John Paul Maunes, or “JP” for short, lived the typical life of a boy. Growing up with one brother and one sister in an urban section of Cebu in the Philippines, he was always outside playing sports—specifically, football, which he still holds close to his heart (JP is a member of the Azkals national football team fan club in Cebu).
But, he was diagnosed with a minor brain condition that forced doctors to keep him from the football field. For a year, he focused on simply recovering. In that time, he began volunteering to occupy his time. Through his volunteer work, JP met his best friend, Peter Paul, who played basketball with him and later introduced him to the deaf community. Sadly, Peter Paul died in an accident when he was 17 years old.
“His death was really hard for me because he was my best friend,” JP says. “It’s hard for a young guy to lose a very important person. But, I promised myself that I would continue the advocacy work, letting hearing people understand and create better platforms for the involvement of deaf people and persons with disabilities.”
By 21, JP started Gualandi Volunteer Service Programme (now known as Philippine Accessible Deaf Services, Inc. or “PADS”). In the past decade, PADS has become one of the most successful deaf services organizations in the country, accomplishing a number of important goals for the deaf community, including integrating sign language interpretation into national news broadcasts, mobilizing hundreds of local and international volunteers, and launching the award-winning Break the Silence campaign to advocate for deaf victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. In 2013, JP and his organization helped to mobilize NGOs and volunteers following Super Typhoon Yolanda in a humanitarian response that has served approximately 15,000 people with disabilities to date.
JP, who is also a registered nurse, regularly receives interview requests from local and national media for his role as principal advocate for the deaf community. This attention led to his selection as a 2015 Ashoka Fellow. But, he still knows there is more for him to learn in order to reach even more people with disabilities throughout the Philippines.
“Disability advocacy in the Philippines is new and there are few laws,” JP says. “It is difficult to network without the right background. I’ve received good exposure and have been able to gain skills and confidence to expand my work, but we still need a better strategy and more collective effort to be inclusive of people with disabilities.”
Derek Daniels at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) was a vital source of knowledge and experience for JP. In his role at the RIC, Derek collaborates with local and regional adaptive sports clubs and partners to provide some of the best adaptive sports programming in the United States. While they work with a pool of Paralympians in Chicago, Derek and his team’s work starts from the ground up and is made possible through creative fundraising strategies. They were able to assist JP in developing marketing and fundraising strategies for PAD programs, as well as provided him with best practices in the field of disability sport, healthcare, and rehabilitation. Through this mentorship, JP gained the tools required to build the key relationships with community businesses and local government that can allow him to multiply his work throughout the Philippines.
Adeline Dumapong is not the type of person to get discouraged by difficult situations. Born into a poor family in the mountainous landlocked province of Ifugao in the Philippines, she was diagnosed with polio at the age of 6. Paralyzed from the waist down, her family made the hard decision to move her to a school for children with disabilities seven hours south in Manila.
It was at that school that a Belgian missionary first exposed Adeline to sports.
“I tried everything when I was younger,” Adeline says. “Wheelchair racing, wheelchair basketball, swimming. But, I really wanted to find a sport that made me feel strong. And here I am now.”
“Here” for Adeline is preparing for her fifth Paralympic Games as a member of the Philippines’ powerlifting team. In the 2000 Sydney Games, Adeline became the first Filipina to earn a medal, winning bronze in her category, and she has participated in every Paralympics since then.
At the age of 42, Adeline competed in her final Paralympic Games in Rio before transitioning out of competition. Aside from managing two competitive wheelchair basketball teams, she also holds several roles within the Philippine Sports Association for the Differently Abled—National Paralympic Committee of the Philippines (PHILSPADA-NPC PHIL). These positions include athlete’s representative, board treasurer, and point person for the Women in Sport Committee launched by the Asian Paralympic Committee.
Adeline believes in the power of mentorship and had taken leadership courses throughout the year to prepare for her the transition. But, she had run into issues at the grassroots level when trying to recruit children to participate in Paralympic sports because of parents’ fears.
