Patrick Selepe learned from an early age that nothing in life comes easy.
Born in Limpopo province in South Africa, Patrick was only 3 years old when his father died. His mother soon remarried, and his new stepfather never fully accepted him as his own. It wasn’t long before Patrick realized he would have to take care of himself.
The challenges mounted with time. When he was 19 years old, Patrick was diagnosed with bone cancer and had his leg amputated. He still remembers the date of the surgery: September 26, 1996. It was another in a long road of bumps.
“After getting out of the hospital, it was a new journey for me,” Patrick says. “I didn’t have anyone to guide me, but I decided not to lock myself away in the house. With the support of my family and schoolmates, I pushed ahead.”
As he sat clicking through television channels one day, Patrick stumbled upon coverage of Fanie Lombaard, a South African Paralympic gold medalist and record holder in the discus, shotput, and javelin. Watching him compete, he thought if Lombaard could do it, why couldn’t he?
Patrick enquired about Paralympic sports at the provincial sports department and was sent to a club where he began participating in high jump and wheelchair basketball. After breaking the South African record in high jump, he established his own club, Limpopo Sports for Disabled, where he also served as an assistant coach.
With his extensive contacts in the disability community, Patrick was approached in 2003 by leaders interested in developing wheelchair tennis nationally and didn’t hesitate to become a founding member of Wheelchair Tennis South Africa (WTSA).
While serving in various development positions for the organization, Patrick quickly picked up the sport as both a player and umpire. In 2014, he reached a world ranking of No. 60 (singles) and No. 75 (doubles). At the same time, he became an umpire through the International Tennis Federation (ITF), and was the first person with a disability to serve as a line umpire for a Wimbledon Championships qualifier, and the first South African chair umpire with a disability to officiate a Davis Cup match. In 2017, he was awarded the UNIQLO Spirit Award in recognition of his “innovative spirit and desire to see wheelchair tennis continually moving forward to greater heights.” He currently serves as the community development and camps manager for WTSA.
Despite his many different titles during his time with the organization, Patrick has always focused on player recruitment. He regularly travels across South Africa’s nine provinces, uses databases and connections to meet people, and presents at schools and other locations about wheelchair tennis. As he finds players, he also identifies coaches for camps that he runs himself.
Since Patrick first started at the WTSA, there are now more than 500 active wheelchair tennis players in South Africa, 35 centers and schools offering tennis and coaching nationwide, and 70 players ranked by the ITF—second only to Japan. Of the many players he has recruited and developed in the past decade and a half, three have been ranked among the top 15 singles players in the world: Kgothatso Montjane, Lucas Sithole, and Evans Maripa.
“It is very special,” Patrick says. “It is my baby to empower these athletes and coaches. The federation has a small staff, but it gives us strength and we work as a team. We travel to a lot of very rural, inaccessible places. But, our projects never end. We’re helping people turn sport into their careers”
In the communities where Patrick recruits, people with disabilities form a very small segment of the population (statistics from South Africa’s 2011 census indicate 7.5 percent of the country’s population has a disability). While united by sports, disabled people living in these environments face significant challenges. Due to the lack of knowledge on disability and inclusion, many schools are inaccessible or often far removed from poorer communities where disabilities are more prominent. Many families also lack the finances to send their children to school, which affects their future employability and success.
This is where Patrick believes sport can made a difference. He understands that not every South African with a disability will become an athlete. But, he sees how sport opens other career opportunities in coaching, refereeing, and sports administration. He also sees the link between sports and academics, and how this can lead to greater opportunity.
“What we lack in South Africa is non-profit, work-placement academies; places where identified players can come to a center to practice sports, then work on their studies,” Patrick says. “If we can train, educate and nurture athletes with additional services they do not get in school then we will really be making a difference in their lives.”
To turn his vision for impact into a reality, Patrick participated on the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program working with Larry Labiak, who has spent more than a decade as the disability policy officer for Chicago Park District. The CPD is the first park system in the U.S. with major focus on accessibility and disability programming, and Larry plays a key role in ensuring inclusion of people with disabilities with specialty programs that serve those with both physical and intellectual disabilities. As Patrick learned more about creating an NGO structure, fundraising, and staff recruitment, Larry served as a valuable resource of wisdom and experience. Together, both leaders developed an action plan to ensure greater opportunities for inclusion and access to South Africans with disabilities.
Francisco Arbulu always felt at home with his feet off the ground.
Francisco, or “Pancho” as he prefers, was born and raised in Piura, Peru. From the time Pancho was a boy, his father, a retired commercial airline pilot and member of the Peruvian Air Force, would rent private planes to take his son on flights. He hoped Pancho would follow in his footsteps. After graduating secondary school, Pancho fulfilled his father’s wish, earning both his private and commercial licenses.
For more than a decade, Pancho piloted airplanes for Aero Condor, Aero Continente, Taca and other airlines. Then, in 2006, as he was on his way to the airport he was involved in a car accident that left him with a C5 spinal cord injury.
The accident was devastating for Pancho. Before his injury, any moment not spent in the air was spent on the open ocean. A talented surfer, he traveled throughout the Americas searching for the best spots to practice his sport. But, in his new life as a wheelchair user, he was convinced his life as a surfer was over.
Away from airplanes and surfboards, Pancho felt confined and unfocused. Finally, on the third anniversary of his car accident, he picked up the phone and told a friend who had sent him countless invites that he’d finally join him for a surf session at Punta Hermosa beach. Anxious, he had no idea what to expect.
“At first, I felt afraid,” Pancho recalls, “but when we went inside the water all the fear washed away. My mind and were refreshed. It felt like I was a new person at this moment.”
After returning home that night, Pancho searched online until he found links to articles about adaptive surfing. He set his sights on competing again. Almost a decade later, he has been a regular at competitions around the world, finishing fourth (2016) and sixth (2017) in his category at the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championships, while reaching the quarterfinals of the 2017 Hawaii Adaptive Surfing Championships and winning the 2017 Latin American Adaptive Surf Championships.
A year after he hit the water again in 2009, Pancho felt rejuvenated to rejoin the workforce. He applied for a position as a ground instructor with Avianca, the second largest airline in Latin America. Nobody had expected a wheelchair user to apply for this position, but Pancho persevered and was hired. He is now in his eighth year as a ground instructor with the airline.
“For someone who didn’t have a disability, when you have an accident you get depressed and you stop believing you can make something of your life,” Pancho says. “But then you meet other people in your situation and you realize sport can change that mentality. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and facing people, your community, your country, and all the barriers you face as someone with a disability.”
While he has persevered, many challenges face people with disabilities in Peru. According to government statistics, approximately 5 percent of the population (1.6 million people) has a disability. According to these same statistics, almost 90 percent do not have access to rehab or therapy, 81 percent do not know where to go to access services, and 77 percent do not actively participate in the economy. A report from 2012 found that around 23,000 Peruvians with disabilities were prevented from voting, cashing checks, or distributing property to family because they were either not issued national ID cards, or these cards listed their disability.
The situation transcends into the world of sports, where there few programs exist to serve people with disabilities. In Lima, Peru’s capital and the city where Pancho now lives, there is not a single adaptive sports program.
Pancho arrived to the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program with a strong desire to bridge this gap. Pancho took part in the GSMP with Juan Castillo—his personal assistant from Peru—by his side to support him along the way. He aims to create a grassroots program in Lima to encourage people with disabilities to practice sports such as adaptive surfing, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis and long-distance racing. At his mentor site, National Ability Center, he worked with Steve Robinson, global education manager. An organization with a 30-year history of supporting people with disabilities through sports, NAC provides opportunities in more than 10 sports, including aquatics and water sports, and provided more than 37,000 lessons and outings in each of the previous three years. Steve and his team provided Pancho with the knowledge and systems he needs to develop similar programs, and together their collaboration has the potential to lead a transformational wave of adaptive sports development in Peru.
The ethos of the Paraguayan spirit is defined as garra, a Spanish word for fighting spirit. This garra was tested in Leticia Baez Houdin’s life as a teenager dealing with the birth of her daughter.
Born into a very close-knit family in Asuncion, Paraguay, Leticia was a promising basketball player with hopes of a career on the national team. The birth of her daughter was a test: she was a young woman balancing work, studies and motherhood.
