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Are The Paralympics Inclusive Of Athletes With Deafblindness?

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The recent case of Becca Meyers, a three-time gold winning Paralympic swimmer with deafblindness, quitting the US team over not being allowed a personal care assistance (PCA), due to Covid-19 restrictions has shocked the world.

If the situation is so dangerous, then why are the Paralympics being held?

People with disabilities are one of the largest growing minorities in the world. If they were all living in the same country, it would be the third largest in terms of its population, after China and India.

Approximately 1.2 billion people with disabilities exist in the world i.e., 15% of the global population. Yet, only a sliver of that percentage are participating in the Paralympics 2021, being held at Tokyo.

This Paralympic season, let us know learn about our very own Pushpa Kadayat, a sportsperson with deafblindness, who represented India in powerlifting in the Special Olympics held at Los Angeles in 2015.

She went on to win four medals: one silver in benchpress and three bronze medals in the deadlift, squat and combination events, respectively.

Pushpa Kadayat wearing 4 medals= 3 bronze and 1 silver around her neck being felicitated by the chief minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal and is surrounded by supporters.
Pushpa Kadayat being felicitated by the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, for her impressive wins at the Special Olympics (2015).

From Nepal To India

She still remembers the day when her school’s PT (physical therapy) teacher, Anupama Singh, stopped her mother from getting her transfer certificate and sending her to Nepal.

Her teacher asked for a few days to make sure that Pushpa had tried everything, to stay. At the time, Pushpa was 16 years old and weighed 110 kg. Pushpa also has deafblindness, caused by Usher Syndrome, with a mild intellectual disability.

Hailing from a Nepali family based in Delhi, Pushpa narrated the chores she would do in her village in Nepal. “I would lift buckets of water to take to our farm to water the crops and that was my responsibility. Not a moment of rest—everything was hard work. That is where I think my liking of powerlifting began.”

Her teacher asked around and questioned Pushpa’s peers about her. They said that Pushpa couldn’t see and hear well.

“Initially, I started with shot put. My teacher wanted me to try every sport. Then I placed second in powerlifting and I have been doing it ever since. I am a powerlifter as well as a person with deafblindness,” she said.

Pushpa Kadayat in action at the Special Olympics.

Training And Tremendous Hard Work

Pushpa said it was difficult training for the sport. “I was overweight as a child, so it was difficult for me to do everything. Being a powerlifter, I had to control my weight and it was really hard, as I had to play in the 90 kg category.”

There was no professional trainer in her area so she had to travel 13 km, one way, to the nearest gym. “I need a support person 24/7. A support person is vital to my training as they help me understand the environment and keep me safe.” Rupa, Pushpa’s sister and support person, was always with her.

Rupa said, “I had to be with her 24/7. I used to explain the use of equipment and pass on information from her trainer to her, back and forth. I was juggling my 12 standard studies and supporting Pushpa in the gym. For two years, I slept for only three hours.”

Rupa added, “I am happy that we are finally seeing the fruit of tremendous hard work.”

“Sensitisation Is Half The Battle Won”

Pushpa got her first break when she represented India in powerlifting in 2015. “I felt so proud to see the Indian flag flying high. I was very happy to witness it.”

A lot of sensitisation was done for her peers and coaches, so they could support her to reach where she is today. Sensitisation is half the battle won.

“Being a person with deafblindness, I am very aware of the things that I cannot do. It had affected my confidence. But becoming a sportsperson and representing my country I have gotten my confidence back,” explained Pushpa.

Learning about Becca Meyers pulling out of the Paralympics, Pushpa said, “I was so sad to hear about Becca Meyers. She won three gold medals for her country in swimming. She could have made her country proud again. This is discrimination. I thank her for raising her voice for not only her rights but for all of us. As a fellow sportsperson and as a person with deafblindness, I support her.”

There are not enough sports persons with deafblindness, not because they do not exist. On the contrary, the access to properly-trained coaches and trainers who can mould sports persons with disabilities like deafblindness (a dual sensory impairment), infrastructural and human support is next to nil.

How Inclusive Are The Paralympics?

The Paralympics’ motto ‘spirit in motion’, has withered in the pandemic. The recent issue of Becca Meyers has raised a question: how inclusive is the Paralympics? Or rather, how inclusive are the Paralympic committees of each country?

Becca is a celebrated, three-time gold winning Paralympic swimmer with deafblindness. When the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee cited Covid-19 restrictions at the Tokyo Olympics, 2021, for not allowing her a PCA, she quit the US team.

She did it, not only because of concerns over her safety, but also to act as a catalyst of change for future generations.

People with disabilities have the right to participate in events like the Paralympics and in situations like the pandemic, even more so. It is the duty of the committees executing these event to make them accessible—whether it is through infrastructure or human support.

In the case of Becca, human support is what she needed and it was denied to her. This story is not just of Becca, but of many people with disabilities who want to represent their country at the global level, but cannot.

The lack of infrastructure, coaches and trainers trained in disability, accessibility provisions etc. lead to a lack of representation of people with disabilities in sports, around the world.

Written by Sonia Gervasis, an officer in the communications department of Sense International India.

Featured image, taken from Wikimedia Commons, is for representational purposes only.
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