September Issue 2015

By | Sports | Published 4 years ago

Witnessing the team representing Pakistan at the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles proudly parade behind a marching band at its ‘Welcome Back Ceremony’ was a genuinely uplifting experience. The atmosphere was festive. A cake was cut, while a screen-projection displayed the team’s preparations at home and experiences in Los Angeles. The young champions’ pride and joy were infectious from the glorious first beat of the national anthem through to the last of the animated conversations, in which they recalled their exploits with guests and the media, amid jubilant song and dance. And the exploits were considerable — Team Pakistan bagged 33 medals (14 gold, 11 silver, and 8 bronze) at the games this past summer.

Special Olympics, the brainchild of Eunice Kennedy Shriver (and husband, Sargent Shriver), is dedicated to “fostering the acceptance and inclusion of all people,” including the intellectually disabled, in society. The intellectually disabled are classified as those children who have acquired one of several disabilities limiting their intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour before they turn 18.

While Ronak Lakhani, Special Olympics Pakistan (SOP)’s recently appointed Chairperson — arguably the organisation’s penultimate mover-shaker and mentor, and a recipient of the Nishan-e-Imtiaz for her outstanding contribution to the cause — takes pride in her team’s achievements over her 25 years with the programme, she laments the inadequate attention that children of special needs receive from policy-makers in this country. Her underlying apprehension was reiterated by many an instructor and parent present at the celebrations, as they fear for the ability of these young individuals to independently earn a livelihood, and enter the workforce of a nation whose ‘pride’ they are presently deemed to be.

Instructors at The Effort Special Rehabilitation and Vocational Centre, a specialised training institution that initiates special individuals into competitive sports, by first assessing and then honing their talents, are also disillusioned by the current situation. They grieve that our society continues to remain “unconditioned” to “interact with children of special needs in the right manner.” This is especially due to successive governments’ relative negligence towards the efficacy of special policies aimed at promoting awareness, alongside better education and employment opportunities for the intellectually disabled.

A glimmer of hope is, nonetheless, voiced by one of SOP’s veteran youth activists, who believes “there are encouraging signs, as we have recently seen a positive trend among several organisations that have been working to generate employment opportunities for people with physical disabilities.”

Lakhani stresses the accomplishments of SOP’s ‘Youth Activation Programme.’ Especially proud of the ‘Welcome Back’ celebration, which was, according to her, the sole effort of SOP’s youth activists, Lakhani is confident that they are well-prepared to take the charge from her, and her older associates, in the future.

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SOP, among several other efforts, provides ample evidence for the untapped potential of these citizens. Every instructor and activist is quick to point to the remarkable ease with which special children establish relationships of mutual affection and understanding with their associates. Each recognises the instinct for love and enduring loyalty as the trademark of an intellectually disabled person’s personality.

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The ‘Unified Sports Experience,’ through which special athletes and youths without disabilities play in collaborative teams, is one of many ways in which the Special Olympics offers a unique platform for Generation Next to exchange fresh perspectives and establish the groundwork for social integration. By citing his observation “that they learn new stuff very quickly,” unified-player and youth activist, Mohammed Tambawala, expresses confidence in these children’s ability to become a positive addition to Pakistan’s labour force. The bronze-medal winning boys’ football team’s special members, including Imran Hussain, Elizar Iqbal, and Sajid Shah, have similar aspirations. One, being a high-school student, is yet to decide on a career path; another hopes to return to SOP and potentially train other teams for events in the future (since Special Olympics rules do not allow athletes to participate in a single event more than once); while the third coyly declares plans to marry and begin his own entrepreneurial venture.

Ishrat Zehra, one of the team’s coaches, recalls her own apprehensions when she began training SOP’s athletes. She confesses that she used to be prejudiced against children with special needs and was often impatient, even hostile, in her interactions with them. Breaking into a soft smile, Zehra now expresses her heartfelt gratitude for these children, who have taught her the art of loving and sharing, skilful communication, and patient training. She now advocates for a pedagogical approach that encourages learning through patience and persuasion as opposed to teaching with force and punishment. She says, “if they cannot throw a ball with one hand, they are encouraged to try with the other.”

What is most impressive about the athletes is their unified spirit in taking each member’s triumph and each one’s loss as a team. Saira Ikram, who has overcome even greater obstacles than others, being the offspring of a disabled set of parents, truly embodies this team spirit. In spite of securing a silver medal in her track event, Ikram was left feeling distressed for those teammates who had not managed to secure positions in spite of their hard work.

Sarwat Gillani, the celebrity face of SOP, asserts that there can be no better ambassadors for Pakistan than our Special Olympics team, whose conduct was universally appreciated by its hosts in Los Angeles. She thoughtfully comments on how much more we can learn from children with special needs than ever teach them.

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The parents of the children, too, have shown a similar commitment. To cite an instance, the father of Umme Salma Tayyab Ali, a gold-medal winning Badminton doubles and singles champion, fondly recollects the hours his wife devoted to accompanying their daughter for training, in addition to supporting and praying for her during her preparation. Although the Alis are a shining example of parents who are committed to their child’s success through SOP, there are cases of parents who hesitate to put their children on a competitive playing field, some fearing for the psychological impact of competition, others for the financial burden that training and participation could entail. In such situations, both the earlier learning institutions and SOP persevere to counsel the families about potential changes in outlook that the discipline of competitive sports could bring for this marginalised group of children. Lakhani confesses that SOP and its associates often go beyond their mandate, offering financial support to certain families, since so many of their ace athletes hail from extremely low-income backgrounds.

Special Olympics grants athletes far more than the mere exposure and attitude-uplifting experience of participation in a world-class sporting event. Dr Bilal H. Matin, who serves the organisation as both a youth volunteer and medical officer, was impressed by the comprehensively detailed medical provisions tendered by the Games Organising Committee. Even more impressive was the additional effort made by the host volunteers, ‘Healthy Athletes.’ They offered free medical examinations to each of the 7,000 participants in seven disciplines at the University of Southern California Campus. Among these, ‘Opening Eyes’ provided free prescription eyeglasses to those requiring spectacles, ‘Healthy Hearing’ provided free hearing aids to the hearing impaired, and ‘Special Smiles’ provided free dental screening and treatment for all participants. The SOP administration is clear in emphasising that the intellectually disabled suffer from a disproportionate lack of access to medical care globally.

Special Olympics, as stated by SOP, is a mere starting point that fashions a sense of confidence and self-esteem within Pakistan’s specially gifted athletes. With the opportunities and training that these intellectually disabled children receive from SOP, they successfully serve the nation better than most citizens could aspire to. Some former athletes, one of whom now serves SOP as a swimming coach, even feel an urge to return to SOP, in spite of being encouraged to move on to experiencing new things in life.

While there are concerns regarding the future of many of those we proudly call Pakistan’s champions today, SOP has provided a strong foundation upon which special children can gain a new outlook on the world, and upon which the mainstream of Pakistan’s society can begin to reconfigure its approach to children with special needs. After successfully roping in several large corporations as sponsors of the cause, and getting widespread media coverage in the aftermath of their triumphs, SOP forecasts a positive future for the empowerment of the intellectually disabled in Pakistan.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.