Despite the challenges, Leticia persevered. Putting down the basketball, she earned a bachelor’s degree in sports science from the Autonomous University of Asuncion and has spent the past six-and-a-half years working in the Ministry of Sports, promoting a variety of sports and serving as a coach and sports official.
The entire time her daughter has been there as a driving force for her success.
“In 2016, when I was given the opportunity to promote goalball in Paraguay, I was very afraid,” Leticia recalls. “And she said, ‘Mommy, you have to do it.’ That’s how she is. She’s always pushing me.”
Originally hired by the ministry as a sports technician in the sports development department, Leticia’s career in Paralympic sports began in 2013 when she volunteered on a wheelchair rugby project. Soon afterward, she became involved with organizing clinics, and eventually became a basketball referee and coach with Special Olympics.
In 2016, Leticia became the first Paraguayan woman to participate in the Paralympics when was chosen to serve as a technical official for wheelchair rugby at the Rio Games. Last year, the government supported the creation of the Paraguayan Paralympic Committee and she was named vice president and CEO of the organization.
For Leticia, the benefits of sport for Paraguayans with disability are endless. It provides discipline, responsibility and the opportunity to interact with a community of other people. Most importantly, it gives them the chance to live a new, second life.
This is especially important in the face of the challenges faced by this community. There is generally a lack of information about disability across society, and the education system does not address the issue so society remains ignorant about it. This is exemplified in the limited statistics available on disability. According to the most recent official statistics from the 2002 census, less than 1 percent of the Paraguayan population was identified as disabled, while an international analysis of the 2012 data suggests this number is closer to 12 percent or approximately 780,000 people.
“Disability in Paraguay is seen an inconvenience,” Leticia says. “From the primary to university level, people aren’t educated about it. Then, in the workplace, human resource departments aren’t prepared to deal with a person who has a disability. As part of the law, government institutions must hire a person with a disability. But, it is seen as an obligation to incorporate a person with a disability— not as their right to be able to work in that place like anyone else.”
Social discrimination manifests itself in widespread inaccessibility. There is little thought put into ramps, elevators, and accessible bathrooms. And, on the occasion where the facility is not the challenge, there is a lack of accessible public transportation to get to these spaces.
By developing Paralympic sport and giving prominence and influence to individuals with disabilities, Leticia and her team seek to address these challenges. While the NPC was only established in 2017, there are already other federations that are established or in the process of being established: wheelchair rugby, swimming, football, judo, canoeing, athletics and goalball (2018). And Leticia plays an influential role in how they collaborate with the NPC and develop sport to maximize its reach across the country.
By participating in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Leticia learned more about the tools and strategy she can utilize to encourage everyday people to become involved with Paralympic sports. To accomplish her goals, she was partnered with mentor Tina Acosta, director of program outreach for Turnstone, a Gold Level Paralympic Sports Club annually serving more than 2,200 individuals through adaptive sports and inclusion programs. Turnstone is also home to the U.S. men’s Paralympic goalball team. With more than a decade of experience in program outreach, Tina provided valuable insight about how to engage community members with grassroots and elite sports programming. In turn, Leticia brought her experience as a sports administrator in a fresh environment for adaptive sports development. Together, the duo worked to make an impact that will stretch across continents and extends to future generations in the U.S. and Paraguay.
As she made her way to the burn unit of Royal Rehabilitation Center for the hundredth time, Rola Allahaweh passed through the corridor the spinal cord injury unit. A military woman, she had finished her nursing degree from Mutah University and was working as a nurse at King Hussein Hospital while taking a burn management course.
“I saw many people in wheelchairs,” Rola recalls, “but I never stopped to think about their lives. I never imagined—not even in my dreams—that one day I would be a disabled person.”
In 2005, Rola’s life took a shocking and unexpected turn. She was at wedding celebration for her cousin when a bomb exploded at their hotel, as well as two others in Amman. She was struck by shrapnel in the skull, neck and back. The injury left her paralyzed with only use of her shoulders.
After her rehabilitation, Rola refused to give up. She traveled to the United Kingdom to complete an MBA from King’s College, focusing on the living experiences of people with spinal cord injuries. While there, she enjoyed going to the swimming pool and the independence available thanks to the accessibility of the city and its facilities. It was nothing like what she returned to in Jordan, where remaining independent became a challenge.
Rola took a position as a lecturer in the nursing college and began serving on the boards of the High Council for Affairs of Persons with Disabilities and the Hashemite Commission for Disabled Soldiers. She also helped organize a team of Jordanians to participate in the Invictus Games in 2016 and 2017. She was guided by a belief that anything is possible.
“Maybe you cannot change the direction of the wind, but you can adjust the sail,” Rola says. “Even if I can’t help myself, I can help someone else.”
As a nurse, Rola conducts medical research on post spinal cord jury. Much of this research focuses on quality of life, including the physical (pressure sores) and psychological (depression) consequences of disability. Over the years, she has discovered more about the crucial role played by sport and physical activity in strengthening and improving physical and psychological health, as well as the employability of the injured. Whether competitive or recreational, sport addresses depression and anxiety, improves self-esteem, and allows people to develop companionship. The psychological role played by sport is especially important for a population that faces everyday discrimination in work, education and sport. According to a 2015 report, 13 percent of the Jordanian population has a disability, and only 8 percent of those 15 years or older are employed.
In order to address these issues, significant disability rights legislation has been pushed by international organizations and a new comprehensive disability law was passed as recently as 2017. However, Rola says there is little to no enforcement.
“Many families hide their kids, especially if it’s an intellectual disability, because people feel if they show their disabled kid the shame will lead, for example, to their sister not getting married,” Rola says. “The negative attitudes are very strong. Employers correlate disability with low skills, and there is a lack of knowledge or expertise on how to accommodate those with disabilities in the workplace.”
Despite these challenges, Rola is optimistic about the 2017 law, especially with the support of the Jordanian royal family. The King has supported the Invictus Games, and Rola would like to use the support that is available to create facilities that provide sports and other needed services to people with disabilities.
More than developing and increasing the amount of sports available to people with disabilities in her country, Rola is focused on mobilizing and empowering people with disabilities—whether in sports or in any other area of life.
“If I can teach people that sport is a way for employment and it affects their economic state, this is progress,” Rola says. “To be disabled and speak to disabled people, I know they will listen to me because I know how they feel and I am here to help.”
Rola took part in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program with personal assistants Amal Allahaweh and Amy Bontuyan, who were supporting her along the way. During the program, she was mentored by Sarah Olson, military program coordinator for Ability360 Sports and Fitness Center. Sarah has had years of experience working on programs that promote fitness, independence and overall health at the largest independent living center in Arizona. She and her team helped expose Rola to new inclusive programming and taught her how to maximize resources for offering different services to the disabled community in Jordan. In turn, Rola provided an international perspective to the work done to serve and support injured military, as well as how disability sport advocates persevere to provide opportunities in inaccessible communities. Together, they are collaborating to impact and influence how sport-based empowerment is used in Jordan and in the United States.
Marcos Lima first experienced comfort in the darkness. After 16 surgeries in the first five years of his life to restore his eyesight, glaucoma finally took his vision before his sixth birthday.
“Blindness was a relief,” Marcos says. “The pain, the days I spent in a dark room with my mother holding my hand to keep me from ripping the bandages, they were not worth the little I could see.”
While blindness was a comfort from his earlier pain, Marcos’ true relief came in the form of soccer. “In Brazil, it doesn’t matter whether you are blind or not,” he says, “every boy wants to grow up to be a soccer player.” At his blind school, the boys put plastic bags around the balls so they could hear them and played for hours, racing from their classrooms to the courts at the end of the school day.
Marcos excelled on the field. In 2002, he was called up to represent Brazil at a tournament in South Korea. The next year he was a part of the selection pool for the national team in the lead-up to the Athens Paralympics, the first occasion blind soccer appeared at the Games.
Despite his athletic gifts, Marcos knew he had potential for a brighter future away from the field. He chose university over competing, and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications the from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, one of the country’s top universities, in 2007
Two years prior to graduating, Marcos and his friends had the idea of launching what is now Urece Sport and Culture for the Blind, an NGO that organizes sports activities for people with visual impairments. As he continues with the organization in the role of vice president, Marcos also shows eagerness to get involved in other projects and initiatives that can make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities.
