August 23, 2012
The Paralympic Games has done much to break down the barriers for disabled people, through generating greater understanding and respect for their achievements, and by offering them a platform for curtailing discrimination through greater awareness. For disabled people in much of the world, great strides have been achieved with much thanks given in this regard to the Paralympic Games. And with what has been considered more coverage and more tickets sold than ever before, it is looking set to be a fantastic celebration of sport as well.
But in other countries, disabled people routinely face discrimination, and often even social stigma.
Janak Singh suffered polio as a child and became paralysed, losing the use of his legs. Through lack of understanding, such is the social stigma associated with disability in the country of his birth that Singh faced a lifetime of exclusion. “The situation is worse in India than any other country. If I was still in my home country…I would be treated as nothing.”
“When I was young,” he says, “I loved sport. I used to go to watch the village cricket teams and after the games, I would really want to shake the players’ hands. But… no one wanted to be touched by me.”
It’s hard to imagine the sense of unfairness suffered by this young man, but at 19, and a wheelchair racer poised for his first Paralympic Games, Janak may be in a position to help change attitudes in his home country: “If I’m successful in wheelchair racing, maybe that will encourage others to follow me [to a] place where any disabled person will have an open door.”
For Janak, it was a Laureus supported youth project, the SKSN sports project IMAGE that made all the difference. Identifying and nurturing his talent, his passion for sports was allowed to grow into something that could have been an inspiration not only to other disabled people, but that could help create a paradigm shift in attitudes in his home country.
Tragically, despite training in London, for disabled people back home, his place in the games may now be denied. Through circumstances beyond his control, he had not been registered for the Games back in India, and is unlikely to be able to participate, despite his supporters from IMAGE going to great lengths to try to rectify the situation.
Sneh Gupta, a leader at the IMAGE project who has worked with Janak for many years, said: “[This process has been] a maze, and so difficult to understand. What about those Paralympic athletes who don’t have anyone to back them up. How do they do it?”
For Janak, the situation is heartbreaking: “The fact that I am disabled is fine, I could deal with that. But what I have to put up with now, with my friends and family knowing what I have been trying to do but not finally doing it….that is more unbearable than dealing with.
However, if by any miracle Janak is allowed to participate in the London 2012 Paralympic his presence on the Indian team could have massive implications for attitudes towards disability in the subcontinent.
But should an administrative error prevent his appearance this year, Janak has more than proved the strength of character to wait until Rio to prove himself, and if his determination is anything to go on, that should be a storming success.