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Developing wheelchair tennis programs: Lessons from India

Junior wheelchair tennis players training at IWTT's 'The First Serve' Program in Bengaluru, India (2018)
Copyrights: Indian Wheelchair Tennis Tour

Developing wheelchair tennis programs: Lessons from India

In 2008, Astha was set up, aimed at revolutionizing local communities to include PwD as both participating and contributing members. In 2016, they formed the Indian Wheelchair Tennis Tour. Learn about this journey.

I thank you for your efforts to conduct regular tournaments in India. These tournaments are helping me train to go play internationally.

-Mariyappan D, Wheelchair Tennis Player, India

Historically, persons with disabilities (PwD) in India have been a neglected majority within the country’s planning and development initiatives. While the country’s geographical and cultural diversity make implementation of policy an arduous task, a closer scrutiny of the ground realities reveal an array of gaps within the system that disallow PwD to be truly included within the very communities where they live.

When Astha was set up in 2008, our objectives were clear. We wanted to revolutionize local communities to include PwD as both participating and contributing members. Beyond creating programs themed around arts, sports and skill development, we designed projects that repeatedly brought everyone with and without disabilities together. Sports, education programs and efforts enabling Indians with disabilities to secure their voting rights form the bedrock of Astha’s work.

In 2015, when Astha wanted to improve wheelchair tennis opportunities for PwD in India, we discovered that no formalized structure existed for the sport in the country, despite the world governing body for sport, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) placing wheelchair tennis development under India’s national tennis body, the All India Tennis Association (AITA).

What started as an effort to create competition opportunities has today evolved into a powerful advocacy initiative that has finally pushed wheelchair tennis into the national tennis body’s development program plan. In October 2020, AITA announced a wheelchair tennis development committee for the first time in the history of tennis in India. This was a direct result of our relentless advocacy efforts that were, in the past, met with resistance from the national governing body.

The Indian Wheelchair Tennis Tour (IWTT) is an Astha initiative that began in 2016 and, since then, has increased wheelchair tennis programming in multiple states of India. In 2016, 27 players competed in the inaugural open that was hosted in Bengaluru, Karnataka state. In 2019, the tour hosted 83 players at its three open tournaments that were held in Hyderabad, Chennai and Bengaluru.

Through its advocacy efforts, IWTT has, since its inception, successfully retained an approved tour status from AITA. While not a federation, IWTT practically is the only initiative in India that binds all the country’s wheelchair tennis players together as a community. Today, 21 women players compete in the IWTT circuit and the numbers are growing with each passing day. 12 junior players train in a junior’s training program in Anantapur’s Rural Development Trust (RDT) that is run in collaboration, with IWTT serving as a knowledge partner for the program.

Over the last four years, with the help of corporate sponsors and community led efforts, IWTT has raised and effectively utilized USD 125,000 directly for wheelchair tennis programming in India. For a new sport being developed, funding of this magnitude was not readily available in India. Four years later, today, there is still reduced knowledge about disability sport initiatives in India. However, as we grow, we observe that more Indians are learning about the sport through our social media conversations and awareness campaigns, and this is aiding to increase participation from the communities in form of volunteerism and financial support.

Over the years, working to create wheelchair tennis opportunities in India has taught us many new aspects of program development for PwD in India. We have learnt that:

  • Indians with disabilities are excited to explore new sport opportunities
  • Creating social projects involving disability sport does not always need domain specific experts
  • Local community support is critical to develop sustainable programming

Inaccessible tennis facilities, tennis professionals with little to no knowledge about wheelchair tennis training, and sport sponsorship opportunities that look for immediate results in the form of improved brand visibility for their product or service have been our major hurdles to cross as we inch forward.

Use of ‘active chairs’ as a mobility aid is a relatively new concept within India’s physically disabled communities. With this, acceptance of wheelchair tennis as a sport for recreation or competition goals is impacted. For Indians with physical disabilities, like polio survivors whose movement is restricted because of inaccessible environments, using an active chair for daily activities is an impractical choice.

Even today, floor walking using upper arms and extensive usage of shoulder crutches are dominant choices for movement among many Indians. Thanks to social media, the past decade has ushered into India, media content that shows the usage of active chairs as a beneficial choice for movement for PwD.

While more Indians who take up this sport desire for a dignified means of movement, like using active chairs, architectural barriers make it harder for them to pursue the idea within the communities where they live. Like any other wheelchair sports, mastering wheelchair tennis is also dependent on acquiring superior agility skills in a sport wheelchair. For many Indians who don’t use active chairs daily, this is a challenge that needs to be addressed first.

To address this challenge, IWTT continues to raise awareness for improved accessibility within India. We also engage in active dialogue with Indian companies that can manufacture affordable active and sport chairs in India which can be easily transported on two wheelers and in public transport also.

Beyond the tennis courts, IWTT focuses its efforts on creating learning opportunities for players to train in English and other job ready skills. While being sensitive to the linguistic diversity of the players, we also recognize that learning English as an additional language will empower them to seek gainful employment in today’s India.

Beyond that, we also observed improved communications among the player community beyond their own state. Rooted in Astha’s mission to empower every person with disability to lead a life of complete participation and contribution, off-court projects of IWTT are centred around ensuring our players are able to pursue competition and recreational opportunities within the sport independently.

As we set our eyes on Paris 2024, where we want to see Indian players at the Paralympics, we are aware of the battles we must win on the home front to make India’s tennis ecosystem truly inclusive.

Sunil Jain is a Chartered Accountant and Founder of the Indian Wheelchair Tennis Tour (IWTT). He is also a polio survivor from the age of two years. He is a resident of Bengaluru.

SriPadmini Chennapragada is a disability sport researcher from Hyderabad, India. She works as a Program Director for IWTT.

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Sunil Jain & SriPadmini Chennapragada

Published

Friday, November 27, 2020 - 19:28