Peshawar:Khanzala had been playing cricket for four years on the premises of Paraplegic Center Peshawar before he was able to play his first game in a proper sportsground – something that, he says, is routine for “normal” players.

“The dilemma facing paraplegic sportsmen like Khanzala in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is that there is not a single park or stadium wheelchair accessible, with basic facilities like a washrooms,” says Mohammad Rafiq, Coordinator Youth Participatory Forum (YPF).
A paraplegic cricketer from Khyber Agency, the tribal district bordering Pakistan-Afghanistan, Khanzala says he lives by the motto “to win”. Wheelchair bound, he lived up to that attitude when he won his team Peshawar Warriors a trophy in the first ever outdoor wheelchair cricket tournament in May this year.      

“I led my team to victory when I bowled the last over of the last match where the rival team needed six runs to win,” said Khanzala. “They could only make two runs and I took two wickets in that last over, bringing my team the trophy.”

His team’s victory, says Khanzala, made him very happy. “I felt that, yes, if we are provided wheelchairs, sports grounds and other facilities, we can be as good as any team anywhere.”

Khanzala and his fellow paraplegic cricketers associated with Peshawar Warriors were able to access these facilities in the First Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Wheelchair Cricket Tournament organized by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Directorate of Sports and Youth Affairs in May this year.  – with help from Friends of Paraplegic and other organizations working for the physically challenged.

According to a United Nations study on sports and persons with disabilities, “Sport’s universal popularity makes it ideal for fostering social interaction….By bringing together people with similar disabilities, sport contributes to normalization, enabling persons with disabilities to share their experiences and enjoy camaraderie with others who understand their challenges and capacities.”

Through peer interaction, says the study, persons with disabilities develop a positive sense of self and group identity because they no longer feel set apart — they are like everyone else. “Sport also brings together the parents and families of those with disabilities. Often parents of individuals with disabilities find themselves socially isolated. Social interaction with others who have similar experiences enables families to provide support to one another and empowers them to advocate for positive change to ensure greater inclusion and equality for persons with disabilities.”

Kamran Khan, who works as an Inclusion Accountability Officer at Help Age International, a non-profit working on rehabilitation of people with disabilities told News Lens that sport activities like the outdoor wheelchair cricket tournament in Peshawar enabled sportsmen with disabilities from different districts of the province to compete for excellence in sports.

“Paraplegic cricketers from four different districts were able to participate in the event because the organizers wanted to encourage healthy activities,” said Khan.

He said his organization has supported teams from as farther afield as Dir and Bannu. According to him, bringing them together to play in the provincial capital has been a rewarding experience. “Now that we have brought them together here, we are looking to assist and increase accessibility of paraplegic sportsmen to sports on national platforms.”
 “When I see the way these players compete in wheelchairs, it does not seem like a game for the disabled,” said Khan. “It is as exciting as any other game. If we provide them inclusive environment that would bring out and polish their talent, it would ensure active participation of people with disabilities in every walk of life. They can live a normal life like us.”
Irfan Khan, an engineer and wheelchair player who plays with the Peshawar Warriors said 4 years ago he was a normal player of cricket but suffered paralysis due to “a shock in his professional life.”

“I never gave up hope and that attitude helped me win my team the first wheelchair cricket tournament title trophy,” said Irfan Khan. “I feel a difference in my life after the disability but to play a game, you need determination as much as you need physical fitness. Sport activities keep my body and mind strong.”

Kaleemullah, a student of the Social Work Department at the University of Peshawar who has been volunteering to assist paraplegic sportsmen during tournaments, said there was little acceptance of people with disabilities in the society. “Sport events encourage people with disabilities and help them transcend their condition. They give them a healthy outlook on life. Tournaments and competitions help them feel that they are a part of the society’s fabric and that people care about their wishes and wellbeing when they participate in sports like the rest of us.”
Criticizing the government’s apathy towards people with disabilities, Mohammad Rafiq of Youth Participatory Forum said it was “unfortunate and irresponsible that libraries, cafeterias, departments, hostels and even examination halls are not wheelchair accessible.”
“We are working on the law to make sportsgrounds accessible to special persons,” said Rafiq. “Since we don’t have any now, we could only have four teams participate in the wheelchair tournament in Peshawar, not more.”  


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