Of these projects, the most newsworthy occurred in 2008 when Marcos became the first blind Brazilian to alpine ski as part of a project called Skiing in the Dark in the Czech Republic. The project was less about winter sports than it was about showing the capabilities of people with disabilities.
“The project carried this message: if I’m blind and I can ski, then I can really do anything,” Marcos says. “The issue is not the task, it is the lack of accessibility. How many other Brazilians who aren’t disabled have alpine skied? Not many of them.”
Whether in the world of sports or not, Marcos’ work has always focused on spreading awareness of disability in Brazil. He regularly visits schools and companies to speak on perceptions of disability and answer questions mainstream society has about it. In 2010, he started the Blind Stories project, which has grown into a YouTube channel where he tackles sports and non-sports issues that affect blind and visually-impaired people. His channel currently has more than 50,000 subscribers and recently reached more than 1 million views.
Unlike other countries where Marco has traveled, people with disabilities in Brazil are “out in the streets” and not hidden away. However, he emphasizes this should not be mistaken for a culture of accessibility or inclusion. And while the government has made movements toward accessibility recently, he says the public’s mentality is often the larger hurdle to overcome.
“I graduated from the best university in Brazil, speak three languages, and have worked for two big companies,” Marcos says, “but if I apply for a job I will receive calls from entry-level employees who don’t even read my CV asking if they’re sure I could do the job because I’m blind. It is the mentality that we have to change—not only for disability, but for pregnant women, children, senior citizens, and many other people, too”
As he spreads this message, Marcos believes that sport has a unique power to open the eyes of the non-disabled community. He explains the way their reactions to sports events, in his experience, has been its own statement for inclusion and equality.
“When I played football as a child, I would invite people to come watch me, and they were shocked when they came to the stadium,” Marcos says. “It was a real sport! At first, people cried, made vows and promises. ‘They can play football and I’m here complaining about my life. What am I doing with myself?’ they’d say. And minutes later, they’re cheering for me and against the other team. What happened? This person stopped thinking about the disability and just started watching the game. It’s the miracle of sports. It shows through sports we are able to do everything.”
As he joined the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Marcos was on a mission to expand the work of Urece to Brazil’s blind community (he is the second Sport for Community delegate selected from Urece, continuing the legacy of Gabriel Mayr, who participated in 2014). To do so, Marcos partnered with mentor Ian Cropp, sport strategy manager for CSM Advisory Group, who supported him to develop strategies for sustaining, financing, and promoting the organization and its programs. With more than 1,000 offices in more than 20 countries—including Brazil—, CSM has specialized in offering strategic advising on global sports business to brands such as Gatorade, North Face, and Liverpool Football Club. In partnering for the GSMP, Marcos and Ian have the opportunity to ignite the work of grassroots blind sport in one of the world’s sporting powerhouses, and there is little doubt they will achieve it.
As a young girl in a village on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, Chansangva Kouv wasn’t sure what the future held for her. In her community, violence and corruption were an everyday reality. Deep inside, she wanted to escape and to give back to others—she wanted to make a difference.
Chansangva, or “Tin” as she prefers, was a teenager when she began dreaming of one day becoming a teacher at an NGO. She wanted to help children, especially girls, from villages like her own to get away from violence and fight for equality. While finishing high school, she began volunteering with Tiny Toones, an organization using dance and hip-hop to empower at-risk children in Cambodia. After two years as a part-time volunteer trainer and teacher, she discovered Skateistan.
“They were providing this cool sport, and there weren’t a lot of people doing it, especially girls,” Tin says. “I was so impressed.”
Skateistan offered Tin the chance to become a “real teacher,” and finally become comfortable in her own skin. When she was a girl, she was the one out playing in the streets with the boys, while the girls played with dolls and dresses.
“I was the one doing sports that most girls in my village didn’t really do,” Tin says. “Skateboarding was this new, risky sport and I was intrigued.”
As she first started in a part-time position with Skateistan in 2012, Tin took time away from the office learning skateboarding tricks on her own. Oftentimes, the boys watched and made fun of her. She used this as a motivation to get even better.
After being promoted to full-time teacher, Tin moved over to her current position as a program officer in 2017. Among her many responsibilities in this position, she provides training to young leaders, coordinates with partners, supports media and communications efforts, and creates teaching activities for the more 200 children reached by Skateistan’s programs in Phnom Penh. Of these children, there are approximately 90 with a range of disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, deafness, and limb differences.
In her many years working with the organization, Tin has seen the ways skateboarding has not only impacted her life and the lives of children from similarly challenging environments, but also the lives of these children with disabilities. It has given them confidence, new friendships and improved their communication skills.
“Nowadays, when I look at my society, girls and people with disabilities never get empowered or have opportunities to be integrated into society,” Tin says. “There is shyness, fear, and discrimination. My goal is using skateboarding to empower them because I know that it can change their lives.”
Despite the increasing impact of their work, Tin and Skateistan face many challenges. Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. The country has a high level of income inequality, far-reaching corruption, crime, and limited access to quality education and employment. Many children and adults with disabilities suffer from chronic malnutrition and are severely affected by social discrimination. Many Cambodians’ wills have been broken by these challenges, and they don’t believe the situation can change.
“Skateistan and I really want to provide children with something that is unique and gives them hope again,” Tin says. “It is hard because skateboarding is still new and there are few people doing it. Many people are afraid of getting hurt or their parents are reluctant. But, we have been here for five years making an impact.”
By participating in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Tin gained the valuable knowledge and experience needed for enhancing the sport and education program offered by Skateistan in Cambodia. In addition to learning about community program development, fundraising, and adaptive sports research, she also focused on monitoring and evaluating the positive impact skateboarding is making in the lives of the children with disabilities. During the program, she was mentored by Mary Patstone, director of adaptive sports and recreation for Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, who oversees 29 land- and water-based sports in multiple sites around Massachusetts. With their collaboration, Tin, Mary, and key local partners who supported Spaulding during the mentorship, worked to show the powerful effect skateboarding and other unique sports can have in both the U.S. and Cambodia for empowering children and adults of all ability levels.
For many years, Michael Hamukwaya was a man without a country.
With his Namibian parents living in exile, Michael was born in a refugee camp in Zambia in 1977 when his home country was still under South African apartheid rule. As a child, he was moved to another camp in Angola, where he lived until 1986.
When he was 9 years old, Michael was given a scholarship to study in Cuba. It was a drastic change: “It was like leaving the jungle and going to a civilized country for the first time,” he says.
After completing primary school, Michael attended a sports-focused secondary school, where he learned boxing, basketball, table tennis, and gymnastics. By the time he finally arrived in Namibia in 1993, he spoke only Spanish and his interactions with other Namibians had been limited to his fellow students in Cuba. It was sport that eased his transition.
“With my sports experience, it was easier to get more involved with kids in school,” Michael says. “That helped me make more friends and learn about Namibian culture. That’s how I learned Afrikaans and Oshiwambo.”
After graduation, Michael attended the Namibian Institute of Mining and Technology and was later certified by the Ministry of Health and Social Services as an orthopedic technician (he is currently completing a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Namibia).
In 2003, Michael began work in a hospital in northern Namibia, where he met young men going through rehabilitation. He noticed they spent most of their days in the same positions on their hospital beds. Even though he hadn’t considered sports before, he imagined that physical activity would benefit them, so he reached out to the local sports club, Oshana Sports Heroes, to learn more about sports for people with disabilities.
“I joined the club with no experience as a sports coach,” Michael recalls. “Soon, I was coaching track and field, then wheelchair basketball. I was taking what I learned from the non-disabled side in Cuba and applying it. And I started seeing the courage and motivation from the guys that motivated me to keep pushing.”
In 2003, Namibia launched its National Paralympic Committee (NPC). During this period, Michael worked with other national federations to improve his athletics coaching and train athletes for tournaments. After the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) recognized Namibia’s NPC, it sent him and a few other coaches to Egypt to participate in training for two months. There, he learned more about coaching athletics, boccia, goalball, powerlifting, and sitting volleyball.
“The course opened my eyes to see this movement was very big,” says Michael, who now serves as secretary general of the NPC. “I brought the videos back home and showed the patients at my hospital. They invited their neighbors to come watch, and word spread about our sports club. We kept growing and the IPC kept helping Namibia, and we’ve been building since then.”
