By Saddia Mazhar
Islamabad, March 13 (newsin.asia): “When our own people support us, it gives great courage,” said Saeed Khan, a rickshawman from Rawalpindi and member of a wheelchair cricket team representing his district. This support, however, is very little and comes only from relations and friends. Society at large is not only far from accommodating, but is also too ready to blame the victims.
“In our society disability is still stigmatized. If a disabled person does something wrong, people would say ‘that’s why you are disabled,’” Mushtaq Hussain. This is what generally players with disabilities face.
According to the 2017 census, 0.48 percent of the Pakistani population is disabled. In earlier times, persons with disabilities were considered unhealthy, defective, feared and pitied. People thought of them as a burden on society, incapable of contributing to it. They were dependent on charitable organizations. But the situation is slowly changing at least in some segments of society.
While persons with disabilities (PWDs) have always been part of all societies, they have always struggled to create a space for themselves, for being recognized by the system and above all for being accepted and integrated into the mainstream.
In the last few years PWDs have distinguished themselves as athletes not only at the national level but at the World Special Olympics too.
Pakistan is a country where sports and sport persons are still facing lack of opportunities, funds and facilities. But luckily athletes belonging to the “special segment” of the society are making us proud.
Since 1968, Special Olympic Pakistan, has provided Pakistani children with intellectual disabilities a chance to lead more fulfilling lives through sports. It is part of the Special Olympics International founded in 1968 in the United States and is the world’s largest sports organization that arranges trainings and competitions for five million special athletes in 172 countries.
Special Olympic Pakistan organizes sports activities, and competitions in all four provinces throughout the year for all age group (8 years and above). SOP offers training and competitions in 14 Sports Olympics-type sports such as, athletics, aquatics, basketball, badminton, bocce, cycling, football, powerlifting, table tennis, tennis, and cricket.
SOP also offers health screenings and conducts Unified Sports. SOP has participated in over 18 International Games. Some of its programs to build communities include: Unified Sports, Athlete Leadership Programs, Family Engagement, Healthy Athletes and Young Athletes. Special Olympics knows no boundaries. Without regard to gender, race, religion, economic or education level, Special Olympics has the ability to unite all walks of life.
“I have been volunteering with SOP since 1990. I am really honored for being awarded with this Sitara-e-Imtiaz and I am committed to continuing my services to take this movement to the next level. This recognition was only possible with the efforts of my passionate team members”, said Ronak Lakhani.
Lakhani has been the force behind Special Olympics Pakistan, in transforming the lives of people with Intellectual Disabilities and bringing them into the social mainstream through the ‘Power of Sports’.
The Pakistan Special Olympics Association (PSOA) is also chaired by Ms Lakahni. “We don’t do much for financing special athletes, as our aim is to train them and make them acceptable to society. I am happy with my role, as I can see that the special athletes are going to the next level. I want to work and help these special kids in the best possible manner,” she added.
However, sadly ,the government is least concerned about the implementation of the long term program made by the Ministry of Social Welfare, according to which, it should facilitate each and every person with disability in getting a good education, access to healthy sports activity and a reasonably decent job or earn a decent livelihood.
“We have been organizing a cricket tournament for more then six years in Islamabad. The financial support by the government sector is negligible. They only provide the ground to play. On the other hand, the business community gives us funds to meet our expenses” says Shaheyar of Sayaa Association.
“The main purpose of the Sayaa Association is to create awareness among the disabled and the general public about the importance of sports activities among those with disabilities. The government does not seem to be serious in evolving a frame work for creating an independent governing body that would help create facilities for athletes with disabilities. But Non-Governmental Organizations work on their own to bring hidden talents to the forefront,” Shaheyar added.
The first Quaid-e-Azam Games for physically challenged athletes were held in Sports Complex Islamabad in September 2019. Although it was the first of its kind, it was a massive success. Cash prizes of more than Pak Rs 6 million were distributed amongst the special athletes, which had never happened before.
In the Special Olympic Games held last year, 92 Pakistani athletes participated and bagged 18 gold medals, 28 silver medals and 15 bronze medals across 10 different sports.
The Regional Sports Director Federal at Special Olympics Pakistan (SOP) Shumaila Erum said that the Pakistan Sports Board (PSB) held its first-ever Quaid-e-Azam Special Person’s Games last year in August and SOP participated in the event in an attempt to show their support for the special people of Pakistan.
The event will become a year-round activity to promote inclusion in the community by showcasing the skills and abilities in sports of people with special needs, Shumaila added.
Thousands of young people in Pakistan have been inspired to take part in physical education in the past year following the launch of the British Council’s International Inspirations program. Pakistan is the 17th country in the world to join this program. It is committed to reaching over one million Pakistani children, including disabled children, in two years.
Pakistan has recently passed the revolutionary ‘ICT Rights of Persons with Disability Act 2020’. This bill is called The Islamabad Capital Territory Rights of Persons with Disability Act. According to the act the government shall ensure that no person is discriminated against in participation of any sports, games, cultural and recreational activities on grounds of physical disability. Devices, equipment, and the latest technology shall be made available for their inclusion in sports, cultural, recreational and leisure activities. One seat for persons with disabilities in the sports board shall be ensured, and the government shall ensure linkages of the monitoring mechanisms for the pie Olympics and special Olympics sports association. Banner-free and discrimination-free access to stadiums, playgrounds will be ensured. Sports and cultural activities shall be provided to persons with disabilities. The government shall facilitate the participation of persons with disabilities in scouting, and outdoor camps The government shall ensure that talent-enhancing abilities in both public and private schools, including sports activities, are developed and will take steps so that access to sports activities in accessible and appropriate formats to persons with disabilities is ensured.
“The introduction of this law represents a historic step for our country and we thank the government for making this happen”, says Munazza Gilliani.
“This Act gives hope for millions of persons with disabilities in Pakistan but the big challenge is the implementation of the Act. The government should design a mechanism in which persons with disabilities and their organizations are involved in the implementation of the law,” said Atif Shiekh, President Special Talent Exchange Program (STEP), an organization that played a key role in advocacy and drafting of the disability rights bill.