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Paralympics vital for 'breaking down social barriers' for disabled people, say African athletes

'The plane door opened and not only was there a ramp, there was a member of staff to greet me. I had never seen that in Nigeria before'

Barney Cullum
Sunday 21 August 2016 22:35 BST
Team GB star David Weir celebrates winning the men’s 800m T54 final in London
Team GB star David Weir celebrates winning the men’s 800m T54 final in London (Getty)

To the distaste of many and surprise of some, convicted murderer Oscar Pistorius is still held in high esteem by many fellow disabled athletes and non-athletes alike.

“He was the first one to break down barriers for disabled people,” said Arnu Fourie, a relay partner when South Africa’s double-amputee team won gold at the London 2012 Paralympics. “He made people realise that whether you are born with or acquire a disability, you don’t have to settle for a plan b or plan c in life.”

Pistorius competed at the Olympics the same year, an unprecedented achievement for a disabled athlete, but one that preceded self-destruction in his domestic life and infamy in the courts. “It would be stupid to say it has not had an effect on the momentum we had been building, but it is left to the rest of us to assume the baton,” Fourie said.

That was in July, before budget squeezes revealed by organisers put the very presence of African nations at September’s Paralympics in jeopardy.

The news that travel grants may not be made available to between 10 and 50 Paralympic teams represents a "setback" that is bigger than sport. The countries least likely to find other means to fund participation are also the ones where there remains the most to do in addressing and overcoming stigma towards disabled people, Leonard Cheshire, which promotes disability inclusion in international development programmes, spelled out last week.

Anne Wafula-Strike represented Kenya at the Athens Games and as such is well placed to describe the wider impact para-sport has had on cultural attitudes, access and life prospects in sub-Saharan Africa in the 12 years since.

“When I went back to Kenya after competing in Greece, everyone wanted to meet me. Every school kid, every politician. I remember people touching me and saying how soft my skin was; how healthy my teeth looked.” The image of Wafula-Strike on television, a powerful yet graceful wheelchair racer, was at odds with ideas about polio or disability more generally in Kenya at the time.

“I remember meeting other people with disabilities when I returned, school children and young adults. Some were street hawkers, many were rape victims.” These were common fates for disabled women in Kenya then and similar outcomes are visible now. Access to mainstream education was rare for disabled children in Kenya at the time of Wafula-Strike’s breakthrough, as were opportunities for secure, waged employment for disabled adults.

Stigma and practical solutions, whether it be equipment, tools, facilities or resources, remain a challenge. However, the athlete has been able to use the status that comes with being a revered performer to advocate successfully both for progressive legislation and for enhanced teacher training for disabled children. She has also mentored volunteers working on inclusive education programmes.

In Nigeria, Lagos-born wheelchair basketball star Ade Orogbem says the London Paralympics has had the biggest legacy for disabled people of any Games to date. “I remember the first time I flew back to Nigeria after 2012,” he said.

“The plane door opened on arrival and not only was there a ramp, but there was a member of staff on hand to greet and support me. I had never seen that in Nigeria before.

“Because of the historic links between the UK and Nigeria the Paralympics had a huge audience in 2012 and you immediately noticed the difference in attitudes and awareness on going back home.”

And in Zimbabwe, the nation’s Paralympic committee (ZPC) are waiting to see whether they will receive $8,000 up front from the Rio organising committee towards travel costs for their team. $14,000 had been promised earlier in the year - $1,000 per athlete - but now they are told that the final $6,000 won’t come until after the Games. They will need to turn to “the government and its partners” for finance.

The ZPC claim stigma has decreased towards disabled Zimbabweans since the country joined the Paralympic movement. Zimbabwe enjoyed success in 2004, collecting gold medals in the blue riband sprint events. There is genuine warmth – alongside national pride – felt towards Zimbabwe’s Paralympians and the state has already assured the ZPC they will make up any shortfalls in travel funding.

At a time when Zimbabwe is barely able to pay its own civil servants, when it is flirting with establishing new currencies, there is a risk the warmth will cool. But then of course, there is risk the same scenario could play out in recession-hit Brazil, if locals turns against the Paralympic Games following the news some new public money (as well as private funds) will be invested.

With almost 5,000 children born with Zika-related microcephaly facing an uncertain future in Brazil, the importance of achieving a popular and inclusive Paralympic Games – one with a legacy that bolsters awareness and support for disabled people - cannot be understated.

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