Power play: Table tennis driving disability dignity in Kiribati
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After suffering stigma and shame for too long, people with a disability in Kiribati are demanding new respect and recognition and they credit table tennis with fueling the fire of empowerment.

It doesn't look special, but Te Toa Matoa, the Kiribati Disabled People's Organisation headquarters, has an atmosphere all its own; something in the air, a palpable energy.

The maneaba, or thatched meeting house, is much like any other dotted along Kiribati's coral atolls. The Pacific Ocean kisses golden sand just metres away on one side and Tarawa's main (and only sealed) road crosses the Anderson Causeway a few metres the other side. Everyone who drives past slows and stares.

A visually-impaired woman deftly navigates the low entryway and takes her place on the cool, concrete floor. A game of checkers with seashells as makeshift pieces is underway in one corner, a game of rummy in another. Discarded crutches and abandoned wheelchairs litter the area. Taking pride of place, in the centre of the room, under the watchful eye of a statue of Mother Mary, sits the table tennis table.

That's where the magic happens.

Regina Ritiata is a diminutive figure, slight of frame and gentle in nature, until she picks up a paddle. Then she seemingly powers up, slapping a small white ball, sometimes with glee, other times with grim determination. But on the other side of the net, Nei Ren Itonga gives as good as she gets. Her family knew something was wrong with her leg when she was less than a year old. Doctors said they couldn't do anything for her.

"I've got this problem," she says, her face falling as she recalls a darker time.

"I didn't shy away from it but sometimes when someone looked at my leg and didn't look at my face I became angry. But I will not be angry anymore because I accept this.

"I feel happy because I know many of our disabled friends here can't play. Some of us can and so I want to play every time I can."

- Nei Ren Itonga

Lured to Te Toa Matoa by the Australian Aid-supported Smash Down Barriers Disability Table Tennis Program, she felt so welcome, so empowered and perhaps so addicted, Nei Ren convinced her husband to move house to be closer to the organisation. When she speaks now, it is with determination, rather than anger.

"I know that we are the same as other people who are not disabled," she says.

"We will not be discriminated [against]. I now have no problem with my disability."

- Nei Ren Itonga

Karea Tioti is a commanding presence when he wheels up to the table. The double leg amputee has size and reach. He tries hard to summon the will to share his story with me, clearly wrestling with the memories, before apologising and declining. By contrast, his opponent, Tekamangu Bwauiru, speaks with revolutionary zeal.


Table tennis