilities that are in charge of these materials. If children wish to play with the sports materials, they need to come to the house of the child with disabilities to play. This has created a very curious dynamic – where children initially, were just going to the child with disabilities house just to play with the resources but in time these brief interactions turn into conversations, which have developed into friendships This powerful force of friendship has meant that children are now educating their community on disability and children with disabilities are finally able to take their place in school and are treated like a friend, not a child with a disability.

Celebrating difference
I was treated to a dance show in celebration of Bangladesh’s Independence Day on the 26th March and was absolutely blown away by the dancing and the depth of emotion on the faces of the young boys and girls. It was so beautiful, incredibly moving and so natural. Bangladesh has on its hands the next generation of classical dancers and it doesn’t even know it yet. Dance is an incredibly expressive symbol of the potential that sport has to change cultures and stigmas around people with disabilities.

I end my blog not with any wise words or thoughts but a picture (right). This little boy is Azmanis 9 years old and is one of the beneficiaries of this programme who can now finally attend school. There are no words to describe his excitement as he received the sports equipment and immediately began to play with his friends. We often talk about the wider impacts of sport but can forget these individual stories where for one child, the world around them has begun to change for them and it is due to the power of sport.