Can the historic Paralympic medal tally alter our perception of disability?

By Shruti Pushkarna


Before I delve into this piece, I’d like to congratulate Team MxM on their tenth anniversary. Feels like it was eons ago, when I joined the team in August 2011. As my Editor handed me varied assignments, I saw myself mature and learn. Even today, I credit a great deal to MxM for helping me refine my writing style and develop a deeper understanding of issues. I continue my association with the team, with this fortnightly column on Media and Disability, with the belief that awareness can help create an empathetic society.


As a young girl, 10 or 12 years of age, I was quite interested in pursuing a sport. Badminton, specifically. But it wasn’t easy to nurture my passion.


At school, teachers only seemed to care about the academic scorecard of every student. If you so much asked to be excused for a sporting event, you were deemed lazy and unintelligent. There was no talk around the importance of sports in shaping one’s personality, team spirit and confidence.


At home, parents were busy grappling with their daily difficulties due to my mother’s chronic illness. However, on my insistence, they got me a temporary membership to a sports club nearby. I have vivid memories of that summer day, jumpy, all dressed up, and a racket in hand. I walked in with a beaming glow, as if I had already won my first game.


But the reality was very different from what I had imagined while lacing up my shoes that afternoon. Older men, who dominated the courts, overlooked me. I waited patiently for my turn. This repeated a few times, also because I didn’t have anyone my age to play with.


Soon I made peace, deciding not to pursue this interest further. Once in a blue moon, I would find a friend to play with, but the vehemence was gone.


Why am I reliving this childhood episode today, after all these years?


Sports have been the flavour of the season. After India’s best performance in four decades at the Tokyo Olympics, the Paralympic medal tally brought more cheer. India’s global ranking moved up to 24, with five golds in our kitty.


Each of these champions, who made the country proud, has a story to tell. An account of their beginnings, the budding interest, the journey, the follies, those who supported them, those who shunned them, an account laden with respective set of challenges and achievements.


As the medals started coming in, the Indian audiences began to take notice of a body of sports they never really followed. People on Twitter made open confessions, some journalists even, that they’d never seen Paralympics or any tournament involving Para sports.


It was the success rate that forced everyone to watch and applaud. Thanks to our shooters, archers and athletes, the national conversation steered away from cricket and focused on people beyond the average able-bodied citizen.


Between 1968 and 2021, India won 12 medals altogether. Whereas we got 19 just in this year! The Paralympics created new sporting icons for the country. This was our chance to acknowledge human ability beyond disability. Not just celebrating them as Heroes on primetime but recounting their additional challenges and the need for access.


Inclusion. I kept scanning media coverage for this one word, something the disabled community has long been fighting for. The focus of most news items (barring a few exceptions) in both print and television was on the divine, almost supernatural abilities of the winners.


There was no mention of how the player made his or her way through an inaccessible environment. What are the hurdles in infrastructural access? How difficult is it to get a corporate sponsor or a government body to arrange for special equipment or travel? What is the kind of money allocated to Para sports in the total sports budget?


The other obvious thing missing from the discourse was ‘disability’ itself. What does it mean to live on the fringes of society, unseen and neglected? What is it to be excluded from mainstream activities of education, employment or recreation simply because the physical spaces are ridden with barriers?


Most persons with disabilities lead undignified lives, because they are dependent and confined to the four walls of their homes. They are not seen as contributing members of the community. So if a disabled person manages to achieve something, it comes with a ‘Wow’ element. Because let’s admit it, a majority of us cannot fathom a reality where persons with disabilities lead normal lives.


It took nineteen medals since 1968, for us to nationally acknowledge their feat. Wonder how many more will it take for the media to look beyond their special abilities.


Sport is believed to be an enabler and an equaliser. People from different backgrounds compete on a common front. The same principle applies to disability. The victorious images of our Para champions can wash away the stereotypes of handicap. Once seen in an active avatar, the world can perceive the disabled folk as people with varied characteristics. See them as people first and disabled after.


Insensitivity and apathy springs from our inability to imagine a diverse scenario. Social media was full of ridiculous jokes and cartoons. One of them stated, that we should just break one or two limbs of our sportspersons before the next Olympics.


Reading that made me angry. Just like the time someone got into a Twitter row with me, saying the disabled folk have no business going out to a shopping mall.


But what made me angrier were the shallow interactions and on the surface reporting around this sporting milestone.


The media had the opportunity to bust a few myths. This was a chance to understand that disability is only a condition, and not something that defines a person’s identity.


Shooter Avani Lekhara became the first Indian woman to win a gold at Paralympics. This was an occasion for the media to investigate the state of women with disabilities. How many of them manage to get an education? How many of them face abuse inside and outside their homes due to their gender and bodily limitations?


I can go on ranting, but the moot point is that people simply don’t know enough about disability. Questions need to be asked. Situations need to be probed into. No amount of cash prizes and gifts or airtime will compensate for a faceless existence that the society has handed out to its 2.68 crore population.