In India, people with disabilities are most often looked upon with sympathy and in some cases their disability is treated as a curse. Most roads, public spaces and transport, buildings, subways, footpaths, washrooms, etc. lack inclined surfaces and other provisions for people with disabilities using wheelchairs or other mobility aids. Further, the monthly cash benefit of Rupees 300-1000, public transport subsidies, higher education scholarships and jobs that the extremely impoverished adults with disabilities are entitled to, often do not reach many of them.

Small wonder then that the achievements of people with disabilities in sports or any other field do not receive much reportage in the news media. As a matter of fact, they are not even provided any support in the form of infrastructure, trainers, funding et al. This was the case with the Indian participants at the Special Olympic Asia Pacific Regional Games 2013 that were held for sportspersons with intellectual disabilities at Newcastle in south eastern Australia in December. India clinched a spectacular 387 medals in the tournament - 111 gold, 136 silver and 140 bronze in athletics, aquatics, basketball, badminton, bocce, cricket, football and Table Tennis! More information and details of the Indian achievement are shared on the Facebook page of Special Olympics Bharat.

Participants rejoice at the Special Olympic Games in Newcastle.
Picture Courtesy: Owen Hammond/Special Olympics Asia Pac games 2013

A contingent of 520 athletes, coaches and staff, drawn from 21 states, represented India at the inaugural Games held from 2 to 7 of December, 2013 in Newcastle. They were among the 2000 Special Olympics athletes and 600 coaches and officials belonging to more than 32 nations in the Asia Pacific region who contested in nine disciplines. Clearly, the lack of sufficient support was never a deterrent for these achievers with disabilities who took up some sport and excelled in it at national and global levels.

Tales of triumph

Among the sports persons who represented India with great glory at the Newcastle Games is 25-year-old Anand Honnavalli, a badminton player from Bangalore. His parents Chaya and Sudesh L Honnavalli shared, "Although he had played in various Special Olympics events in India, this was the first time that he went to compete abroad. There was both apprehension and anxiety on our part, but not him. When we asked him at the airport before he left, about how he felt, he declared that he was keen to win a gold medal and make the country, the state of Karnataka, his family and friends proud."

Anand succeeded in his objective in grand style by bagging three medals. In his category, he won a gold in the singles, a silver in the doubles apart from a bronze medal in mixed doubles.

The efforts of Special Olympics Bharat have resulted in the participation of 614 athletes from India in the seven World Summer Games and five World Winter Games held between 1987 and 2012. (Swimming medallist Kushal Duth displays his medals. Pic Courtesy: Sudha Duth)

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Anand was diagnosed with Down's syndrome within a few days of his birth. After he turned six, he became a student at Bethany Special School, an institution of repute started in 1983 in Bangalore for children with special needs. As the school encouraged him to pursue his passion for outdoor games, he remained there until he was 15 years of age. After that, he enrolled at FAME India - a non-profit organization based in Bangalore, that has been empowering and rehabilitating children and young adults with intellectual disabilities for over 12 years - for two years.

At present, Anand is employed in the house keeping department of a hotel in Bangalore. He is also able to commute within the city on his own, using public transport, which is not very easy for a person like him, as his parents point out. In spite of having a packed schedule, he allots time to play badminton, squash, basketball and train at the gym on a regular basis. Interestingly, he has won medals in the state and national arena in athletics and other field sports as well, such as basketball, badminton and floor hockey, ever since he began to participate in contests at the age of eleven.

"Anand displayed a lot of potential in badminton when I met him for the first time during a summer camp conducted five years ago at the the club where I work as a coach," observes S Deepak Raj, who has been a badminton coach and player for 14 years. He continued to train with Deepak Raj for 3 or 4 months till he improved his playing strokes.

The coach adds, "I have heard that Anand learned the game by himself and was persistent with his practice before returning to our club in August 2013 in order to prepare with greater focus on the Special Olympic Games. He is capable of achieving much more and can compete with any kind of contestant if he is under the constant guidance of a coach." However, he too acknowledges that the support provided by the government needs to be better for sports persons with disabilities. Most of them, he points out, have immense talent which must be spotted and nurtured with patience.

