media_artricles :: 2017
Opportunity, not pityFazeer Mohammed :: Trinidad Express :: 24.07.2017
AS ONE counted among the unenlightened when it comes to attitudes towards the differently-abled in our society, it is not an easy thing to watch events like the Paralympics or World Para Athletics.
There's a gut reaction to feel sorry for young men and women competing with gusto and determination despite their disabilities. Yes, the perspective should be far more positive: celebrating their considerable abilities and appreciating just how much more could be achieved by those in wider society way beyond the limited confines of sport, if only they could be treated with equity and fairness, if only they could be given the opportunities to achieve their fullest potential, whatever that potential may be.
So Akeem Stewart's golden double in the javelin and shot put over the past week at the Olympic Stadium in London, supported by Nyoshia Cain's bronze in the women's 100 metres, are more than just national celebrations of international sporting success. They are reminders, yet again, that there are thousands upon thousands of fellow citizens who are constrained by archaic perceptions of the "handicapped" from at least seeking to fulfil their own aspirations.
Most, like the rest of us presumably able-bodied nationals, will not achieve international prominence in sport or any other pursuit. But that is not the point. What matters is that they are recognised and respected as equals in our nation, fully deserving of services as straightforward as wheelchair access and the simple recognition of parking reserved for persons with disabilities.
In just those two areas alone we are miserable failures, to say nothing of the many other aspects of everyday life where there is little or no regard for the challenges faced by those coping with different levels and varieties of disabilities. And it explains why, beyond the immediate headlines and short-lived celebrations and vacuous arguments about who should get how much from the state for achieving what, sport for those with mental and physical disabilities has a considerable way to go in this country.
Progress has been made over the years, no doubt, thanks to the tireless efforts of a committed few who have laboured for decades with very little recognition, not that they crave such attention. After Stewart's gold in the javelin at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro last year, Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee president Brian Lewis, speaking to "Wired 868.com," hailed the achievement as a springboard to greater things.
"It is a tremendous achievement and it is a game-changer in terms of the Paralympic Committee," he said. "And it is a platform for a different discussion in terms of how we treat Paralympic athletes (as well as) a broader discussion in terms of our society and how we treat with the differently-abled, whether in terms of facilities and amenities. It is an opportunity not only for a conversation about sport but a discussion about equality and inclusiveness in terms of how the society treats those with different abilities."
It's less than a year since that historic success in Brazil but Lewis will be best-placed, alongside those in the Paralympic Movement, to indicate whether that conversation has actually been initiated in earnest, meaning that it is something beyond talk for talk's sake and there is a definite intent to move to the mythical level of implementation.
During an interview a couple weeks ago with Sharda Ramlakhan, chairperson of the Consortium of Disability Organisations (CODO), it was clear that progress has been both minuscule and painstakingly slow, and that the strident advocacy of the likes of the late George Daniel—he once chained himself to the gates of National Flour Mills on Wrightson Road in protest at two persons with disabilities not being hired by NFM—has done little to shift established attitudes which determine that the differently-abled are other people's problems and that they should be neither seen nor heard. So yes, we must celebrate the success of Stewart and Cain, and especially look forward to the comments of Stewart's father, Wayne, which are always headline-grabbing, whether it's about his son being chased away from the Dwight Yorke Stadium field or advising on the need to be like a fruitcake to take the heat that comes with life in this place.
Just the manner of the burly Tobagonian's success yesterday in the British capital, where he shattered a 20-year-old shot put world record for his category by more than four metres, speaks to a remarkable achievement, even more so when the limited training facilities and opportunities available to him are taken into consideration.
However, the real success of Akeem, Nyoshia, George and Sharda will be in triggering the meaningful transformation of this society into one that recognises the equal rights of all of our citizens, whether hurling the spear in Rio or boarding the bus at City Gate.
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PROUDLY FLYING THE T&T FLAG: Sprinter Nyoshia Cain, left, and field athlete Akeem Stewart, right, display their medals while posing with swimmer Shanntol Ince at Piarco International Airport on their return from the Rio 2016 Paralympics last September. —Photo: ROBERT TAYLOR