According to Michael’s estimates, the number of elite athletes with disabilities has grown from seven in the early days to 21 athletes. At the Rio Paralympics, the country traveled with a delegation of 10 athletes and left with five Paralympic medals in athletics—one gold, two silvers, two bronzes.
Outside of developing competitive Paralympic athletes, Michael sees other key benefits for sports in the lives of Namibians with disabilities—a population consisting of approximately 100,000 people, based on numbers from the 2011 Census. In his almost 15 years as an orthopedic tech, he has seen significant improvements in his patients’ physical health. He has also seen sport have a direct impact on employment and financial empowerment, as athletes win medals and receive stipends from the government and job offers from the corporate world.
Despite progress, major challenges persist for Namibians with disabilities. While the Namibian government ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007, implementation of inclusion principles and equal opportunity for people with disabilities is still lacking. The country has inadequate and inaccessible facilities, creating a cycle where the disabled are less likely to finish secondary school and thus acquire jobs or access privileges such as sports clubs.
Michael, however, is optimistic that sports can address some of these challenges. In addition to his full-time job and role in the NPC, he runs his own club, Namib Lion Athletics Club, where he trains 62 athletes, including 27 with a range of disabilities. He also co-founded a foundation, Sports on the Move, with Rio 2016 gold medalist Ananais Shikongo. Through this foundation, they are supporting elite athletes with no access to basic equipment, training and nutrition.
“My passion is so big right now,” Michael says. “I’m trying to bridge the gap of inclusion. We want a bigger voice for people with disabilities.”
During his time on the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Michael was hosted by Shirley Ryan from AbilityLab, where he worked to expand his impact in Namibia with the support of mentors Stephanie Kanter and Derek Daniels. As he looked to expand his skills in strategic planning and implementation, marketing and corporate sponsorships, and advocacy, Michael provided a unique Namibian perspective on the connection between rehabilitation and Paralympic sports. Stephanie and Derek, who have two decades of cumulative experience in rehab and both grassroots and high-level adaptive sports at AbilityLab (formerly Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago), were there to guide him on the journey toward a brighter future for people with disabilities in Namibia.
Meruyert Tlebaldy came into the world with a will to overcome. Born with cerebral palsy in a post-Soviet Kazakhstan struggling through economic crisis, doctors predicted she would neither walk nor eat. The situation was grave enough that nine months after her birth doctors at the hospital told her parents to leave her there and move on with their lives.
Her parents, however, didn’t hesitate. They brought Meruyert, or “Mika” as she prefers, home and gave her every opportunity to thrive. Even though she only learned to walk at 6 years old, her mother took her to the swimming pool with safety floats. Her parents even brought her to an equestrian club, until she injured herself falling off a horse.
“After that, my father said no more horses,” Mika recalls, laughing. “My mother and father always put a big effort into me. They cried when I finished university. They cried when I went to Rio for the Paralympics. They are happy with every one of my successes.”
Raised in Semey, Mika moved to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest metropolis, after secondary school to attend KIMEP University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in business economics with a minor in public policy economics.
At university, Mika was exercising in the gym one day when she was approached by a man named Artur, a Paralympic trainer looking for women to join his powerlifting team. Mika searched online for information on female powerlifters and ultimately declined the invitation. The sport wasn’t for her. But, she was interested in this movement Artur mentioned to her: the Paralympics.
While looking for work following graduation, Mika saw an advertisement for remote worker positions with the Kazakhstan Paralympic Committee and applied. She was hired as an interpreter. As she read through important documents—the code of ethics, classification codes, strategies—she fell more and more in love with the movement.
One day, Mika received a call from Yerlan Suleimenov, a 2016 alumnus of the Sport for Community program who serves as the executive director of the NPC. He told her the committee could no longer afford remote workers. Mika was quick to respond: if he’d keep her onboard, she’d move across the country to Astana right away.
“He was surprised by my response,” Mika laughs. “He said ‘Okay,’ and I moved to the capital to begin my work.”
Since 2016, Mika has served as sports manager for the National Paralympic Committee. In this role, she coordinates activities with partners, organizes social events and public funding activities, and conducts infrastructural and logistical accessibility analysis of facilities. She is also a part of organizational committees responsible for preparing the Kazakhstan delegation for events such as the Paralympic Games.
In her time with the committee, Mika has learned more about the benefits sport has in the lives of people with disabilities. Aside from the physical, she sees sport as a strong tool for forming bonds in the disability community and creating a support system for people who feel socially isolated or discriminated against by society.
According to Mika, social discrimination is one of the biggest challenges facing the almost half a million people with disabilities in Kazakhstan (based on an analysis of government statistics from a decade ago). This is often exemplified in the sports world. While each city has a sports club where people with disabilities can train, and the government organizes competitions from the local to national level, Mika works with many athletes who try to “hide” their disabilities in public because of the shame associated with them. One recent example of this struggle to normalize disability was in 2017 when the NPC purchased all the necessary equipment to start a sledge hockey team in Astana. Invites to the public were sent out through online and social media, yet not a single person contacted them about participating. Eventually, the equipment was donated to a sports school in the western city of Oral, where a team was organized with community members.
Through her participation in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Mika learned how she can contribute to the full social inclusion of people with disabilities, while also deconstructing social stigmas around disability and surging recruitment of younger athletes.
“If we really want to develop sports and change mindsets, we need a young generation coming up,” Mika says. “Our only medalists are in their fifties. We need young people to follow in their footsteps.”
Mika spent her time on the program at Lakeshore Foundation, an organization with an impressive history in disability advocacy and research and Paralympic sports development. Her mentors Karin Korb, policy and public affairs coordinator, and Amy Rauworth, director of policy and public affairs and associate director of the National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability, have more than 30 years of cumulative experience leading inclusion initiatives for elite and recreational athletes alike. During her time in Alabama, Mika provided an international perspective on how the Paralympic movement is developing in a new environment, while creatively collaborating with her mentors to establish a plan that has long-lasting benefits for the movement in her country.
Shams Aalam may come from humble beginnings. But, he always aspired to greatness.
Born to a farming family in the small village of Rathos in the state of Bihar, Shams lived the normal life of every boy in the flood-prone village. He had “swimming in his blood” and loved being in the water. At the same time, he excelled in cricket, wrestling, and karate. By the time he quit the sport, Shams had won more than 50 medals in district, national and international Shitoryu Karate competitions.
Despite his sporting success, Shams and his older brothers encountered sparse opportunities to educate themselves past secondary school. So, he made the decision to move to Mumbai—around 2000km, a 35-hour drive, from his village—to continue his education. In 2010, Shams earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Mumbai University, and later added a master’s in business administration from Sathyabama University in 2017.
The same year he finished his first degree, Shams also had his life flipped upside down. In October 2010, he had surgery for a spinal tumor and was left paralyzed from the waist down.
After two years of rehab, Shams began swimming again as a form of aqua therapy. It was during this time he met Rajaram Ghag, an Indian Paralympic swimmer who swam across the English Channel in 1984. Motivated by the suggestion that he might one day become a sportsman and represent his country, Shams took to the water, completing his own record-breaking 8km open sea swim in Goa and competing around the world. He now has his sights set on qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Through his own experience of living with a disability, Shams has learned a lot about the powerful influence sports can play in one’s success; especially, when a person is first recovering from injury and unsure about what the future holds.
“To come out of your depression, you need to have hobbies that give you a new focus and motivation,” Shams says, “and sports are the best hobby. Music and art are good for you. But, swimming works every part of your body, while also giving relaxation to your mind. If you get a chance to compete, it restores your confidence that you can do anything.”
Shams compares his experience of suffering a disability as an adult to losing his old life and being born into a completely new one. While he has found empowerment and confidence in his new life, he has also experienced challenges. After rehabbing, he was denied jobs because of his disability, and he says he is not alone; employment discrimination is a serious issue across India, although new legislation is attempting to establish fair treatment. For those who, like Shams, do not own cars, travel is also a notable challenge with the dire lack of accessible transportation.
Shams believes the lack of accessible transportation and facilities is tied to societal ignorance toward disability and, in obvious cases, social discrimination. He vividly recalls having to sit down with his family to motivate them after his own injury.
