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Including persons with disabilities in sport: An Australian volunteer’s experience in Vanuatu

Copyrights: Vanuatu Paralympic Committee (Friana Kwevira)

Including persons with disabilities in sport: An Australian volunteer’s experience in Vanuatu

Jessica Richardson traces the significant strides that disability athletes in Vanuatu have been able to make in just a short period of time.

2018 marked a turning point in sports history in Vanuatu, with Friana Kwevira taking the country’s first Commonwealth Games medal with a Bronze in the Women’s F46 Javelin.

However, it also marked a turning point in the inclusion of people with disability in the wider community. What we saw was the embodiment of success in inclusive sport for development in Vanuatu. It wasn’t a just a throw of 24.54m that turned the tides for change, but a culmination of activities behind the scenes and on the field.

Following a talent identification program in Santo in 2017, Friana joined the Para Athletics program including attending the GAPS Camp with Griffith University, through the support of the Agitos Foundation.

Friana then took part in the first integrated Pacific Mini Games event. This presented an inclusion opportunity and promoted the inclusion of people with disability in the broader community in Vanuatu.

Through my role as Equity and Inclusion Officer with the Vanuatu Association of Sport and National Olympic Committee (VASANOC), I developed an Inclusive Assessment Tool, in consultation with the Vanuatu Civil Society Disability Network (VCSDN). Together with VCSDN, we utilised the tool to provide recommendations to the Van2017 Organising Committee on ways in which they could increase facility accessibility and provision of sports opportunities for people with disability.

I went on to manage the Vanuatu para-athletics team for the Vanuatu Paralympic Committee at the 2017 Pacific Mini Games. A team of 11 athletes secured a silver and a bronze – a first for para-athletics in Vanuatu. The Olympic Committee ensured the para -athletes led the team out in the opening ceremony to emphasise how Vanuatu should be proud of their para athletes and that Team Vanuatu was committed to inclusion.

Focus then returned to the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. The Commonwealth Games has been an integrated sporting event since 2002. However, the 2018 Games would be the first time Vanuatu would send para athletes as part of Team Vanuatu. Friana, joined by two fellow female para athletes, Marceline Moli and Dephnny Naliupis, would be the first para athletes to compete for Team Vanuatu at the Games.

I remember sitting in the crowd of 25,000 spectators, watching Friana walk out into Carrara Stadium to represent Vanuatu. We saw Friana make history that day, winning the first Commonwealth Games medal in any sports discipline ever for Vanuatu. It was a first for people living with a disability, a first for women and a first for mothers—all the things Friana, a 19-year-old girl born with only one arm, proudly is. This provided a great opportunity to celebrate both women and people with disability in sport. Media coverage of our para athletes increased, and the community celebrated as our athletes achieved success.

Sport has proven that it can be a catalyst for change in many communities, in not only increasing the health and education of a community but in improving inclusivity and the well-being of many individuals. Sport encourages us to see everyone on an equal playing field.

The work of the Vanuatu Paralympic Committee highlights this with noticeable change in attitudes in the wider community occurring following our para athletes’ success. We continued to build on this momentum to engage more inclusive sports.

I facilitated a Para Sports Day in partnership with the Vanuatu Society for People with Disability, with a theme to “Ditch the Dis.” This was a clear message that it was time for Vanuatu to recognize the potential of people with disability, not only in sport, but the community as a whole. One parent exclaimed: “My son had so much fun at the Para Sports Day yesterday, he did not stop talking about it all night and this made me so happy I was crying.”

Through this day we were able to identify a potential para athlete who went on to compete in Va’a, (outrigger canoe) at the World Canoe Sprint Championships in Hungary.

Our programs continue to expand. In 2019 I managed a team of para-athletics athletes at the Pacific Games in Samoa. The Vanuatu Olympic Committee selected our para athlete Ken Kahu as Flag Bearer for the Team Vanuatu at the Opening Ceremony. It was the first time a para athlete from any Pacific Country had led their national team.

Ken Kahu then attended the World Para Athletics Championships, where he qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, again making history for Vanuatu, being the first para athlete to qualify on merit for the Games.

The Vanuatu Paralympic Committee has focused on forming strong partnerships with government, national sports federations, local business houses and disability organisations. This has allowed our programs to grow sustainably with local ownership.

There were, of course, a number of challenges that we faced and continue to face. Primarily, funding and classification remain barriers to increased participation. The Vanuatu Paralympic Committee relies on donor funding to provide inclusive sports programs throughout the country and to support people with disability with safe bus transport to training, uniforms, competition fees and equipment costs. With no core funding stream, this creates difficulty in planning long term budgets.

Even with these challenges, we have been able to set up one of the most successful para athletics programs in the Pacific. Sport has provided much needed visibility to the stories of people with disability in the country, and has highlighted their strengths and ability to contribute positively to their community. It has also provided personal achievement and a sense of worth and focus to those who take part in para sports programs, improving their confidence and health outcomes. The VPC has also focused very successfully on ensuring our para athletes find employment opportunities in local government and business houses.

“Sport has changed me. It helps me to know that even with a disability, I still can take part in sport and in my community. Sport helps me to stand up for myself. To feel confident to face whatever challenge I come across. So don’t look at your disability. Look at your ability, at what you can do.” – Elie Enock, Vanuatu Para Athlete and multi-medallist.

Jessica Richardson was an Australian Volunteer in Vanuatu from 2017-2020.


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Jessica Richardson


Wednesday, November 25, 2020 - 19:06