Inclusion Through Unified Sports

Inclusion Through Unified Sports

In this guest article, our partner Special Olympics Bharat highlights its efforts towards inclusion through sports via its unique program ‘Special Olympics Unified Sports’ - a program that brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities to break down stereotypes and end discrimination and empower people with intellectual disabilities.

Shah Rukh’s defining moment came when on one of his visits to the cricket academy near his residence, he met a coach from Special Olympics (SO) and was introduced to the concept of Unified Sports through cricket. Few visits later, he had won himself a spot in the SO Unified Cricket team as a Unified Partner. “I have got a chance of a lifetime. Playing with special athletes has made my dream come true!”, said an exhilarated Shah Rukh.

Shah Rukh was introduced to Pallav Mehrotra, a Special Olympics athlete from Uttar Pradesh and a person with intellectual disabilities and associated speech impairment. A new journey started for both Shah Rukh and Pallav as they prepared to excel in Cricket. The duo practised together, learnt together, and designed game plans together. Sports took them into a space where Pallav’s unclear speech or Shah Rukh’s underprivileged background did not matter.

Shah Rukh Khan, a Unified Partner (Person without Intellectual Disability) from Ghaziabad, UP, was a diehard fan of cricket and was passionate about playing the sport, but since he belonged to a family of humble means, he had to put his passion way behind his other priorities. His father ran a small kiosk selling betel leaves (pan), and Shah Rukh had nearly abandoned his dream of playing cricket. Nevertheless, he travelled 7-8 kms daily by cycle to practice 4-5 hours of batting and bowling and visited the gym regularly. He was eventually placed on the merit list for the Unified Cricket event that was held in Kolkata.

Gautham Krishna, a student of class 10 at SFS Public School and Junior College, Ettumanoor, Kerala, was surprised by the performance of the special athletes when he played a Unified Football game for the first time. “I thought they would not be able to play and was ready to help them. I thought my performance will be way better than theirs since I receive coaching regularly”, Gautham remarked. Gautham is good in athletics and football, and has been playing football regularly for the past six years. When he got to know that he would be playing with special athletes, he had decided not to play a very competitive game. However, following the first game, Gautham’s attitude changed. In the words of Mathewkutty Abraham, Gautham’s coach, “This meet was an eye-opener not only for the Unified Partners but even for the teachers and the organizers in our college”. He further stated, “We will plan more such unified sport events. I strongly support it”. Special Olympics Unified Sports: A Path to Social Inclusion.

Special Olympics Unified Sports brings together people with and without intellectual disabilities in the same team, in an effort to break down stereotypes in a fun way. It was inspired by a simple principle: Training together and playing together is a quick path to friendship and understanding. Young people with disabilities do not often get a chance to play on their school sports teams. We thus aim to make Unified Sports an integral part of the Youth & School Engagement Program.

At the same time, female athletes, too, have had their share of experiences when they were introduced to the concept of Unified Sports. In one such unified sports event, the changed perspective of the female unified football squad, who participated in the Unified Cup Chicago held in 2018, was profound.

After the first day, a sceptical Unified Partner went back home telling her parents, ‘We will be playing with people who are different. How would that happen?’ Another said, ‘I was screaming across the field to the athlete for a pass but she couldn’t understand what I was trying to tell her’. Similarly, an athlete expressed discomfort to her coach at the thought of having to play with ‘superior’ players. All this while grappling with the language barrier, as India is a multilingual nation. Mr Victor R Vaz, National Sports Director, SO Bharat, says he has often met such situations during his over 20 years of experience. In this particular case, the female football squad consisted of players from different states, and spoke languages as diverse as Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi, Hindi and English. However, through repeated preparatory camps the language barrier too started to fade, clearing the path to affective communication within the team. As the players gathered for the fourth training camp, their growing teamwork was evident. They were coordinated, with partners and athletes communicating remarkably. As Vanshika (a Unified Partner) said, ‘I have learnt patience. In fact, I have now learnt the sign language, which helped me at a restaurant a few days ago as well!”

In yet another Unified Tournament, the Special Olympics Asia Pacific Unified Badminton held in Bangkok in 2019, one of the participating unified pairs were Kalpana, the Athlete, and her Unified Partner Arpita Malik from Chandigarh. While the victory at the tournament brought much excitement to everyone, it was the journey before it--the focussed practise sessions, the bonding in the court and the fun beyond--that left the pair with an extraordinary experience. Arpita is a badminton player who was participating in international badminton events. Practising alongside her, Kalpana gained a comfortable grip over the game and felt confident by the time they had to leave for Bangkok. For Kalpana, who could not walk or even talk till she was 10 years old, participating in a tournament such as this and that too alongside her Unified Partner helped her re-discover herself.

Special Olympics Bharat is a National Sports Federation, recognised by the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports, Govt. of India, and is accredited by Special Olympics Inc. to conduct sports and development programmes all over India. It organizes Olympic-style sports events for persons with intellectual disabilities whilst also providing a full range of off-the-field activities and initiatives that are geared towards supporting and improving the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities. SO Bharat has been founded by Air Marshal Denzil Keelor PVSM, KC, AVSM, VrC, and was registered in 2001 with around 25000 athletes, a number that has grown to over 1.5 million athletes from across all the states and union territories of India. A recipient of the Dhyan Chand Lifetime Achievement Award 2010, Mr Satish Pillai is presently the Chairman of Special Olympics Bharat.

Special Olympics is a global inclusion movement that was started to end discrimination and empower people with intellectual disabilities using sport, health, education and leadership programs. Founded in 1968, the Special Olympics movement has grown to more than 6 million athletes and Unified Sports partners in more than 190 countries. Special Olympics works through seven regions, of which India falls under the Asia-Pacific Region, which includes 35 countries.

The year-round sports training and competitions prepare athletes and coaches to showcase their sporting abilities and skills every two years at the Special Olympics World Games. We have been successfully sending our delegations to these games and they have returned with an encouraging tally of medals each time. Special Olympics World Games are held every two years, alternating between Summer Games and Winter Games at different locations across the globe.

The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-style sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community at large. Together, we all have the power to end this discrimination. As coaches, mentors, partners and, most importantly, as colleagues, we can help bring the unreached to the field and become a driver in the revolution called INCLUSION.

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