Empowering communities: Enhancing Paralympic engagement in sub-Saharan Africa
The Para Sport Against Stigma (PSAS) project, spanning from 2020 to 2024, is more than just a collaborative effort between Loughborough University London, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the University of Malawi, Chancellor College; it's a testament to the power of inclusivity and the impact of Paralympic sports on changing lives. Its roots stem back to the London 2012 Paralympic Games, a landmark event that showcased the incredible abilities of Para athletes and their untapped potential. The AT2030 PSAS project set out to address disability-related stigma in Africa by harnessing the power of Para sports to promote the adoption of assistive technology (AT), with a mission to redefine perceptions of disability in Sub-Saharan Africa. By emphasising the crucial aspects of representation, education, and communication within Para sports, this innovative project aims to break down societal barriers, thus making assistive technology more accessible and widely adopted.
The research adopted a participatory action research approach, which involved three cycles with various key elements.
Cycle 1: Extending the reach, enhancing the engagement of Tokyo 2020
As part of the first cycle, attempts were made to extend the reach of broadcast of the event to enhance the relevance of the engagement.
Community screenings were held in rural areas in the southern, central and northern regions of Malawi, which successfully raised awareness about Para sports and Paralympic athletes. People were exposed to the incredible stories of these athletes, challenging their notions about disability and disability sports. Attendees expressed shock, amazement, and excitement after watching the content. Some even asked “Is this real? Are you sure this isn’t fake?” It demonstrated a growing media literacy and critical thinking among the audience. The discussion sessions that followed the screenings provided a platform for communities to engage in conversations about disability, exclusion, and the potential of inclusive sports. It evidenced the power of storytelling through media that could bridge gaps and encourage dialogue. Paralympic content was showcased alongside local stories, followed by discussions to encourage community engagement and challenge stereotypes. Theatre for Development, for instance, allowed communities to generate their own stories about disability experiences and inclusion in sports, which were then performed for wider audiences, promoting understanding and dialogue.
Collaboration with broadcasters in Malawi provided local language commentary during Paralympic broadcasts in African countries, bringing a localised perspective to the international event, fostering connections, and promoting inclusivity. The commentary that was put on for all the African countries was produced in France and then sent to the partners for distribution in either English, French or Portuguese. Local Malawian commentators for the Para sport broadcasts brought a unique and relatable perspective to the audience. One of the commentators, renowned for football commentary, was already well-known as the voice of sports, resonating deeply with the audience, while another commentator, a person with a disability, held significant influence with a regular radio presence advocating for disability rights. Their use of local idioms and humour, discussing the potential for more swimmers given the presence of Lake Malawi and joking about their participation in wheelchair basketball, created a powerful and engaging connection with the audience.
Cycle 2: Collaborating, Localizing, and Making Noise
With a bank of evidence from the first cycle, the second phase involved a workshop with Disabled Peoples Organisations (DPOs), the Malawi Paralympic Committee, media professionals, and communication for social change experts. The focus was on the upcoming African Union Region 5 Youth Games, involving neighbouring countries such as Mozambique, Lesotho and Namibia, being hosted by Malawi that year, at which included Para sports competitions was being included for the first time.The workshop was called ‘Making the Noise’, with a toolkit available for usage. It was directed towards generating ideas to increase conversations and exposure. It saw school-based activities, including theatre and Para sports demonstrations to promote stories of Para athletes in the media. The media's role in covering Para sports events became more mainstream and commercially valuable. The increasing coverage led to calls from the public, parents, and companies wanting to support Para sports. The government's involvement in promoting Para sports was initiated.
Cycle 3: Policy impact
The evidence from the first two phases played a crucial role in the government incorporating Para sports into its policies. This is now the focus of the third phase, wherein the team is leveraging insights gathered from the initial two cycles. By integrating the valuable findings obtained previously, collaboration is underway with various stakeholders, including other ministries and development partners. This collaborative effort aims to propel Malawi's position as a leading force in Para sports within Sub-Saharan Africa, building on the successes observed and working towards further advancements in the field. Malawi’s National Disability Policy now states that a key strategy to achieve the policy aim of Self-Representation and Participation is to “Strengthen the use of sports as a platform to raise public awareness on disability mainstreaming”. The findings from all three phases will feed into the implementation of this strategy, underlining the power of participation, dialogue, and inclusivity in challenging disability-related stigma and promoting the acceptance of Para sports.
The journey of implementing participatory approaches within the realm of sports for development reveals both the challenges and the profound impact they have. Collaborative action research, while inherently messy and unpredictable, stands out as a crucial avenue for creating actionable knowledge that leads to sustainable change. This approach emphasises the amalgamation of diverse knowledge, trusting in the varied perspectives and experiences of different stakeholders. Establishing trust, fostering collaboration, and understanding the importance of convening power become pivotal in enabling the success of such initiatives. By engaging with policymakers and sharing evidence, it becomes apparent that their openness and inclusion of para sports in national policies result from informed conversations and evidence-based advocacy. Moreover, the role of the media surfaces as a transformative force, driving mainstream, socially valuable narratives about disability sports, with the potential to shift perceptions and catalyse social change. Their involvement not only amplifies the stories but also contributes to legitimising the significance of para sports in society. In essence, it's this collaborative, inclusive, and evidence-driven approach that fosters a space where diverse voices are not only heard but also actively participate, laying the foundation for a more inclusive future in the sports arena.
About the authors
Dr Jessica Noske-Turner is a senior lecturer with expertise in media and communication for development and social change. Jessica teaches in areas of communication for social change, global media, research methods and creative industries.
Kritika Naidu is a former cricket journalist from India, currently in London after completing her master's in Sport Business & Innovation from Loughborough London. Her expertise is in writing, content strategy and social media.