CHENNAI: Passion, practice and peak performance — these are a few words used to describe the Tamil Nadu Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team, who placed second in the recently concluded Nationals conducted by the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India. Their spirited performance has helped them reach great heights, and some extra support will help them go a long way.
Basketball has given these women a new lease of life. Malathi, a member of the team, says she had no idea what basketball was, and was never interested in sports. However, her life took on a new turn when her friend introduced her to wheelchair basketball and she decided to give it a shot. “Playing basketball has helped me to be more independent. It has now given me the confidence to take care of my basic needs by myself. I don’t depend on other people as much as I used to before. My identity was earlier based on the fact that I’m a disabled person. Now I find my identity in being a basketball player,” she says.
Playing the sport and bringing accolades for her home state has also changed her family’s attitude towards her. “My family used to leave me behind at home when they went out. They used to be overprotective. But now they are supportive enough to let me go out and play. I have found more acceptance in my family, by making them proud and by playing basketball in spite of challenges,” she says and encourages other people with disability to take up the sport, as she believes it helps them stay fit, both physically and mentally.
Another player, Mary, says she was inspired by her sister to take up wheelchair basketball. “Earlier, my sister wouldn’t even go out to the corner shop. But after she started playing basketball, she became very outgoing, fearless and confident about herself. Seeing her transform like that inspired me to try it, and I’ve been playing for two years now,” she says.
Her sister, Matilda, is an international player who has previously won bronze in a tournament held at Indonesia. She persevered and won at the first state meet she participated in, and this posed as a big boost to her confidence. “Basketball has completely changed my life,” she says. She urges people with disabilty to overcome their fears and dare to live a meaningful life.
Finances and fields
Wheelchair basketball may have transformed their lives, but playing the sport comes with its own challenges. Sports wheelchairs are expensive as they are not manufactured in India. Shortly before the nationals, actor Kamal Hassan contributed Rs 6 lakh towards buying sports wheelchairs for the team. With this amount, they were able to buy five wheelchairs but did not have enough time to get used to them before the nationals.
They practice on the weekends at the Jayalalitha Indoor Basketball stadium at Kilpauk. However, the facilities there are not accessible. The basketball court has a cement floor, but their wheelchairs can only be used on wooden surfaces. They work around this by attaching cycle tyres to the wheelchairs. The storeroom at the stadium, where their wheelchairs are stored, is inaccessible, and they require someone to assist them up to the stairs. The toilet is also inaccessible. They say they have requested the government to provide accessible facilities.
They play the sport professionally and represent Tamil Nadu, but their financial recompense is only the cash prizes they win, which is divided amongst them. Several corporate firms and NGOs sponsor their travel and stay for tournaments. But most of the players are from weak economic backgrounds and pay transportation costs out of their pockets. They are willing to work part-time inaccessible workplaces to fund their passion. To donate or volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 9841098056/9841609601
Petition to play
Wheelchair basketball is not part of Paralympics yet. The team has submitted a petition to the government for the recognition of the sport. They are hopeful that steps will be taken towards including wheelchair basketball in the Paralympics next year. They believe a little monetary support will be helpful and encourage others. They are willing to take up jobs to finance themselves, provided the workplaces are disabled-friendly.