“Parents are ashamed or afraid of letting their children play sports,” Adeline says. “I am considered an exception to the rule. Participating in the Global Sports Mentoring Program: Sport for Community can help me—it can serve as the feather in my cap when I reach out to them.”
The Lakeshore Foundation has participated in multiple Department of State exchanges and since 1984 has lived its vision of improving the lives of people with disabilities throughout the world from young athletes to Paralympic hopefuls. Jeff Underwood, Beth Curry and their versatile team represent a variety of strengths from advocacy and policymaking to programming and activities for disabled athletes. With the state-of-the-art facilities at Lakeshore, and the years of experience in this sector, they were able to provide Adeline with both a space to train for the Rio 2016 Games, as well as the mentorship needed for her to help develop another generation of Filipino Paralympians.
As a young man, Bayron Lopez was among the popular kids in the neighborhood. He loved to hang out with his friends and play sports. But then he was in a car accident that forced doctors to amputate his left leg and everything changed.
Bayron’s friends left and he was often alone at home with his family. Because of the fear of being discriminated against if he went out in the streets, he felt isolated and alone.
At the age of 14, Bayron had the opportunity to meet Ann Cody, program officer for the SportsUnited division of the U.S. State Department, Paralympic gold medalist, and governing board member of the International Paralympic Committee. It was around this time that he discovered wheelchair basketball, swimming, and ultimately his true passion for racing.
“I have won over 300 medals in the last 10 years,” Bayron says. “For me, every morning those medals inspire me. And I know there are many people with disabilities who need the same opportunity. Sport changed my life and I know it can change many, many more lives.”
Bayron is a pioneer for disability sports and the Paralympic movement in Ecuador. After launching and gaining attention for his own sports club for people with disabilities—Club El Empalme—in 2007, Bayron was appointed as the president of the National Paralympic Committee of Ecuador in 2012. In this position, he meets regularly with the U.S. Embassy and Ministry of Sports to find ways to increase resources available to disabled people that want to pursue sports at both the grassroots and high-performance levels.
But, there is still a severe lack of facilities and accessibility due the economic instability of the country. To illustrate how hard it is for disabled athletes, Bayron explains that he often trains at 2 a.m. on public roads, one of the few times when there is little traffic and he and his training partners aren’t in danger of being struck by a car.
“Right now in our country the money runs out,” Bayron says. “There is not enough money to support those with disabilities. And we have a lot of people now who say they are working with us, but they don’t know how and we’re losing time and money by investing in the wrong places. We need to have information on how to invest the small amount of money we receive to support programs that can be successful.”
When it comes to experience in executive leadership in the disability sport sector, Bayron received the model mentor in Mark Lucas, executive director of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes. Mark has over 30 years of experience working with the blind and visually-impaired. In his current role, he manages fundraising programs and budgeting, implements and monitors sports management programs for athletics, goalball, judo, swimming, skiing, and other sports, and acts as USABA’s chief spokesman to the USOC, where he serves as an executive member of the Multisport Organization Council. Mark helped guide Bayron through the process of developing relationships with prominent community partners and potential donors, as well as connected him with key influencers in the field. Together, the two men came up with a plan that allowed Bayron to create a sustainable platform that helps guarantee a bright future for both young and established athletes with disabilities in Ecuador.
It all started with an invitation from her father.
Oleksandra Nasadiuk (or “Sacha,” as she is known by her friends) grew up with one sister in Yevpatoriya, a seaport city in Crimea. Although they share few things in common, their one shared feeling was a disinterest in playing sports. But that all changed when Sacha’s father, who worked for a rehabilitation center for people with disabilities in Crimea, asked her to come and help him.
“He told me, ‘Come. You have to see it,’” Sacha recalls. “I was at the cerebral palsy football and sitting volleyball competitions, and I just wanted to be there to help in any way I could. I had never seen so many people with disabilities in my life. And I realized that even though I am not disabled, I do so much less than they do.”
