The Indian women’s wheelchair basketball team will represent the country for the first time ever at the Asian Para Games qualifiers, to be held in Bangkok from the first week of March. This is for a chance to participate in the Asian finals in October, and then finally in the Tokyo Paralympic Games (2020). This is their first time at an international Paralympic competition (The men’s and women’s teams won bronze medals in the Bali Internationals in 2017, but it wasn’t a Paralympic event).
Wheelchair basketball is a nascent sport in India, with the official Indian Wheelchair Basketball Federation formed just over three years earlier. But the sport has long been popular among disabled veterans in the armed forces. Only recently has the federation been able to apply to be recognised by the Sports Authority of India, which until recently had only supported individual sports at the Paralympics.
The challenges encountered while pursuing this sport, especially the women’s variant, are many. The severe lack of wheelchair accessibility when it comes to accommodation, transportation and restrooms constantly hinders the players from practicing or traveling for trials or camps. Catching flights are also difficult, as most planes only accommodate 4-5 wheelchair users, forcing the team to take multiple flights. Even the wheelchairs themselves are not on par with international standards due to lack of manufacturers of sports wheelchairs in India. Certain problems faced by them would not even be conceived of by able-bodied people. For example, Nisha Gupta, one of the better players, was forced to miss the selections due to an illness caused by not drinking water for almost two days during her train journey to Chennai. She did not drink water as she was traveling alone and there was no way for her to use the toilets in the sleeper compartment.
Despite this, the team has persisted against all odds and achieved significant progress, even with their limited means. They play hard, give no quarter and are constantly working to improve their skills.
The coaches are faced with the additional challenge of picking a team based on a classification limit of 14. Players are graded by independent classifiers from 1 to 4.5, with the lower limit for players with the most severe mobile disability.
President of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India, Madhavi Latha, is wheelchair bound due to spinal compression. Sport saved her life when she was given a year to live, close to eight years ago. But she says that the biggest impediment to their progress is a lack of awareness. "There is a lot of ignorance across all levels. Among disabled people, their parents and general public. Even I did not know much about disability before my own health issues. If people come to know about this, they might come forward to help. Even if they know, they might think that other issues, like the eradication of poverty, employment, health, education are higher on the agenda than sports. I have been trying to convince them that sport is part of education and health, and through this they can get employment opportunities as well. Things that can take years to learn in a classroom environment can be understood in a week using sport.”
When there is a lack of awareness, funding is always affected. This is something that is a constant challenge for the players and Federation. According to Latha, around 80 percent of the players come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. But they are all unanimous in their belief that the sport had dramatically changed their lives for the better.
India has close to 2.7 crore people who live with disability, as per the 2016 census update. Of this number, 21 lakh people are women who have disabilities related to movement. Rekha from Ghaziabad is the youngest player in the team, and she is about to turn 17. Her father is a master tailor for fashion designers in Delhi. “Lot of people with disabilities are stuck at home, thinking they can’t live a normal life. But I think that people like me are even better than normal people as we can do many things that they can’t. Nothing is impossible for us. Girls who want to study, play or do anything should be supported by their families.” Mumbai's Kartiki Patel is the team captain. “We do need to have good equipment as these are as good as our legs. But we do also need to improve on our skills,” she says.
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Updated Date: Mar 10, 2018 14:21:47 IST