Nepal | September 30, 2020

Digitised interventions for social inclusion: Adapting to the unwelcomed crisis

Samridhi Rana and Simone Galimberti
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Last year, two world-class wheelchair basketball coaches visited Nepal to conduct an intensive sports training aimed at raising the level of sports in the country. The training brought together more than 40 female and male wheelchair basketball players in Kathmandu – athletes and citizens living with disabilities from across Nepal.

While many of these adaptive athletes were amateurs, there were several who were high performers and elite competitors, who could do very well even at the international level, provided they have world-class facilities and support.

It is thus not surprising that the international wheelchair basketball league in 2019 was a tremendous success with 13 teams competing with each other. So, can sports engagement be possible during the COVID-19 pandemic?

COVID-19 upended our lives in many ways, increasing the risk of social isolation and economic insecurity, impacting our mental and psychosocial health. The Nepali media reported an increase in the number of suicides during the lockdown. They link this mental health problem to staying indoors during the lockdown.

People with disability, in particular, are those living a vulnerable life even before the pandemic. Suddenly their right to go to work or socialise through sports was interrupted, further minimising one of those few opportunities to interact with their peers.

For the wheelchair users, who returned home from Kathmandu to the hills or mountains once the lockdown was announced, physical accessibility is posing further challenges in their well-being. Think about being left behind when all the family members are out on the farm because it is not possible to accompany them.

To solve the issues of isolation, social disengagement and help cope with resilience, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Nepal and ENGAGE, a local not for profit working in the disability sector, is running a virtual programme called “Fit & healthy no matter what: Online adaptive sports, awareness making and psychosocial support for persons living with disabilities.”

Started on July 11 and running until the end of September, the free online sessions are connecting persons with and without disabilities, with psychologists and renowned local and international adaptive sports persons and experts, who share their insights with their peers and colleagues from Nepal. National adaptive athletes are a paragon of endurance and resilience, and them discussing the goals, dreams and ways to achieve them is an innovative intervention to their wellbeing during this crisis. In general, digital strategy is being adopted widely in this time of crisis.

Often overlooked by other interventions, sports play an important role in the lives of persons living with disabilities because it offers a platform to interact and connect, among and beyond their circles, to engage with the wider society. The importance of sports has been linked to pathways to employment and education by disability experts in the development and humanitarian fraternity.

Says Jerome Imstepf, Head of the Mission of the ICRC in Nepal, “While in general, sports practice is greatly contributing to an individual’s physical and psychological well-being, the practice of a sport can also be a key factor in social inclusion, especially for people with disability.”

The rights of Nepali citizens with disabilities will be fulfilled only with systemic change in the society. One important step in that direction is for people without disability to develop more understanding and accept disability as an inclusive component of diversity. It is a small step in laying the foundation for a more inclusive society.

While it will take some time before a vaccine against the coronavirus is ready, the sooner we accept and adjust to the change, the lesser will be the economic burden of physical and psychosocial health.

Persons from historically vulnerable and marginalised groups, including those with disabilities, must be supported during these taxing times.

Hopefully, online programmes focussed on the holistic development and well-being of a person, while not a substitute for face to face live experience, can help provide some momentum in believing that a better future for all is possible and achievable, no matter what the crisis.

Rana is a disability inclusion professional, a University of Sydney graduate. Galimberti is the co-founder of ENGAGE, working for social inclusion.

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