Sacha was glad to have the center in her native town. But she soon moved to the capital, Kyiv, to complete her master’s degree in taxation at the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine. However, the passion that she had birthed for working in disability sports never left her.
In 2011, Sacha accepted a position with the National Paralympic Committee of Ukraine (known in the country as the National Sports Committee for the Disabled). As the deputy head of the international relations department, she handles a number of different responsibilities: managing international correspondence and communication; organizing events; and handling administrative responsibilities for athletes and sports teams. The sports Sacha works with include athletics, swimming, 7-a-side football, sitting volleyball, Nordic skiing (cross country and biathlon), table tennis, wheelchair fencing, and powerlifting. During her first two years with the NPC, she also played a key role in organizing the Open Ukraine Athletics Competition, Pre-Olympic 7-a-side Football Tournament, and served as the administrative manager for the Euro 2012 Respect Inclusion Showcase organizing tournaments for children who are deaf or have cerebral palsy.
Although she had to miss three team competitions for her country by participating in the GSMP, Sacha knew the benefits would be long-lasting. Already a young, dynamic leader with strong support from the US Embassy, she hopes to learn ways she can influence national policy to support Paralympic sports and how to seek out diverse funding streams for her organization. With the current conflict affecting her home region of Crimea, Sacha also is working to find ways to support and reintegrate Ukrainian soldiers returning from war with physical and psychological disabilities.
“Because of the war, many of our programs working with children have been cut due to lack of funds,” Sacha says. “But, in their place we are starting programs in hospitals for disabled soldiers, bringing Paralympic champions to inspire them to continue living and show them there are still opportunities in society. We need to do more of this.”
Brielle and her team at Ability360 were the perfect mentors to assist Sacha toward achieving her goals. The organization has a proven record of success in the community and serves people with disabilities through a wide range of sports, a youth afterschool program for children, and creative inclusion programs where those of all abilities engage each other. Ability360 also works with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), brain trauma, and sleep disorders, which aligned seamlessly with Sacha’s ambitions. On top of all this, the Ability360 campus is home to 11 other non-profits working in the disability sector. St. Josephs Hospital and Arizona State University are also close partners, ensuring that Sacha had a resource for anything she needed during her mentorship.
From the SOS Children’s Village where he grew up as a boy to becoming the first wheelchair user in Nepal to graduate with a degree in architectural engineering, Deepak KC’s life is a story of perseverance and giving back.
In a wheelchair for as long as he can remember, Deepak excelled in Para table tennis from the time he was a teenager and pursued it alongside his professional training in architecture. Through sport, he was able to gain a sense of strength and purpose that pushed him forward.
“I am a great believer in the power of sport,” Deepak says. “In my school life, sport was one of the ways I could engage with my non-disabled friends to feel included, self-confident, and to believe that I am really not that different even though I am in a wheelchair.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from the Kathmandu Engineering College at Tribhuvan University in 2007, Deepak founded the National Physical Disabled Table Tennis Association—Nepal, where he is president. Deepak also currently serves as the deputy secretary general of the Nepal Paralympic Committee and was appointed to the Athletes Standing Committee of the Asian Paralympic Committee through 2018.
Deepak is focused on grassroots activities and accessibility. He regularly visits schools and conferences to share his story as motivation for young people with disabilities to participate in sports. He also uses his architecture for social good, serving on the board of the Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies and Environments and collaborating with the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD), based in Boston, on creating accessible environments in Nepal. Deepak’s work earned him the 2014 Herman Gmeiner Award for outstanding achievement.
“I want to see how accessibility impacts the rights of people with disabilities in the sports sector,” Deepak says. “I am convinced that sport can be used as a tool for advocacy and awareness so that all people, regardless of age, ability, and gender can enjoy the lives they want as human beings.”
At Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, Deepak was mentored by Mary Patstone and Dr. Cheri Blauwet, who helped provide him with access to some of the top minds using disability sport as a tool for rehabilitation and empowerment. Spaulding hosts a wide range of adaptive sports programming at its multiple facilities and the mentorship team was sure to expose Deepak to the best practices, training knowledge, and networks he needs in order to continue serving as an advocate and pioneer in Nepal. Through Dr. Cheri, Deepak also had access to Eli Wolff of the Inclusive Sports Initiative at the ICHD, where he could continue developing his work in accessibility.
Born in Guatemala City, Julio Rueda has played sports since he was very young. Alongside his brother, who helps him run sports programs to this day, he would rush out of the house to play football, basketball, and table tennis—anything to release his energy.
After a car accident left him paralyzed in 2008, Julio sought tirelessly for the right sport to help him push forward. Just like when he was a young boy with his brother, he tried athletics, badminton and wheelchair basketball.
“But none of them fit me perfect,” Julio says. “But when I started to play tennis I felt like ‘Wow. This is for me!’”
Over the years, Julio has risen to the International Tennis Federation Top 30 rankings in men’s wheelchair tennis (quadriplegic classification).
Aside from his athletic ambitions, Julio is also the founder of GLORSYs, a software company that also provides conferences and workshops to schools and rehabilitation centers for people with disabilities. The main focus of Julio’s work is to motivate and help people live independently, pursue sports, and adjust to new circumstances if they acquired their disabilities as adults.
Julio’s motivation to reach others came out of the reality that Guatemala is still not in a position where access and opportunities to thrive are available for disabled people. Julio began reaching out to friends online and created an online hub for people of all abilities to go out and play sports together. Through his international travel for tennis competitions, he also started collecting learning materials and sharing information with coaches from different disciplines, including badminton, athletics, and wheelchair basketball.
“To succeed in tennis, you need to be smart because you’re alone on the court. I loved team sports before, but now I have had to learn to be on my own, which applies to life with a disability in Guatemala,” Julio says. “If we can make it so that out of 20 children, maybe just two or three can find a way to make it to professional sports, then I think that’s a perfect step in the right direction.”
In order to take that step of engaging young athletes and bringing them from grassroots to high-performance sports, Julio needed to learn about advocacy and securing financial and practical support from government and sponsors. With more than 20 years of experience working in local government offices in the area of disability and youth initiatives, Larry was the ideal mentor. As the disability policy officer for the Chicago Parks District, the first park system in the U.S. with major focus on accessibility and disability programming, Larry and his team provided Julio with vital experience in collaborating with local governments and communities, as well as creative approaches to fundraising. Additionally, the large pool of Paralympians in Chicago, and the resources available through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, helped ensure Julio returned home with a comprehensive plan for how to take disability sports in Guatemala to the next level.
For Valeria Filiaeva, tennis was always a way to connect. Born into a soldier’s family, she grew up with her maternal grandparents in Belarus. At the age of 10, she began playing tennis to get closer to her father. Valeria was so impressive that she traveled to the IMG Academy Bollettieri Tennis Program in Florida to train and was soon ranked among the Top 30 juniors in the world by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
By 2008, however, Valeria was ready to give up competitive tennis. She was preparing to enroll in the journalism school at Belarusian State University and wanted to transition into coaching while she pursued her studies. One day while walking around the tennis courts she was approached by a lady who mentioned to her that a group was thinking about launching a wheelchair tennis team.
“It was a good way to financially support myself and learn to coach, but I had no experience with Paralympic sports before,” Valeria says. “At first, I didn’t know if I wanted to take the job. But, I thought about it for a minute and I decided, ‘Yes, I will do this.’’’
From translating videos and articles from YouTube and wheelchair tennis websites at the very beginning, Valeria is now one of the recognized pioneers for the sport in Belarus. At only 24 years old, she heads the wheelchair tennis departments for both the Belarusian Tennis Federation and the integrated sports rehabilitation center Egalite. On top of these responsibilities, Valeria is a tennis commentator for state television and a producer for Stringershub, an international network of freelance journalists who provide content for Eastern European television broadcasts.
