Playing by their own rules
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a team holds up their medals
How inclusion of girls with intellectual disabilities in India helps develop self esteem, autonomy and a sense of community.

Women with intellectual disabilities from remote rural areas and disadvantaged communities in India are often viewed by their families and society as passive, inadequate and a burden. However, many women are proving them wrong in their own ways, and for some, sports has happened to be the way.

It is almost 11 am and Anusha, Obulama, Revathi, Shamila, Deepthi and Kullayama are meeting for their tea break. Apart from working together at an artisan’s fair trade workshop in Andhra Pradesh, India, another thing they have in common is their passion for sports.

All of them joined the Special Olympics programme of Rural Development Trust (RDT), an NGO working towards rural development in south India, when they were teens. Although RDT started its sports for development project back in 2000, it was not until Special Olympics Bharat approached the organisation in 2012 that competitive sports for children with disabilities was introduced. RDT´s approach has not only focused on coaching and sports performance, but using sports as a tool that enables them to integrate into society as “individuals” while changing societal perceptions about intellectual disabilities.

Revathi has been part of this programme for 7 years. As a daughter of agricultural labourers she was condemned to long hours of isolation at home due to her disability. No one imagined that a girl like her, who barely stepped out of the house, would cross countries and win accolades at the national and international level in judo. “I like judo because it makes me feel confident and strong. I am invincible,” she says, laughing.

Through this programme these youth who never went beyond their village have had the chance to represent India in Australia, USA, Andorra, Austria, South Korea, Spain, Athens and Abu Dhabi. “Before going to Abu Dhabi for the Summer World Games 2019 my parents told me that I would not win, that I had no confidence, nor skills or talent,” explains Anusha. “I proved them wrong. I came back with 2 medals in table tennis: a gold and a silver.”

Shankar, head coach of the Special Olympics, explains that beyond medals, sport is used as a tool to catalyse their full transformation:

When they join most barely talk and live in a constant state of insecurity and low self-esteem. Apart from coaching, they are imparted with social skills, daily life activities, as well as basic literacy. Their independence and autonomy is our motto”.

Although after few years some of them stop competing at the professional level, the values associated with the practice of a sport remain with them. Discipline, commitment, teamwork, leadership, time management, and concentration are traits they carry forward with them and helps in their successful inclusion society and especially in the workplace.

However, sports for development programmes still tend to classify and separate participants, especially when it comes to  disabilities, which contributes to perpetuating mainstream ideas of defining people with disabilities. These are often based on what makes them “different”, rather than who they actually are or what they do and thereby enhancing their existing capacities.

For Anusha, Obulama, Revathi, Shamila, Deepthi and Kullayama, being part of the Special Olympics has provided them with the possibility of having a space where they can freely relate to each other. The friendships that these youngsters have formed during these years, with people with and without disabilities as well as people with different disabilities, are what has enabled them to break the barrier of isolation and forge their own identity by being themselves. That has been the most valuable outcome. By doing so they are showing that they are capable of playing by their own rules in a society that classifies and stigmatises disabilities.

Visit the Rural Development Trust website for more information.


United States
South Korea
United Arab Emirates
Middle East
North America
All sports
Sustainable Development Goals
5 - Gender equality
Target Group
Girls and women
People with Disabilities

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