We need to be more ambitious
What an inspiring journey, from Peru to Saint Lucia to California to Ghana, Uganda, Egypt, Thailand, Australia and Vanuatu and several more stopovers.
These are some of the places where a long list of incredible and emboldening stories, making up this special edition, are coming from.
It is so exciting to read that all over the planet there are committed people who share the same passion and determination to strengthen and make more visible the world of adaptive sports.
While I read of many great success stories, I also find many commonalities in the challenges and fears that we all share, more now than ever because of the impact and consequences of COVID-19.
Ours is a story of trial and failures where we want to unite able bodied youth with peers living with physical disabilities through a common passion for sports.
Based in Nepal, ENGAGE, the organization I co-founded with my wife Kalpana, is a small non-profit that tries to build on the extraordinary ecosystem of passionate social inclusion advocates and adaptive sports practitioners that have been pushing the agenda for inclusive sports in Nepal.
By designing the ENGAGE Sport Coach program, where young able bodied learn and work together with peers and senior players in wheelchair basketball, blind cricket and deaf football, we have always been trying to work in partnership, breaking down the silos that disallow more collaborations and synergies.
It has been a long journey since when in 2013 we started, thanks to our friend and advisor Michael Rosenkrantz, also one of the contributors of this series, our journey towards a more inclusive society.
Working in partnerships with local teams and organizations run by persons with disabilities is not an easy game, but it has been totally worthy and actually it is a must.
It is a must because only this way can able bodied persons can fully understand and respect the huge efforts peers living with disabilities have been putting in building a movement. It is also a must because it is the only way to build inclusion while creating an extraordinary platform for personal development.
Our young ENGAGE Sport Coaches volunteers have learned immensely from working with their peers on and off court and fields, and certainly there has been more of “taking” rather than a “giving” from their side.
Indeed, we tried our best with our little resources (incredibly, we were never been able to raise money for the program) to create a pathway of personal development for both our coaches and players.
We did not always succeed and we still have plenty of work ahead, but we remain hopeful that after the pandemic, we will be able to do what were used to do earlier on: breaking down the wall of discrimination and isolation with one hoop, one wicket and goal a time.
We have some success stories as well in terms of raising the visibility of wheelchair basketball as we were able, thanks to some great partners like Turkish Airlines and the Embassy of Switzerland in Nepal, which believed in us since day 1 to organize three editions of the ENGAGE Empowering League, one of the biggest adaptive sports wheelchair basketball competitions in the region.
The League, indeed the pinnacle of all the work being done by athletes and our coaches volunteers on the ground, has been designed to grow the level of the game while also, inevitably in a country still plagued by high rates of discrimination, aiming to create awareness about social inclusion and disability rights.
The latter dimension is so central and perhaps the most important aspect of the entire initiative, building the foundations of a more inclusive society where youth with disabilities have a big role to play in the development of the society.
Therefore the league has always been much more than sweat and glory on the court: it has been an enabler to promote a new understanding on the rights of persons with disabilities.
I believe we have been partially successful, but the entire endeavor is complex to organize and also expensive if you think about all the awareness outreach with students, trainings, promotion and the daunting logistics.
When the pandemic struck, we partnered with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Nepal for “Fit and Healthy No Matter What,” a series of online training and learning opportunities strengthened by psychological awareness that lasted for almost 3 months.
Who knows what will come next. After all ours are the same aspirations and same challenges that I found while reading the incredible contributions of this series.
What I know is that if we want to raise the profile of adaptive sports, we need to be ambitious and think big. Taking a step wise approach can be the right thing to do, but we can’t afford to lose the big goal while we remain humble and march on.
It is not just about stronger and more marketable sports events for adaptive athletes at national and international levels. It is about leveraging the power of sports to build an inclusive and sustainable society that becomes richer because it incorporates the aspirations of athletes with disabilities especially in developing countries and those of all persons with disabilities.
No more shattered dreams, no more the constant feelings of disempowerment, the inability to think big, like having the audacity to imagine that they can match the levels of top international athletes; the frustrations that emerge when egos and politics take over.
Just a practical example. Last year we tried our best to secure some funding for a great Para athlete of Nepal, para table tennis player Keshav Thapa.
We wrote a series of stories in one of the most read dailies in the country, hoping to find some corporate houses excited to support Keshav for his international competitions, a sine qua non for him to have a chance to be in Tokyo.
It was an utter failure despite trying hard to connect with possible sponsors. Why can’t we imagine Keshav and his amazing peers on the ads of a big bank? It is not happening yet, but let’s not despair.
One day will come where adaptive players will be seen also in developing and developed countries as key agents of positive change, not only as testimonials grabbing the headlines, but also as ambassadors for the common good.
Such transformative change can take different names like sustainability and social inclusion for example and hopefully is going to spread around local communities, everywhere.
Persons with disabilities in partnerships with other citizens can be true promoters and inspiring figures of such change and you know what? It can all start from sports.
So let’s go out of our comfort zones and let’s drive our common agenda. Let’s push our communication and marketing tools and let’s engage and involve the people of the world, friends and strangers alike without whom we will always remain invisible and real change will never happen.
Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE. He can be reached at [email protected]