In her mind, it is important to treat all her athletes the same. In the next five years, Valeria hopes to see Belarus with a Paralympic wheelchair tennis team and its players entering into the top international rankings, which she knows can only happen if both she and the players are unshakable in their determination.
“One of my students told me that when I come to the courts I never treat them as weak,” Valeria says “I am shouting and pushing them. And they appreciate this because they know I feel honored for them to be my students. I believe they can do anything they want. It doesn’t matter that they are in wheelchairs.”
Even with her enduring attitude, Valeria does have goals that she believes cannot be achieved without the help of a program like GSMP: Sport for Community. She wants to expand her networks within Belarus and find likeminded individuals working in disability sport that can support each other and reach more people. Valeria also seeks vital private sponsorships to support the tennis programs and herself.
“I need for someone other than myself to tell me I can do it,” Valeria says. “I need to be pushed because sometimes I have no idea how to proceed. Everyone in Belarus is talking about our economic problems and other situations outside of my control. And it makes me worry if I’ll be able to do this work much longer.”
Mary Patstone, director of adaptive sports and recreation, and Dr. Cheri Blauwet, attending physician, of Spaulding Rehabilitation Network understand the kind of perseverance that Valeria needs to continue her success in Belarus. With more than a decade of experience as a director within the nonprofit sector, Mary’s experience will be invaluable for Valeria. Alongside Dr. Cheri, a seven-time Paralympic medalist who also works as a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, Spaulding’s mentors will be able to expose Valeria to experts in the fields of advocacy, research, workforce development, and political impact. The vastness of Spaulding’s programming and partnerships will provide Valeria with the experience she needs to return to Belarus rejuvenated and with a strong, comprehensive plan for continuing to develop wheelchair tennis and other adaptive sports.
Two years ago, Anderson Gama was entering the final year of his bachelor’s degree in communications at the Universidade Estácio de Sá when he was accepted to participate in a student exchange program in Toronto, Canada. Looking to gain further experience in marketing and advertising before graduation, he began searching for an internship upon his return to Brazil.
It was then that a friend told Anderson about Obra Social Dona Meca (OSDM), an NGO in the Taquara neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro that works with children with disabilities.
“It was an exciting opportunity,” Anderson says. “You need to do a little bit of everything here. I handle marketing, graphic design, and I talk directly with sponsors. I think that everybody who works at a non-profit organization wants to make the world a better place, and that’s what I want to do.”
Anderson took the internship and is now the marketing manager for ODSM. Currently, the organization serves 250 children and youth through multiple therapy services—physio-, occupational, speech, psychomotor—and a wide range of sports programs, including Capoeira, running, basketball, football, and swimming. The organization also runs a shelter, Casa Lar Dona Meca, for upwards of ten orphaned youth with disabilities.
For its different projects, OSDM has been able to develop strong partnerships with Olympic Villages, multinational oil company Petrobras, professional football club Vasco da Gama, and multiple other NGOs around Rio. Anderson plays a key role in working directly with sponsors to coordinate media strategy through advertising, website design, and publications.
With the Olympic and Paralympic Games happening in Rio from August through September, Anderson and his team have been planning events for the OSDM youth to experience the excitement and grow the number of children with disabilities they reach with their programs.
“Aside from the Games, we will host our own smaller sports events here in our club and invite our partners to attend,” Anderson says. “We want to use the Paralympic Games as a mirror so the children can see what they can achieve if they never give up.”
One of Anderson’s key focus areas leading up to the Paralympic Games was developing OSDM’s marketing strategy to attract more sponsors for its events and to create a more structured sports programs that can provide children with opportunities from the recreational to the high-performance level.