“I had to tell them: ‘Let’s accept that I am differently-abled,’” Shams says. “’I cannot do the things normal people do, but there are things I can do better. We have to believe and keep going.’”
Shams’ story has been featured in media across India, and he and has spoken nationwide about his empowering experience of becoming a competitive athlete following his injury. He also founded the Mumbai Para Sports Association, and organized Maharashtra state’s first Para Games in 2015. Through his efforts, thousands of people in his community have had the opportunity to show their talents in athletic competitions. Most recently, he was appointed as an athlete representative by the state of Bihar, where he will advise on sports rules and regulations in his home state.
“My disability was a big change,” Shams says, “but it also gave me new opportunities to explore myself. Disability has taught me: people don’t lack strength, they lack will. I’m trying to show people that disability doesn’t stop you from doing great things.”
Referring to the medical diagnosis that he is 100% disabled, Shams likes to joke that whenever he breaks an old record or establishes a new one he proves he “isn’t 100% disabled, but 200% able.”
Through his participation in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Shams took one step further into expanding adaptive sports opportunities to people with disabilities in rural areas much like his hometown. To accomplish this goal, he sought to learn more about the U.S. sports management system, as well as fundraising. He was mentored by Doug Garner, a man whose life and career have been defined by developing adaptive sports programming for elite and non-elite athletes. In his role as assistant director of campus recreation for adapted sports, as well as head coach of the University of Texas-Arlington’s men’s wheelchair basketball team, Doug has organized teams in five different adapted sports, engaging three dozen student-athletes and more than 500 members of the UTA campus community. With his passion and determination for impact, and Doug’s expertise, Shams has access to every tool he needs for growing the adaptive sports movement in India.
Growing up in the small town of Kocani in Macedonia, Vangel Trkaljanov was always obsessed with movement. As a boy, this passion manifested itself through sports, whether swimming, gymnastics, karate or basketball. He was close to a qualifying time for the Olympics as a swimmer, before he made his way into extreme sports—a greater thrill. He learned how to paraglide, and even played a role in building the city’s first skate park.
“Sports are actually what helps keep me calm,” Vangel says, laughing. “I am probably what you’d call an adrenaline junkie.”
During the third year of his agricultural engineering degree at Saints Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje, Vangel was on vacation with a friend ion Bulgaria when they decided to jump into a pool. It was nothing out of the ordinary for him. But, on one of his jumps, Vangel landed in shallow water and broke his neck, leaving him paralyzed.
After surgery and four months in rehabilitation, Vangel was in a wheelchair, but never gave up hope of one day flying through the sky again. He looked to his father, Vladimir, who was mostly blind resulting from a work accident as a boy and still managed to play basketball, football, and become one of Macedonia’s top Paralympic chess players.
“I always expected there would be one day when I would walk again,” Vangel says. “I would spend hours watching tutorials for different exercises, and the result is I can now ski, skydive, snorkel, paraglide. Usually, you won’t see quads who are as rehabilitated as I am.”
Since his injury, Vangel has served as president of the NGO Without Restrictions, which provides sports and other services to paraplegics and quadriplegics in Macedonia. Over the years, he has led several key projects: developing and implementing a wheelchair donation program from the U.S. to eastern Macedonia; renovating a club for disabled people in Kocani; procuring special equipment for tandem parachute jumping; and leading sessions to teach wheelchair users how to handle their chairs in inaccessible and bad surface conditions.
With his long list of accolades in the disability and business sectors, Vangel was appointed as a special advisor in the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy in 2017. He is currently working on projects to introduce ski sports and hand cycling in Macedonia. For a decade, Skopje has been among the most polluted cities in Europe, and he is launching a project this spring that promotes hand cycling as an alternative to driving.
Of the challenges facing Vangel and his vision for progress, societal ignorance is often the most pervasive and connected to issues of infrastructure and inaccessibility. As an example, he cites the everyday experience of rolling down the street in a wheelchair: often people will turn their heads or avoid him if they are with children so they do not have to explain what they are seeing.
This ignorance to disability manifests itself in a severe lack of ramps, lifts, and accessible toilets in public spaces. Vangel’s NGO addresses these issues through different projects, which include installing ramps at restaurants.
“There is a law that obligates accessibility, but no one is abiding by the law,” Vangel says. “So we decided to start financing them ourselves. We host parties and all the profits go to the restaurants that support our projects.”
According to an analysis of government statistics, there may be as many as 400,000 people with disabilities in Macedonia. Vangel is currently working on numerous projects to improve their quality of life, including lobbying for a new anti-discrimination law (or improvements to the existing law) and arranging special help to meet the needs of people with disabilities.
Vangel sees his participation in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program as facilitating the road to accomplishing his dreams for Macedonia’s disability community. During the program, he worked with Steve Robinson, global education developer for National Ability Center, a U.S. Paralympic sports club that provides 30,000 annual sports experiences and engage more than 1,000 volunteers in Park City, Utah. As Vangel learned more about inclusive sports and education, fundraising, and advocacy, he was ideally positioned at an organization that is among the top providers of winter sports for people with disabilities in the United States. At the same time, as he continues securing equipment and volunteers for developing winter and outdoor sports in Macedonia, he brings a unique development perspective for potential long-term impact and collaboration.
For Marko Ristic, sport has always transmitted a kind of magical power—a sense of escape.
Growing up in the Serbian city of Nis during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, Marko’s life had changed drastically. In the early years, his father, a travel agent, and mother, a Serbian language teacher, provided the family with a comfortable life, from ski trips to vacations abroad. After the wars began, however, his parents fought to financially support him and his siblings.
Marko’s joy came on the gymnastics mats. In his youth, his father had been among the best gymnasts in Yugoslavia, and always took Marko to his club to train with him. By the age of 17, Marko had won every award as a youth gymnast.
With the prominent role sport played in his own life, Marko pursued a degree in physical education and sport from the University of Nis’ Faculty of Physical Culture. As he began his career as a P.E. teacher in 2003, Marko and his friends also decided to create a sports club. Initially focused on aggressive inline skating, the club has since morphed into Sports for All, an NGO focused on involving financially underprivileged children in sports. The organization runs year-round projects that serve children with disabilities and intellectual and emotional needs through adaptable versions of speed skating, softball and ultimate Frisbee.
Marko continues to run the club as president, while serving as principal of Branislav Nusic Elementary School. He believes in the power of sport to provide children of all ability levels the opportunity to develop respect, teamwork, fairness and other essential values and skills for their lives. What is most powerful about sports, he says, is its ability to be adapted for all people.
“For example, if you have 10 kids with different abilities and you put them all on the field to play football—if you leave the rules as they are—you will get a mess,” Marko explains. “But if you change the rules a little, you will make something good that everyone can enjoy. Sports connect people together like nothing else.”
There are no official statistics on the number of people with disabilities in Serbia, though a 2010 report estimated the number can be as high as 800,000 people (10 percent of the population). Despite the prevalence of disability, Marko believes ideas of inclusion in Serbia remain very limited.
“Many times, it feels as if people are living in the 19th century when it comes to their views of disability,” Marko says.
Marko feels this lack of creativity and open-mindedness is especially noticeable in the way the handling of sports for children with disabilities. In the Serbian system, sports teams are not usually affiliated with schools, as they are in the United States. Instead, most sports are handled by expensive, private clubs. Children with disabilities, who are sent to special schools and institutions away from mainstream society, often have little to no access to sports activities, unless their schools set up competitions. Reports of neglect in many of these institutions, however, suggests this is not often the case.
In both his roles as a principal and disability sport leader, Marko is pushing for inclusion and increased access to sport. With the recent passing of education law that allows parents of children with disabilities to petition for them to attend mainstream schools, he believes the time is right to push for inclusive education and development of adaptive sports.
“I want to continue involving more kids with disabilities in sports, whether that is in school or with my NGO,” Marko says. “I cannot separate my work—this is my life. I am on a mission to find how I can connect these two areas to make a big difference.”
Marko had access to a network of more than 50 schools and, through the association of physical education teachers, more than 200 individuals with whom he could run inclusion before participating in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program. After he joined, he was focused on discovering the tools he needed to amplify his impact.