Another young man from Bangalore who has bagged many victories at the national level in swimming and was a silver medallist at the Asia Pacific Special Olympic meet, is 22-year-old Jayanth G. He owes his laurels largely to his hard work and the backing of his parents who were determined to ensure that their son could make something of himself inside and outside the pool. His mother Malini Girish, a home maker aged forty revealed, "When my husband who has a job with the state government of Karnataka and I were told that Jayanth has Down's Syndrome, we took it in our stride and made a decision to raise him like any other child."

Jayanth studied at the Sophia Opportunity School - a well known, 41-year-old institution in Bangalore for mentally challenged children and youth - until he turned fourteen and then at the Srishti Special Academy for the next 3 years. When his parents started looking for an institution that could impart vocational skills to Jayanth, a friend suggested Nitya Sadhana, a non-profit organization in Bangalore for people with special needs. There he underwent a 10-month course in electronic circuit board maintenance, he became a teacher there.

According to Malini, Jayanth learned to swim initially by observing other children, more than a decade ago and has been under the tutelage of various private coaches in Bangalore. This winner of the silver medal in the 100-metres freestyle individual category at the Newcastle meet also has a natural flair for dance. His current focus is on the 100-metres freestyle and backstroke individual and relay events, although he has won medals already at the state and national levels in the butterfly and freestyle over a distance ranging from 50 to 200 metres.

Jayanth swims every day for two hours in the evening and also attends dancing classes three times a week. "In reality, I have found that people with disabilities pursue any task assigned to them with sincerity and commitment. That is the reason they are able to achieve success in whatever they undertake if they get the necessary encouragement," his mother remarked. Malini also requests the government to provide people with disabilities all the support that they require, especially those who hail from economically backward households. She affirms having witnessed several young, mentally challenged persons with exceptional abilities being unable to pursue their interests because of financial constraints.

The Special Olympics movement

So what are the Special Olympic Games all about? And how did Jayanth, Anand and their compatriots such as aquatics champions Dinal Jain and Lisa or 16-year old sprint medallist Kanwalpreet Kaur from Delhi hear of, get selected and train for them?

These questions lead us to Eunice Kennedy Shriver (the third sister of the late John F Kennedy, a former President of the United States of America) who is considered to be the brain behind the Special Olympics movement. In 1962, she launched Camp Shriver, an initiative that organized a sports meet for around 75 children with intellectual disabilities, in the backyard of her house in Potomac, Maryland.

Shriver was driven to do this after closely observing the social exclusion of their oldest sister, the late Rosemary Kennedy who had an intellectual disability. With backing from the non-profit Kennedy Foundation, Camp Shriver grew into the Special Olympics movement with the first games being held in 1968 in Chicago the USA.

Badminton medallist Anand Honnavalli with his parents Chaya and Sudesh.
Picture Courtesy: Chaya Sudesh.

India is among the 170 odd countries that are a part of the Special Olympics movement. Special Olympics Bharat, a registered non-governmental organization (NGO) established over two decades ago in New Delhi is accredited by Special Olympics International to conduct Special Olympics programmes across the country. With a presence in all the states and union territories of India, the NGO conducts sports competitions at a number of levels - local, district, state, national and international. These tournaments include the National Games in various disciplines such as floor hockey, volleyball, table tennis, basketball, football and badminton.

Since 2001, a total of 23,750 athletes have competed in these tournaments held in different parts of the country. Apart from organizing a variety of contests, Special Olympics Bharat also works on building the capacity of such athletes through regular training programmes. The NGO has undertaken additional efforts in order to strengthen the mental, physical and emotional abilities of the sportspersons.

The efforts of Special Olympics Bharat have resulted in the participation of a total of 614 athletes from India in the seven World Summer Games and five World Winter Games held between 1987 and 2012. These competitors won 233 gold, 249 silver and 259 bronze medals in all, in those games. Unfortunately, one seldom hears these stories.

Although organizations like Special Olympics Bharat make a significant contribution to the promotion of sports among people with disabilities, one must bear in mind that the players are compelled to invest some of their own monetary resources, particularly for regular training and to enable them to and travel to the location of the tournaments in India and abroad. This leads to a situation where highly capable athletes are often unable to contest if they cannot mobilize the funds that are required.

It is imperative that the sports bodies set up by the state and central governments in India realize their responsibility towards people with disabilities and ensure that they are not excluded from relevant budgets and policies. Otherwise, these persons who display extraordinary motivation and talent - and have so much to show for it - would be left on their own even as they bring laurels to the nation.