With his own experience in marketing and as a sports strategy manager for Glideslope, Ian Cropp made the ideal mentor Anderson. For over eight years, Ian, who is fluent in Portuguese, has worked with Olympic sponsors looking to enter the Brazilian market, private brands and agencies, and both the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Paralympics. In addition to Ian, the team of experts at Glideslope had the experience of participating in GSMP: Sport for Community with Brazilian emerging leader Alessandro Martins in 2014, and were able to help Anderson develop a plan to grow OSDM’s impact across Taquara and all of Rio de Janeiro.
Olesya grew up around sports in Moscow, the capital and largest city in Russia. Her mother competed in athletics (track & field) and her father was a cross-country skier. Olesya’s brother is an ice hockey player. But, from the time she was a young girl, she decided to try something different by competing in swimming.
In early 2008, after 10 years of sustained success in the pool, Olesya was involved in a bus accident in Thailand and lost her left arm. She was afraid it might be the end of her career. Only five months later, determined to “continue living,” she competed in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics and won a gold medal in 100m breaststroke, setting a new world record in the process.
Olesya added three more medals at the 2012 London Games, to complement the dozen or so she won at different World and European Championships in her career. She now prepares to compete in her third and final Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer.
“I can say that sports really saved my life,” Olesya says. “When I lost my arm, my mental state was so terrible. I didn’t know how I could continue living. Sports helped me realize that I am a full person and that I can dream and achieve.”
Already one of the country’s most accomplished female swimmers and barely in her 30s, Olesya plans for a long and successful future outside of the pool, where she can influence a new generation of Russians to follow in her footsteps and reach the medals stand.
“Being an ambassador at the Sochi Games helped me to realize that sport can really bring changes in my country,” Olesya says. “I want more inclusion. I may be an athlete, but I’m also a Paralympian, which gives me a different perspective. Everyday I see the problems faced by people with disabilities in my country, especially children and their parents.”
Olesya is a prominent advocate within the disability community in Russia, partnering with charities and sharing her story at events around the country, including in the media. She is also an advisor to the head of the Moscow State Department for Physical Culture and Sport and an Honored Master of Sport in Russia for her professional achievements.
At Lakeshore Foundation, Olesya had access to facilities to train for her final Paralympic bid in Rio. More importantly, through mentors Jeff Underwood and Beth Curry, she joined a team of people with extensive experience in policy, advocacy, and education on disability. Their collaboration, as well as the exposure to the research and other resources at Lakeshore, provided Olesya with the tools she needed to influence the education curriculum in Russia, as well as promote inclusion and participation of children with disabilities at the grassroots level across the country.
One of four children born to a Sinhalese family, Priyantha Peiris moved to Russia as a college student. While there, a fire in Priyantha’s hostel forced him to jump from the fifth floor to safety, where he injured his spine upon landing.
Priyantha moved back to Sri Lanka after one year in a Russian hospital, refusing to be discouraged by the injury. During his rehabilitation, he became involved with the Motivation Charitable Trust and decided to launch his own organization: the Spinal Injuries Association of Sri Lanka.
Since then, Priyantha has accepted several positions with the National Paralympic Committee (NPC) of Sri Lanka, most recently serving as its treasurer starting in 2004. During this time, he represented Sri Lanka before the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), managed and mentored national wheelchair basketball and tennis players, and supervised relief projects following the disastrous 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans and left thousands more injured and homeless.
As a freelance disability equality trainer, Priyantha is very passionate about reaching out to minority populations in Sri Lanka’s eastern and northern provinces. Historically, there has been ethnic tension in the country between Sinhalese and Tamil people, with a 25-year civil war only recently ending in 2009. But Priyantha believes sport can serve as a bridge for people of all backgrounds and abilities.
“Sports is one area where you can build reconciliation,” Priyantha says. “We have seen it and we have proved it when we set up the NPC. I was able to convince 100 athletes from the north and eastern provinces to work with us. Sport may not be the biggest or most valued integration aspect of reconciliation, but that evidence alone shows that it can be.”
What makes Priyantha even more confident of achieving better relations between the two groups is his significant experience in the disability sports sector since 1999. During S4C, he will turn 50 years old, making him one of the oldest participants in the Global Sports Mentoring Program.
