India and the quest for a legacy of sport and physical activity for, with and by persons with disabilities
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Over the years, there has been a steady increase in interest in Indian para-sports across the stakeholder spectrum.

The Asian Para Games 2023 were a turning point for the Indian para-sports movement. Ranking fifth on the overall medal table, the Indian contingent set records with the country’s highest ever tally of 111 medals at the recently concluded Games in Hangzhou, China. Coupled with a few other individual records and extensive media coverage, this has the potential to spur more conversations around the contributions of persons with disabilities (PwDs) to sport, and highlight the potential of sport and physical activity (SAPA) to enable the achievement of SDGs for, with and by PwDs.

Over the years, there has been a steady increase in interest in Indian para-sports across the stakeholder spectrum. The success at the Asian Para Games built on the platform provided by the performances at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020. However, the performance at the Asian Para Games has provided a timely impetus to the subject of how the sports ecosystem can empower and be empowered to work for, with and by PwDs. The ripple effects have resonated with policymakers, the private sector, and organisations on the ground. There is already a growing interest in improving institutions and infrastructure to better support PwDs in and through sport. 

IDPD 2023: SDGs for, with and by PwDs

Equally, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) 2023 presents an opportunity to discuss how we can encourage a legacy of inclusion and support for PwDs within the Indian sporting ecosystem. The theme for the IDPD 2023 is “United in action to rescue and achieve the SDGs for, with and by persons with disabilities”.

While acknowledging disability as an evolving concept, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines PwDs as ‘those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others’.  In India, the official figure of those living with a disability is around 2.2% of the population (other estimates suggest that PwDs might constitute as much as 4-8% of the population). While these numbers represent a diverse and heterogeneous population, PwDs generally face discrimination, stigmatisation and other barriers that restrict their participation in society, leading to poorer health outcomes, partly because of a lack of equal access to SAPA. 

A Sports Stack approach for inclusion and empowerment of PwDs in and through sport

We believe that SAPA can play a transformative role in achieving SDGs for, with and by PwDs. SAPA plays a significant role in the development of skills for other areas of life, such as teamwork, cooperation, communication and leadership, and can be used for therapeutic purposes. Sport can enhance the well-being of PwDs by transforming how society views PwDs and simultaneously positively influencing how PwDs perceive and feel about themselves. Sport achieves this by reducing the stigma and discrimination associated with disability, enhancing socialisation, promoting independence, fostering inclusion and empowering PwDs.  SAPA can also have a positive impact on the enjoyment of other fundamental and human rights such as the right to equal access, right to health, education, employment, free expression, etc. Thus, it acts as an instrument of empowerment as well as an end in itself.

In order to facilitate access to SAPA and secure its benefits for PwDs, at the Sports and Society Accelerator, we advocate a whole-of-system rights-based approach based on the Sports Stack. We have discussed the Sports Stack in a previous blog. In brief, the Sports Stack is both an evaluative framework and a policy lens to the design, implementation and monitoring of policies and initiatives involving SAPA across the various layers of sport and society initiatives. 

We have discussed our approach in relation to SAPA for, with and by PwDs in significant detail in a submission to the Indian government in response to a draft policy for persons with disabilities. It is also available on sportanddev. We present a snapshot of our approach here.

A whole-of-system sports stack approach looks at mainstreaming disability issues, identifies barriers for PwDs at different layers of their interaction with SAPA (excellence, governance, innovation, capacity, participation, and knowledge), and addresses them comprehensively. As a result, it becomes imperative to weave this understanding into the fabric of policy considerations and societal perspectives. The essence of genuine access and participation for PwDs hinges on the elimination of barriers hindering their involvement in sports and physical activity, encapsulating attitudinal, communication, physical, policy-based, programmatic, and social dimensions. The identified barriers span attitudes rooted in stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination, physical obstacles in environments, communication challenges, policy gaps, the need for continuous assistance for severe impairments, societal conditions, and transportation constraints. While these barriers extend beyond the realm of sports, their impact is magnified when considering the movement and engagement of PwDs in SAPA. Lack of awareness, inaccessible facilities, inadequate equipment, absence of reasonable accommodation measures, and limited information contribute to a landscape where sporting opportunities are not equally available.

We suggest that for every layer of the Stack, interventions must follow a ‘do-fund-regulate’ model of governance. We identified implementable suggestions for what the stakeholders in the public and private sectors can ‘do’, what they can ‘fund’ and how the government can ‘regulate’ to make sure that policy formulations can be brought to life. Overall, long-term sustainability of the physical activity movement for PwDs requires making provision of accessible infrastructure, facilitating development of technology and provisioning of assistive devices and adapted sports equipment, making available different means of livelihood in the sporting ecosystem on an equal basis, providing equal support, establishing high performance centres, ensuring effective participation by PwDs and good governance in structures that seek to promote and administer SAPA for PwDs, and facilitation of funding and investment opportunities for the operationalisation of various policy initiatives. 

A rights-based approach means recognition of the universal right to physical literacy and access to physical activity for PwDs as a fundamental human right emerging from the rights to life, health, education and freedom of expression. An inclusive operationalisation of this right would cater to the entire spectrum of disability without conscious or unconscious bias towards a particular kind of disability. Simultaneously, PwDs also face exclusion and marginalization based on the intersection of their disability with age, gender, caste, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, religion, etc. All stakeholders ought to adopt an intersectional approach in developing and implementing plans. Thus, the broad policy formulations should be inclusive and disability neutral while specific interventions (non-exclusive) could cater to particular kinds of disability and intersectionality. Stakeholders must identify, define and engage with right holders and duty bearers, promote and apply a universal design approach, and focus on good governance, responsible sport, safe sport and long term sustainability of the SAPA movement for PwDs.

A comprehensive rights-based approach to developing inclusive and disability-specific physical activity and sports can go a long way in fulfillment of several SDGs involving PwDs. These include good health, gender equality, decent work, reduction in inequalities and strong institutions. The structured development of ‘sport for all’ and access from a young age through the physical literacy movement can ensure that PwDs have the autonomy to choose what meaning they give to sport, movement and physical activity in their lives, to the extent these are possible in their circumstances. The ‘physical literacy for all’ movement is not about concessions or carving out separate spaces. It is about autonomy and the recognition that sport can do most for all when sporting structures are integrated and inclusive. 

Shubham Jain is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Cambridge where he researches on the intersection of sports, merit, diversity and governance with a focus on cricket. He is also an independent consultant in the field of sport and human rights and is the Associate Editor of ‘The Routledge Handbook of Mega-Sporting Events and Human Rights’.

Nandan Kamath is the Co-Founder of Sports and Society Accelerator. He is a dual-qualified lawyer, licensed to practice in India and California. He is a specialist in sports law, governance, and sports performance. He is the Founder and Principal Lawyer at LawNK, and Co-Founder and Managing Trustee of GoSports Foundation. A former national-level cricketer, Nandan has represented the Karnataka state junior teams in cricket.

Mridul Kataria is the Chief of Staff at the Sports and Society Accelerator. He has close to five years of academic and field experience in the sport and social change sector across Europe and India.

Image by Kampus/Pexels



All sports
Sustainable Development Goals
10 – Reduced inequalities
Target Group
People with Disabilities

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