Mariyappan Thangavelu, Deepa Malik, Devendra Jhajharia and Varun Bhati have put Paralympic sports on the map in India. Now, their performances need to spark a change in society's attitude towards the differently abled
By this time, most of you must have watched Mariyappan Thangavelu’s heroic, gold-clinching leap at the 2016 Paralympic Games, underway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. If you haven’t, stop reading this for a few minutes and go find a link to the video clip.
Thangavelu, 21, is slightly built. He’s swaying back and forth, focused, taking deep breaths. The start of his run-up is actually a walk, which breaks into a series of giant skips, before morphing into a purposeful sprint, and… take-off! His body rises off the ground, he twists impossibly in mid-air, time stands still, you forget to breathe, you sneak in a prayer, you break into a disbelieving smile as his arched back comfortably clears the bar. You could watch this on loop for days and still be spellbound.
That attempt won him gold in the men’s high jump, while compatriot Varun Bhati won bronze. Later, 45-year-old Deepa Malik, paralysed from the waist down, won silver in women’s shot put and Devendra Jhajharia won gold in men’s javelin. Between them, they’ve put Paralympic sports on the map in India. Their stories are incredible.
Thangavelu lost his leg in an accident at the age of 5, when a state transport bus crushed his right knee. Bhati was afflicted by polio as a child.
Malik is on a one-woman mission to break as many glass ceilings as possible. She has driven and navigated in the Raid de Himalaya (India’s most treacherous car rally) after becoming the first physically challenged person in India to get a rallying licence. She holds three national track-and-field records (javelin, shot put and discus). She also holds three national swimming records (backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle). The list is inspiring.
The reaction has been justifiably euphoric, the celebrations around our Olympic stars merging seamlessly into accolades for the Paralympians.
It’ll be interesting, however, to see how the conversation goes forward from this point on. Because in terms of legacy, the Paralympic achievements should ideally spark a very different discussion from the one that followed the Olympics.
The Olympic aftermath can be split into two main themes: felicitation and post-mortem. The former involves everyone—from bumbling ministers to well-meaning cricketers—posing with the champions. The second involves debate on what India need to win more medals—better infrastructure, increased funding, and an attitudinal shift in how we perceive sport from a young age.
In the case of our Paralympian superheroes, the first part will—and should—remain the same. They have earned their share of the spotlight. But the more important conversation needs to revolve around how we treat people with disabilities.
While we celebrate how Thangavelu overcame the odds, thanks to a coach who saw his potential, we need to try and imagine what his life would have been like had this coach not spotted him.
It’s a big ask, but this performance needs to spark a change in society’s attitude towards the differently abled. The laws need to become more inclusive, to ensure they get the same access to education, to jobs, to everything that we take for granted, including disabled-friendly access to our public transport and public toilets. I mean, if you can win a Paralympic silver medal in a wheelchair, surely you should be able to get a job, get on to a bus or a train, or use a public loo (to be fair, this last one’s hard for most able-bodied people as well).
It is even more important that this happens now, while the Paralympics remain fleetingly in the spotlight. The most important lesson we can learn from watching that 30-second clip of Thangavelu is that given the right kind of support, anyone can fly.
Deepak Narayanan has been a journalist for nearly 20 years and has worked in publications across Mumbai and Delhi before relocating to Goa, where he is researching the side effects of binge-eating fish thalis. He tweets at @deepakyen.