“I could do the same thing young people can do in half the time because of my experience,” Priyantha laughs.
At Ability360, Brielle and her team have the exact tools to help Priyantha meet his goals, as well as to help him learn more about mentorship, human psychology and its roles in sports motivation, and expose him to new and foreign cultures. The organization has a strong background in therapeutic recreation and recently brought on an outreach specialist to discover the best ways to recruit for its programs. Roughly 33 percent of Ability360’s participants have a spinal cord disability, which has been a focus area for Priyantha in his career. Their time together will provide Priyantha with the perfect platform for continuing and expanding his work in Sri Lanka, especially as he looks to focus his Action Plan on preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Eyasu applies teamwork into his everyday life as he and Alemayehu Teferi are two of Ethiopia’s chief advocates for the disability community.
Eyasu is a university professor and sign language and deaf communication expert. Eyasu has traveled throughout the world to participate in workshops and trainings on sign language deaf education and recently earned his Ph.D. in sociolinguistics of Ethiopian Sign Language from Addis Ababa University.
Eyasu collaborates frequently with Alemayehu. With Addis Ababa University and the National Association of the Deaf, they founded Ethiopia’s first B.A. in sign language and deaf culture. They also launched the Ethiopian Deaf Sport Federation through the active support of the Federal Youth and Sport Ministry of Ethiopia. In 2008, they developed the Deaf Development and Information Association (DDIA) to support deaf inclusion and improve the community’s access to vital information, training and livelihood opportunities.
Now, Eyasu and Alemayehu have turned their attention to developing sports for people with disabilities. Through their work they are increasing participation of young people in recreational sports, and trying to include more deaf Ethiopian athletes in elite international competitions like the Deaflympics. Although their primary focus is in deaf sports, Eyasu and Alemayehu also seek opportunities to support the greater Paralympic movement and work with all people from different disability backgrounds.
“Sport is important for many things, especially for social interaction of people from different backgrounds,” Eyasu stated. “The rich and the poor, the majority and minority, the educated and under-educated, men and women can all be brought together through sports.”
At the University of Texas-Arlington, Eyasu has access to one of the most successful programs in collegiate disability sport, as well as a mentor who has dedicated his life to advocating for the rights and inclusion of young athletes with disabilities. Douglas Garner, assistant director of campus recreation and head coach for the men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams was named a 2015 Champion of Change by The White House for his work as a disability advocate. With 30 years of experience as a coach and educator, Doug provides Eyasu with training resources and best practices in sports management that will be vital for developing disability sport in Ethiopia.
Yerlan Suleimenov was born to a close-knit family in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city. With his older brother, he practiced sports, especially martial arts. The two were so close that they even launched a small business together as teenagers, which Yerlan says quickly helped them realize “we were not businesspeople at all.”
With one career choice out of the way, Yerlan decided to become a lawyer so he could defend and uphold human rights in Kazakhstan and abroad. At the age of 19, however, he became unexpectedly ill with bone cancer and was forced to have one of his legs amputated.
“My world ended when I became ill and lost my leg,” Yerlan says. “But, then my mother, brother and all of the people close to me came and showed me I could live even without a leg. That opened up my eyes and I knew that I wanted to help people with disabilities become champions.”
In 2003, Yerlan completed a Master of Laws degree at Kazakhstan’s largest university, L.N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University. After four years as a senior lecturer, he transitioned into working with SOS Children’s Villages Kazakhstan, an international NGO that focuses on children’s rights. In seven years he rose to become deputy national director and organized a number of projects in collaboration with international organizations such as UNICEF, UNESCO, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR).
Last year, the opportunity came for Yerlan to become executive director of the National Paralympic Committee of Kazakhstan.
“Because of my professional experience, I knew how you must speak to people from the different government ministries, businesses, and sponsors to show them that it is not easy for a person in a wheelchair to become a champion,” Yerlan says. “And I can also speak the language to a person with a disability. I know their problems. I understand their pain, what they need, and what kind of support I can give them.”