With the support of Angela Wozencroft, professor of therapeutic recreation at the University of Tennessee, Marko had access to a wealth of knowledge on how education and recreation can be combined to provide group and team-building activities that serve both children and students with and without disabilities. Wozencroft, who also serves as the program director for Camp Koinonia, an outdoor education program for 150 children and teenagers with multiple disabilities, also exposed him to how students and volunteers can be used in creating long-lasting and far-reaching inclusion initiatives. As he brought his unique perspective and experience to the U.S., Marko participated in an exchange of ideas that should help to make a positive influence across Serbian society.
Daniyal Alvi always held out hope he might represent Pakistan one day.
Born in the Gulistan-e-Jauhar neighborhood of Karachi, Daniyal spent hours playing outside of his apartment block with his friends. His father, who worked as a cricket journalist for national and international magazines, would get home from work and bowl to Daniyal in the alleys. By the age of 12, he had made his cricket academy’s under-15 team. A few years later, he was competing nationally in soccer and tennis.
When he was 16 years old, Daniyal decided to volunteer with Special Olympics Pakistan. Volunteering gave him a chance to stay active on the coaching side of sports, and exposed him to new ideas about the role sport can play in people’s lives.
“Honestly, I was just looking to do something with my summer vacation,” Daniyal laughs. “Special Olympics gave me the opportunity to train athletes for a few months. Then when unified sports came into the picture, I started thinking that sports could be a career avenue for me.”
Through secondary school and university, Daniyal continued developing this interest, serving in sports administration roles. During university at the Institute of Business Administration, he ran and was elected as a manager for the sports society, a one-year term that required him to manage sports activities for the student body. It was around this time he became more involved with Special Olympics, traveling to the World Games as the cricket coach (2006), tennis coach (2007) and football coach (2011).
In 2012, Daniyal received his bachelor of business administration with a concentration in management and marketing. As he sought out work in the corporate sector, he felt like something was “biting” in the back of his mind. He felt a pull toward Special Olympics.
“I thought I could take a part-time position for three or four months until I could begin a master’s degree program,” Daniyal says. “But I couldn’t achieve any of my objectives at that time. I realized I would need a lot more time if I was going to make a difference. I decided to give it another year—that was almost three years ago.”
In 2015, Daniyal joined Special Olympics Pakistan officially as the manager, operations and organizational development and now serves as the organization’s national director.
Daniyal believes that while most people understand the essential benefits of sports, there are important added benefits to people with intellectual disabilities.
“Sport is an avenue for them to come out and experience a different environment; an environment where they’re not judged by what they do or say, but where they get to express themselves,” Daniyal says. “For many special athletes, they may not be able to look you in the eyes their first day. That same child, after going through training and then getting a chance to attend the national and world games, they’re completely transformed.”
The other benefits learned through sports—confidence, leadership, teamwork—also have valuable application to their day-to-day lives. Through sports, Daniyal’s organization tries to bridge this gap. Since its founding in 1989, and first National Games in 1991 with only 71 athletes, Special Olympics Pakistan has grown to include 24,914 registered athletes, with offices in all four of the country’s provinces.
According to statistics from Pakistan’s last census in 1998, there are approximately 3.3 million people with disabilities in the country and 531 special schools catering to the needs of children with disabilities. Many of these children from lower-income backgrounds, and their families struggle to provide good education, healthcare, and community exposure to their children (Special Olympics hosts a program, Healthy Athletes, that supports these families by providing nutrition needs).
Daniyal saw his participation in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program as an opportunity to be exposed to and learn ideas and practices in the United States that can be directly applied to promoting inclusion and creating a wider impact in Pakistan. He is especially focused on programs, such as the Unified Champion Schools and Unified Sports programs that have gained prominence in the U.S.
“We have always done recreational unified sports,” Daniyal says. “But that’s it—there wouldn’t be a lasting connection with the school. For me, it’s as simple as connecting a special school with a mainstream school and having them work together, organizing inter-school tournaments. This is a first step in creating a bridge of inclusion from sports to education to society.”
On the GSMP, Daniyal worked with mentor Riley Bowlin, Special Olympics program and event facilitator for Chicago Park District, home to the largest running Special Olympics program implemented by any public park district in the United States and the birthplace of the movement in 1968. With a strong reputation and history of promoting inclusion through unified sports programs, this mentorship site was ideal for Daniyal as he learned more about building inclusive environments and developing sustainable programs back home. Together, Daniyal and Riley are exchanging important knowledge and creating a plan that continues pushing toward worldwide inclusion of people of different ability levels.
Mpindi Bumali always knew, for better or worse that he’d stand out.
Born in the large town of Masaka in central Uganda, he was one of two children in his family to contract polio as a toddler. Living with a disability in his community was far from easy. The children would tease him, and neighbors would accuse the family of being cursed by witchcraft.
“They would say, ‘How can polio affect two people in the same family?’” Mpindi recalls. “In the school and classrooms, teachers and classmates would say, ‘Don’t touch my pen or books,’ and make me sit alone. Apart from my family, no one accommodated us.”
Unrelenting, Mpindi turned his focus to academics and the arts, becoming not only one of the top students in his class but also very involved in music, dancing and drama at school. He represented the school in competitions and it helped him to feel accepted by the community.
As he got older, Mpindi continued excelling in school. In 2006, he earned his bachelor’s degree in social works and social administration from Nkumba University. By this time, he became involved in the disability movement. He began by volunteering for Uganda National Action on Physical Disability, an organization that was using sport as a tool for empowerment, and soon after started powerlifting and sitting volleyball.
In 2010, Mpindi began working with the sitting volleyball association and helped a team of women qualify for the world championships in Oklahoma. Unfortunately, the national team couldn’t attend because of a lack of financing and support from the government.
“The government didn’t understand anything about Paralympic sports,” Mpindi says. “But, other associations were impressed. The National Paralympic Committee was stagnant—there were no fees, no office space, no growth. The people wanted a change in leadership. They started pushing me to stand as president.”
Later that same year, Mpindi was elected unopposed as president, and continues to serve in that role. Over the years, he has also accumulated other positions of influence, serving as the secretary general for the Federation of East Africa Sports for People with Disabilities, and a governing board member of the Africa Paralympic Committee.
From his first day as president, Mpindi began organizing campaigns to sensitize the public to disability and mobilize people with disabilities to take part in sports. He began advocating to government about a policy that would include special needs components to P.E. classes in school, and worked with Uganda’s Ministry of Sports to include para sports in the local and national school sports competitions it organized. He also began a collaboration with Makarere University to use its accessible facilities for Paralympic athletes to train.
Mpindi’s most recent success came in partnership with the Uganda Olympic Committee, where the two committees lobbied the government to provide stipends to medal-winning athletes in international competitions.
“This achievement has changed lives of people with disabilities and has provided a source of employment,” Mpindi says. “It has restored hope and encouraged many people with disabilities to engage in sports.”
With extensive challenges affecting most areas of life for people with disabilities in Uganda, Mpindi sees sports as providing a key avenue for acquiring income that people can establish businesses and succeed away from the field. In other ways, sport has provided confidence to athletes, and this confidence then manifests itself as they lobby for their rights to education, healthcare and employment.
According to government statistics, approximately 12 percent of Ugandans, or 5.3 million, have disabilities. This population is spread across a large and mostly inaccessible country with 121 districts. Those who have disabilities must be creative and determined to thrive, as there are meager resources available to support this population, significant social discrimination, and a lack of access to quality assistive equipment, including wheelchairs.
Through his various positions, Mpindi wants to continue pushing the government to fulfill its constitutional and legal obligation to people with disabilities. He would like to work closely with the International Paralympic Committee and other development partners to run programs that can further grow the adaptive sports movement in Uganda and include more people.
“Sport is becoming a serious tool to address quite a number of issues,” Mpindi says. “It is not only in sports that we see an impact. We are addressing issues of gender and human rights. We are removing barriers that prevent inclusion. We’re continuing to advocate for different things that need changing in our society.”
As part of his participation in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Mpindi partnered with John Register, a Paralympic medalist, prominent speaker, and associate director of community and veterans programs for the U.S. Olympic Committee. With nearly two decades in the Paralympic movement, John provided key insights for Mpindi in the areas of advocacy, collaboration with government and Paralympic partners, and how he can utilize media channels as tools for expanding the movement. Conversely, Mpindi provided a uniquely Ugandan perspective to how para sports are growing and impacting societies across Africa, as they seek to follow the U.S. example into long-term sustainability and success.
