Discriminated and ignored: The sad story of India's paralympians

The article was first published on January 22, 2015.

Records were shattered, lifetime dreams achieved, but they came home to a disappointing, eerie silence. Three golds, 14 silvers and 16 bronzes - that was India’s medal haul from the recent Paralympic Asian games held in Incheon, South Korea last October.

But could you name even five of the medalists?

There are areas in life where the majority of Indians think it's fair to discriminate. Most of those matters involve caste and creed, but the most special treatment is reserved for the disabled.

 Discriminated and ignored: The sad story of Indias paralympians

File picture of Deepa Malik. AFP

Train stations typically do not have wheelchair access. In Mumbai, we have sidewalks that are uneven and usually occupied by roadside shops. Buses are inaccessible without ramps.

It is this state of affairs that the Deepa Maliks and Sharad Kumars of the Paralympic world must contend with.

Deepa Malik is an Arjuna Awardee. She has won 12 international medals and was the first Indian woman to win a medal the Para Asian games in Guangzhou, China in 2010.

She has lived with a congenital spinal condition since she was six and survived three spinal cord surgeries. Most recently, she was the only Indian woman athlete to win a silver medal in Athletics at the Para Asian Games at Incheon last October. She is 44 years old.

A late bloomer, Malik started her career at 36. She didn’t just survive her disability but rose above it. And she is angry at the lack of attention the media gives Paralympians.

“I wish the media covered para sports in more detail,” she said. “We win so many medals and yet there is hardly a mention.”

The limited media attention means limited access to funds. Paralympians have to worry about the cost of training, getting to practices, travel, lodging, entry fees, coaches and equipment. They are also more prone to injuries and infections because of their disabilities and the tough training they go through.

Malik had an advantage. She comes from well-to-do background and is the wife of an army Colonel. But even she supplements her income by working as a motivational speaker.

“Even with my husband in the army it’s not easy. I moved to Delhi to help my training and its hard being away from my family for so long. On top of that I have to take care of my rent, a full time attendant and travel expenses are high since I cannot take the public transport.”

Sharad Kumar, who was left with a disability after taking spurious polio medicine from the local eradication drive, recently made a comeback after a two-year ban for taking a banned substance. In order to train, he had to call in favours from his village kinsman Umashankar, who is an auto rickshaw driver in Delhi.

“Training just for a month is very expensive,” Kumar said. “If it wasn’t for Umashankar, I would spend Rs 600 just as my travel costs everyday.”

Kumar impressively rebooted his career with a gold at the Asian Para Games. Opening up about his ban, he maintains he was innocent of the crime. “I was a fool, and too trusting. But we athletes do not have any medical education. There are so many medicines that we cannot take due to banned substances but we are not aware of this.

“I was training for the London 2012 Olympics. During the training session I left my supplement bag unattended in my belief that no athlete would deliberately sabotage me. I even told my coach that it had started tasting funny but there was no evidence to prove it was sabotage.

“In my naivety I did not know what was going on”, he adds.

Sharad, now 22, competes in Athletics, has his eyes set on a gold medal the 2015 Athletic World Championships in Qatar. With a burning desire to prove his detractors wrong he emphatically says ”the Asian gold is just the beginning."

According to Rajesh Tomar, the head of the Paralympic Committee of India, even getting coaches is an issue. The Paralympic Committee of India needs a slew of coaches that are passionate about their job and go out to the grassroots level to identify new talent. However, there is a dearth of qualified people willing to put in their time, energy and resources.

Most coaches if they do agree to take the job have to pay for their own ticket and accommodation when they do go talent hunting.

“We need to get to the grassroots levels. We need more school programmes at the lower levels and in schools so we can spot talent better,” Tomar said.

The budget given to the Paralympic Committee pf India is Rs 2.24 crores for the whole year and this budget covers a total of 17 federations. To put this into perspective, a wheel chair racing model costs costs Rs 4 - 5 lakh and only lasts for six to eight months.

But despite all these drawbacks there are several encouraging developments for India’s paralympic community. Four disabled sporting centres that are scheduled to open in 2016 at Zirakpur in Punjab, Vizag, Ujjain and Delhi. That’s too late for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio but the focus is on the Tokyo Games in 2020.

The Government has also recently given disabled athletes the same reward for winning medals as regular athletes. It is a good start but it doesn’t address the fundamental inequality in how they are embraced.

“I get angry sometimes - why the disparity? Malik said. “Do we not win awards for our country? We put in the same amount of effort, sweat and dedication to our sports as normal athletes. So why are our achievements ignored?”

Updated Date: Mar 23, 2015 08:44:57 IST