Unlike in many other countries, Kazakhstan’s NPC is neither government-financed, nor the top disability organization in the country. Officially, it is an NGO that works in collaboration with other Parasport federations and does not have its own athletes and coaches. As a result, it is very important for Yerlan to secure financial and structural support from the Ministry of Sport, as well as sponsorships and donations from private businesses.
“The Paralympic movement is not only about rehabilitation of disabled people, it is about the image of Kazakhstan,” Yerlan says. “If we do not receive more support, the NPC will have to close its doors and we will not be able to represent our country in international competition.”
Like in Kazakhstan, the U.S. Olympic Committee is a non-profit, of which U.S. Paralympics is a division. Throughout its history, the USOC has been very successful in fundraising and securing corporate sponsorships for its many programs. John Register, a two-time Paralympian and noted motivational speaker, oversees community and veterans programs for U.S. Paralympics and has a long resume of experience in program development, networking, and communications. John, who also served as a Sports Envoy for track and field in Uzbekistan in March 2016, connected Yerlan with key influencers inside the USOC, as well as guided him through developing relationships with media, community partners, and potential donors. Together, the two men came up with a plan that allowed Yerlan to return to Kazakhstan and work on creating a sustainable platform that will guarantee athletes with disabilities can achieve success for the country at elite international competitions like the Paralympics.
Sports were never a big priority in Njomza’s family. Raised in Kosovo’s capital and largest city, Pristina (then a part of Serbia), Njomza grew up as the sixth-born of eight siblings. Her brother practiced judo for a short time, but her parents pulled him fearing their only son might get injured.
Instead of sports, Njomza was on the pathway to politics. While completing a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Pristina, she worked for several years in the human rights sector focusing on the rights of women, youth, and disabled people. After five months as a researcher and coordinator for the NGO Handicap Kosovo, she joined the New Kosovo Alliance political party and by 2008 was elected as the youngest Parliamentarian in the country.
Njomza served as the vice president of the Committee on Health, Labour and Social Welfare, and is now the head of the Committee on European Union Integration. In 2011, she was also appointed as president of the Kosovo Paralympic Committee, making her the only woman in Kosovo working in a sports leadership role.
“I was very surprised when I got the job because I’m not an athlete,” Njomza says. “When I go to meetings I am the only woman, which is very challenging. But they knew I had experience helping people with disabilities and we have many athletes and women with disabilities in our country. I work hard so that we can involve them in decision-making.”
Paralympics is still a new concept in Kosovo, but with the support of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport, as well as private sponsors, Njomza is working to organize sports events and activities to engage the disability community and promote adaptive sports. The KPC, which applied for membership to the International Paralympic Committee, hosted a three-day Mini-Paralympics in June 2016 with more than 500 participants from 25 cities. It is Njomza’s vision that this will continue to give exposure to rising athletes and push for greater inclusion of disabled people in communities that still hold stigmas.
“A disability can happen to anyone,” Njomza says. “If I get into an accident while driving, I can have a disability. We cannot ignore people with disabilities or be ashamed of them. We want them to be successful and to bring recognition back to Kosovo when they compete at the international level.”
John Register, associate director of community and veterans programs for U.S. Paralympics (a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee), understands Njomza’s position and motivation for creating a platform for elite-level athletes with disabilities. John had a serious injury while training in the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete program and had to have his left leg amputated above the knee. However, he came back from the injury to compete in two Paralympic Games and launched a highly successful career as a motivational speaker and program developer. John helped expose Njomza to life at one of the most successful Olympic committees in the world and provided her with the tools to improve the quality of disability sport in Kosovo, collaborate with sponsors and other sports federations, and develop programs that include more women and youth. Through this mentorship experience, Njomza returned to her country with clear ideas as to how she can elevate Paralympic sports and help her athletes reach the podium in order to inspire generations of young Kosovars.
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.