It's fair to say that Indian athletes were on a roll at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. The tally of about 368 medals is impressive by any standard with close to 50 of them coming in roller skating.
The biennial Special Olympics is different from the Paralympics as it mainly involves participants with intellectual disabilities. The 292 Indian contestants also performed exceptionally in athletics, aquatics, badminton, cycling, judo, powerlifting and table tennis at the event held from March 14-21.
It may be surprising to note that the parents or guardians of athletes with intellectual disabilities in India only push their children to participate in tournaments due to the attractive prize money on offer. These athletes often face exclusion elsewhere.
Despite boasting something of a sporting culture, the country is still enveloped by cultural standards and values that have prevailed for hundreds of years. Out of the several vulnerable groups present in India, the 31 million individuals with intellectual disabilities " according to the World Health Organization (WHO) " are easily overlooked. Misperception has led to a negative attitude towards this group, and now the athletes are bearing the brunt.
This is where the Special Olympics World Games makes its entry as a breath of fresh air. When the event kicked off in the United Arab Emirates, there was a plethora of lessons to be learned by all: most importantly, about the wrong perception on intellectual disability, which is characterised by significant impairment in cognitive and adaptive behaviour.
Around 7,500 athletes with intellectual disabilities from around the world came under one roof for one of the biggest humanitarian events.
For many, it's an alien concept to fully grasp the challenges that individuals with intellectual disability face within Indian society. These barriers are primarily rooted in religious beliefs, cultural norms, and misinformation.
"To change the attitudes, there's a lot to be done. In India, only people like us can bring the change," says Victor Vaz, national sports director of Special Olympics Bharat. "The media can make or break it. If you reach to the grassroots level and make people understand, the perception automatically changes."
There's also a mental block. Misinformation has already damaged the personalities of these individuals, and rattled their parents and immediate relatives. Many wonder whether the athletes can walk properly or grasp the nuances of the game.
"The parents are not convinced of the capabilities of these athletes. They should realise that they're in safe hands with the Special Olympics Bharat programme. Irrespective of the results, the people need to be broad-minded. The Games have had a huge impact on everyone's lives in the past and we foresee equal opportunities as a game-changer," Vaz adds.
Indian badminton coach Dhiraj Sawant says there are many incredible things to learn from people with intellectual disabilities. "Sign language is an art and I'm grateful to have met these athletes. You just have to be patient and understanding towards them and it'll be a life-changing experience for you," says Sawant, who has been with the team for the last four years.
One of the significant barriers to inclusion for athletes with intellectual disabilities is the rigid social structure. However, the perception of capability does not always depend on competence, but rather on stereotypes of class, gender, religion and ethnicity.
The Indian contingent in the UAE come from different parts of the country but they haven't let their backgrounds stop them from competing together. "Our athletes come from almost everywhere. We even have national camps held at multiple cities. So, people should understand that there are no barriers as such. We just need to train them with care," explains volleyball coach Abhay Arjun Gaonkar.
The social stigma not only exists in India but has also affected countries around the globe that hold misperception and negative attitudes towards individuals with intellectual disabilities. Most people lack an understanding of their capabilities and, perhaps, as a result, are not supportive of their inclusion in workplaces, schools or community settings.
"This notion that mental health problems are a sign of weakness, or somehow lessen you, should be eliminated," says Dr Khaled Kadry, clinical regional adviser for Special Olympics Strong Minds.
"If you know someone who has diabetes or cancer, you would not think of them any less because they're ill, which is equally debilitating."
The barriers to inclusion are not hard to deconstruct. It is possible to diminish the obstacles and replace them with knowledge and awareness. Many countries are now making such athletes play with regular athletes to promote inclusion.
Nadine Eggermont, the Belgium gymnastics coach whose trainee Blanche Decorte won the girls vault gold, explained how it works in her country. "In Belgium, the normal and intellectually disabled athletes all come under one national federation. Blanche, for example, trains in a normal group with regular gymnasts," says Nadine. "That's inclusion and that unifies them."
India, however, operates differently.
"In India, Special Olympics Bharat is not under the IOA. Under IOA, the basketball federation is separate, so is the case with all other sports. But we have all sports under one umbrella, so there will be no politics. This is better for administration," says Vaz.
"But now, we are trying to make an MoU with federations, because we want our children to be included. We get support from some federations at the lower level but the national federations don't help us. It's all about finances."
The Indian contingent has successfully broken the barriers to show a case for inclusiveness. For them, the Special Olympics is not about winning. It's about changing lives.
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