With the goal of increasing sports opportunities and societal acceptance for people with disabilities, the International Committee of the Red Cross is in the midst of a major expansion of its sports programs for people with disabilities.
Next year the ICRC will expand its programs into nine new countries*, bringing the number of countries to 27 where the ICRC is helping to support those with disabilities through sports. That represents a 50 percent increase in ICRC’s programs.
The long-term goal is big: To break down the stigma associated with physical disability and create structures in societies that allow people with disabilities to reach their full potential.
“Let’s make sure people with disabilities are not held back by misconceptions of what they are capable of,” said Jess Markt, ICRC’s Disabilities, Sport and Inclusion Advisor. “Let’s promote pathways to employment and education, and let’s counter the assumption that someone who had childhood polio or was hit by a landmine cannot function as a parent or productive employee. They can.”
Tuesday, 3 December is the International Day of Disabled Persons, which can serve as a reminder and a conversation starter about people who live with disabilities year-round. Markt — once a university-level athlete in the high jump at the University of Oregon in the United States before a car accident put him in a wheelchair – leads ICRC’s sports programs for the disabled worldwide.
“December 3 has become a day that we can focus on issues like inclusion. It’s an important day to call out disability rights and awareness worldwide. The challenge is the need to remember and include this community year-round,” said Markt, who is currently attending a major wheelchair basketball tournament in Pataya, Thailand, where six ICRC-supported teams are competing as part of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics qualifier.
One country where the ICRC works with disabled athletes is South Sudan. Eighty wheelchair basketball players, including 15 women, are now gathering in Juba for three weeks of training that will culminate in a tournament Dec. 12-13.
“When I’m playing, I forget about my disability. I put all my heart in it because it’s an opportunity to learn,” said one player, Mary Hezekiah. “Nothing would be impossible for people with disabilities if we were given the right means, but we are seen as nobodies.”
There are few services available in South Sudan for people living with disabilities and only three orthopedic centres—all supported by the ICRC—where people can receive physical therapy and mobility devices like prosthetics and wheelchairs.
“We see new patients every day at the orthocenters, many of whom suffered amputations following gunshot wounds,” said James Reynolds, the ICRC’s head of delegation in South Sudan. “It is a stark reminder of how this conflict has irreversibly altered the lives of so many. We hope that this tournament helps to break the stigma and exclusion around disabilities.”
* Nine new countries: Guinea Bissau, Laos, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Togo, Ukraine, Vietnam.Distributed by APO Group on behalf of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).