From the time she was a girl, Iman Sabbagh knew to always look beyond the surface.
Born in Sidon, the third largest city in Lebanon, Iman and her family lived in a large apartment building with families from many diverse backgrounds. She spent much of her time playing soccer or basketball together with the other children in building’s courtyard. She never assumed any inherent differences between them.
Iman carried that mentality through adulthood. After completing secondary school, she chose to study special education at the Modern University for Business and Science. The course was relatively new to Lebanon, and she knew it would increase her prospects of securing a full-time job after graduation.
In 2007, Iman became a classroom teacher at Sidon Orphan Welfare Society, where she taught Arabic, English, mathematics and science to children with mild and moderate cases of intellectual disability. During this time, she became exposed to the Special Olympics movement.
“One day, Special Olympics came to our school and the P.E. teacher asked for my help in soccer, basketball, and swimming,” Iman says. “When I was playing with the kids, it didn’t feel like a job anymore. I loved it.”
By 2010, Iman had traveled to the Special Olympics World Summer Games as an assistant swimming coach. Soon afterward, she was coaching soccer, cross-country, badminton, boccia, cycling and any other sport she was asked to help with the Special Olympics organization. It reawakened a love of sport in her that was formed by those years playing in the courtyard with her friends and watching NBA games with her brother (Iman continues to play for second and third division women’s basketball teams in Lebanon).
As she became more involved in the movement, Iman began seeing the unique ways sport promotes equality and inclusion, while also instilling values, good behavior, and developing physical strength and healthy lifestyles for children with intellectual disabilities. Most importantly, she saw how it broke down concepts of disability and the unfair way it is linked with inability.
“Sport teaches you the value of the human being,” Iman says, “and not that we should see the difference between one person and another. We are all different and we have strong and weak points, and if we see only the weakness and label a person based on this weak point we are not really helping them develop as a human.”
In 2011, Iman took a new job as a physical education teacher with Imam Sadr Foundation, an organization with a 50-year history of combatting illiteracy, poverty, illness and violence through education, healthcare, empowerment and local development programs. In this role, she began developing adaptable curriculum for children of many different ability levels, as well as deepened her involvement with Special Olympics. In 2017, she was the Lebanese delegation’s cross-country skiing head coach and led her team to six medals (Lebanon won 11 overall), and she will serve as badminton head coach for the 2019 Summer Games in Abu Dhabi.
Disability is still largely misunderstood in much of Lebanon. A national survey conducted in 2004 estimated the disability prevalence rate in Lebanon at two percent, or approximately 120,000 people. A more recent release of statistics in 2014 placed the number at slightly less, while stating that intellectual disabilities account for 28.4 percent of these individuals.
Many spaces, however, remain inaccessible. People with physical disabilities cannot move freely around, and the larger Lebanese community lacks awareness about special needs, relating to physical or learning disabilities. Iman’s school tries to address this issue by regularly inviting mainstream schools to visit and participate in classes.
“They are usually so surprised,” Iman says. “They think they only paint! As a country, we have very weak awareness about special education. If you see someone with Down’s syndrome, you think they must be crazy, not someone who is like you but with different abilities.”
Iman’s school is in the process of integrating and unifying its soccer and basketball teams. The school even organized a large sports event where special education and mainstream teams competed together. The event was important for creating awareness. Iman continues pushing for more inclusive initiatives.
As part of her participation in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Iman sought to take her impact one step further and learn how she can establish an inclusive adaptive sports center serving children with physical and intellectual disabilities, as well as the non-disabled. During the program, she worked with Tina Acosta, director of program outreach, and other leaders at Turnstone, one of the United States’ largest centers providing therapeutic, educational, wellness and sports programs to empower people with disabilities. With their guidance, Iman has learned all the steps, from identifying like-minded leaders to fundraising, that go into creating comprehensive, wide-reaching programs for first-time and competitive athletes of all ability levels. Their collaboration demonstrates the ways that change makers in both the U.S. and Lebanon work to promote inclusion and equality internationally.
Like millions of young people around India, Justin Vijay Jesudas had always assumed academics would be his pathway to success.
Born and raised in the city of Tiruchirappalli, five hours south of Chennai, Justin spent little time playing sports. Instead, he focused on school, where he excelled in every class. In addition to his in-classroom success, Justin’s father, a member of the Indian Air Force, influenced him to become involved with the National Cadet Corps, where he was chosen as one of the best cadets in Tamil Nadu.
By 2009, Justin had completed his master’s degree in public administration from Madurai Kamaraj University and was thriving in the corporate world. He was a manager with Cognizant/UBS, developing market strategy and managing research and analytics for the company. He was regularly traveling overseas for important business meetings. He felt invincible.
It was that year, however, that Justin’s life unpredictably changed, as he was injured in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
For almost two years, Justin refused to believe he would never walk again. Eventually, realizing he was fighting the wrong fight, he decided to shift his mindset.
“Until then, I only focused over my disability and the part of my body I had no control over—my legs,” Justin says. “I wasn’t focusing on the parts of my body that I could still use. My parents and wife were taking care of me around the clock, and I didn’t want that for them anymore. I decided I was going to become stronger and become independent again.”
For Justin, the vehicle for achieving independence became sports. He began lifting weights at home, and was soon transferring himself in and out of his wheelchair and driving again. Filled with new confidence, he tried wheelchair basketball, then one day nervously decided to visit the local swimming pool.
“In the back of my mind, I kept telling myself that as long as I held my breath I could float,” Justin laughs. “When the lifeguards saw me, they were wondering what to do with me. They put me in the water with a floater around my waist and after five minutes I took it off.
Justin’s life as a swimmer took off from there, and soon afterward he was competing at the state Para swim championships, winning four gold medals in his classification. In 2015, he won three golds at the Can-An Swimming Championships in Toronto and finished in the top 20 swimmers at the IPC World Championship in Glasgow, Scotland. Swimming served as a launching pad for Justin to become involved in shooting again. He is now competing to earn a spot in para shooting at Tokyo 2020.
Justin believes that his own experiences testify to sport’s power to allow people with disabilities to live full and worthwhile lives, especially after traumatic injury.
“Sports allow you to reenter society with absolute confidence,” Justin says. “You don’t have to feel ashamed. It gives you courage to face society as who you are. And, unlike music or art, the added advantage of sport is that it keeps you physically fit.”
In addition to his athletic career, Justin serves as a director for The Spinal Foundation, where he develops sports programs focused on promoting individual independence and giving people with spinal cord injuries access to pursue competitive careers. He also volunteers with The Ganga Foundation and continues serving as an associate director with Cognizant, where he has worked since before his accident.
Despite his own successes, Justin emphasizes that life in India can be very challenging for people with disabilities. When he travels outside of his home—the city center, the mall, or beaches—he rarely sees another person in a wheelchair. According to the last Indian census in 2011, 2 percent of population has some form of disability—approximately 27 million people—though Justin believes these are conservative numbers.
Outside of large-scale inaccessibility, strong attitudinal discrimination in India keeps people with disabilities from becoming empowered. People with disabilities, whether they are educated or athletic, are often pitied and seen as incapable.
“Despite this, if you look at our performance at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, our disabled athletes won more medals than our Olympians,” Justin says. “This is a clear statement that we have all the potential to be successful.”
As he joined the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Justin worked to instill his vision for establishing a center for sports excellence in his community. This center will be the first of its kind in Tamil Nadu, and will be accessible and inclusive, providing competitive and grassroots sports tracks to serve a diverse community of individuals. On the program, he worked with mentors Karin Korb and Amy Rauworth from the Lakeshore Foundation, a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training site and one of the premiere centers using sport for rehabilitation, recreation and competition. With the expertise of mentors who are familiar with all the aspects that go into building successful adaptive sports programming, Justin is one step closer to seeing his dream become a reality, and to building a bridge between the U.S. and India.
Toms Bergs always loved spending time in the outdoors. So, as a university student with a penchant for adventure, he didn’t hesitate to accept when a classmate invited him on a 10-day scooter trip in Latvia’s Gauja National Park.
The trip, however, was not your typical nature excursion. Toms’ classmate was dating a woman who was a wheelchair user, and the couple was involved with Apeirons, the largest disability organization in Latvia. As part of the project, Toms and other non-disabled participants would rent a scooter and ride with a participant with a disability around the park, examining the accessibility of the different trails, hotels, cafes and restaurants in the area.
“We stayed in tents together, ate together, did everything together for 10 days,” Toms recalls. “The point was that we’re all the same. We wanted people to think disability in a different way.”
Born in Riga, Toms spent much of his early childhood with his grandparents in the countryside, where he rode bikes and played in the woods. In 2006, he moved to Valmiera, a small city in the north of Latvia, to attend Vidzeme University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and public relations. He stayed in the city after graduation, preferring its closeness to nature, and the ease with which he could participate in sports he came to love like mountain biking and snowboarding.
After the Gauja National Park trip, Toms stayed on as a volunteer with Apeirons. Once he finished university, he had the idea of utilizing his specific skillset to support the organization’s work. In 2012, he pitched the idea of launching a television program to show the positive actions and achievements of people with disabilities in sports, music, theater, art and more. The show, Three-Fourths, is a now a monthly, nationally-broadcast show, and has been a big success. While Latvian media outlets previously addressed disability from the perspective of sympathy, Toms’ show informs, supports, and motivates. The production team works closely with the Latvian Paralympic Committee, which has allowed Toms to cover major events, such as the Rio Paralympics and the London Para-Athletics World Championship.
“Sport is one of the best ways to get people together,” Toms says. “Of course, we are Latvians, northern people, so we are a little colder inside. But when it comes to sports we also become very passionate.”
During the Rio Paralympics, Toms and his colleagues reported everyday on the stories of athletes, showing a Latvian audience the achievements of its Paralympic athletes, who won four medals compared to none by Olympians. This reporting work was also as an opportunity to promote adaptive sports and aid in recruitment for the National Paralympic Committee, which has invested in facilities for athletes to come and train.
In recent years, Latvia has made a push toward accessibility. According to the most recent government data in 2015, there are approximately 175,000 Latvians with disabilities. Yet, while the government improving facilities and transportation, the NPC faces challenges recruiting new athletes. Although the organization is working to create a Paralympic center by 2020 where all athletes can train together in the same facilities, and other adaptive sports are organized nationwide, Toms says this news fails to reach and engage large segments of the disability community.
Through his participation in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Toms discovered innovative and impactful ways to communicate messages about Paralympic sports to Latvians. On the program, he partnered with Adrienne Rochetti, director of strategic marketing and partnerships, and a mentorship team from LeadDog Marketing Group, a full-service agency that has worked with brands such as Coca Cola, Reebok, REI, and Cirque du Soleil. As his mentors exposed him to the U.S. sports system and the far-reaching and creative strategies for communicating about sports’ power for social good, Toms acquired the tools to make a substantial impact in the cultivation of the adaptive sports movement.
Leroy Phillips doesn’t remember life before blindness. What he does remember is the day the world discovered he was blind.
It was a sunny day in Georgetown, Guyana. A 6-year-old Leroy had walked home from school and met his grandmother on the front porch, where she handed him a Popsicle to cool down. The Popsicle slipped from his hands and fell to the ground. He couldn’t seem to find it. In that moment, his grandmother noticed something strange in his eyes. “Can you see me, Leroy?” she asked him. By that point, he didn’t know there was anything to see.
“It didn’t register in my mind that something about me was different,” Leroy says. “I couldn’t tell. I kept doing the things sighted kids would do.”
Leroy was transferred to a blind school where he learned braille. He was basically a “shut-in” for the next years with his large extended family protecting him from the world outside. By 2006, however, his friends at school had started telling him about this new sport, blind cricket, and how there were recruiters seeking blind players in Georgetown.
“I didn’t believe it existed; I thought they were being lied to,” Leroy recalls. “Then they told me that they were taking a team to Barbados to compete in a competition. I thought, ‘Who’s going to take a team of blind people out of this country to play a sport no one has heard of before?’”
But, Leroy was wrong. Mark Harper and Theresa Pemberton, founding members of the newly-established Guyana Blind Cricket Association, were recruiting a team. Leroy’s father drove him to practice. In just one training session it was evident that Leroy had a talent for the sport. A few days later, he was asked to join the team on its regional tour.
From that moment, opportunities sprang up for Leroy. Blind cricket was his ticket to traveling throughout the Caribbean to meet new people and be exposed to new ideas. While he felt as if he was pulled away from society after his blindness was discovered, sport became a way for Leroy to feel more accepted in Guyana.
“Sports for anybody with a disability may be the only opportunity where they get to feel they are part of society,” Leroy says. “It is even more critical for us because it provides us a golden opportunity to spread our wings and show people who think less of us what we’re capable of.”
In addition to playing on Guyana’s national blind cricket team, Leroy is a producer and presenter for the nationally-broadcast radio show “Reach Out and Touch” and a communications student at the University of Guyana. He also serves as program relations officer for the West Indies Cricket Council for the Blind and Visually Impaired. His leadership and disability advocacy earned him the Queens Young Leader Award from Elizabeth II in 2015.
Despite Leroy’s successes, life for people with disabilities in Guyana is not easy. The most recent government survey from the National Commission on Disability (NCD) was completed in 2002 and reported approximately 49,000 people, or 6 percent of the population at that time had a disability. He estimates the number is closer to 100,000.
The country has significant accessibility and job discrimination challenges. While a national law on disability was signed in 2010, Leroy believes there has been little enforcement.
“I can count on my right hand how many people with disabilities are employed in Guyana,” Leroy says. “Environments are not prepared to host someone with disability. If someone with a hearing impairment wants to apply for a journalism post or a major company like Digicel, they will be turned down for their disability and—even though we have a law—nothing will happen.”
There is also a lack of development in the adaptive sports sector. A few years ago, Leroy says other para sports were being developed, but outside of blind cricket and athletics there has been minimal progress.
Arriving to the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Leroy came in with the strong belief that the more people with disabilities become involved in sports, the more beautiful pictures are painted for the non-disabled community. For this reason, he was eager to gain every piece of information he could on adaptive sports and how to develop them in Guyana.
“I’m sure right now there are thousands of people with disabilities in my country who are locked in at home without anything to do,” Leroy says. “Whether it is wheelchair basketball, amputee racing or wheelchair tennis, people would welcome these opportunities with excitement.”
During the program, Leroy was mentored by Doug Garner, assistant director of campus recreation for adapted sports for the University of Texas-Arlington. At the university, Doug organizes teams in five adaptive sports, while coaching one of the most successful collegiate men’s wheelchair basketball teams in the United States. His vast experience in developing adaptive sports programs were essential for supporting Leroy in his ambitions to establish new sports in his country. As Leroy brought his own unique perspective and experience as a blind sports athlete and advocate to Texas, Doug partnered with him to create an impact that extends to generations of potential athletes in Guyana and beyond.
In response to the success of the GSMP: Empower Women through Sports program, in 2016 the U.S. Department of State restructured the GSMP initiative to include a disability sport component. Continuing its cooperative partnership with the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace, and Society, it launched Sport for Community (S4C), which uses a similar immersive mentorship and cultural exchange model to focus on empowering people with disabilities through community-based sports initiatives.
Through S4C, U.S. disability sport leaders and their organizations provide emerging leaders from around the world with the opportunity to cultivate sports management, marketing, and business skills in a U.S. sport-related environment. In 2016, the first S4C program hosted 15 emerging leaders from 13 countries (an earlier version of Sport for Community organized by Partners of the Americas was held in 2014). The 2016 group included Paralympic executives, world champion athletes, disability rights advocates, coaches, and educators, who all returned home to spark significant and positive social impact in their communities.
Despite progress over the years, accessibility challenges, social exclusion, and a lack of educational and sports opportunities continue to keep people with disabilities marginalized. Evidence shows that people with disabilities who are given opportunities to participate in sports experience an increase in self-confidence, social inclusion, economic empowerment, employment, and independence. With the growth in prominence of the Paralympic Games and the increasing development of adaptive sports worldwide, the time is right to empower leaders with a passion and commitment for promoting equality and opportunity so that everyone receives the opportunity to get in the game.Learn more about the U.S. commitment to people with disabilities