Team South Africa recently returned from a successful campaign at the Commonwealth Games in Australia. The team won 37 medals: 13 gold, 11 silver and 13 bronze to finish in sixth place out of the 39 nations that took part.
Seven of those medals were won by para athletes many of whom began their sporting lives by competing alongside able-bodied athletes.
One of those athletes was Dyan Buis who won silver in the men’s T38 100m.
Buis is from Riversdale in the Western Cape.
He has mild cerebral palsy and bases his success to having competed alongside able-bodied athletes from his formative years.
“And if you look at how Athletics South Africa have done at their nationals as well at provincial level, including us and allowing disabled athletes to run in their races, it has been phenomenal,” says South Africa’s 2017 disabled sportsman of the year.
This is true for many disabled athletes who, in competing both alongside and against their able-bodied counterparts, have been able to raise their game.
The best example is probably that of Natalie du Toit and Oscar Pistorius.
The pair has won over 20 Paralympic medals and broke down barriers by competing against able-bodied athletes at the Olympic Games. What Pistorius achieved in the 400m as a disabled athlete in qualifying for the semi-final of the 400m in London will remain as an inspiration to many athletes – disabled and non-disabled.
Although Pistorius later undid much of this good work when he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on 14 February 2013.
Like Buis, both du Toit and Pistorius competed against able-bodied athletes growing up. Buis believes that in making the para sports part of the Games and not separating the championships.
The Paralympics typically take place a few weeks after the Olympics. Organisers of the Commonwealth Games have taken the lead in ensuring the integration of sport across the disability divide.
“I’m a forerunner for inclusion. I’m busy doing my master’s degree in inclusive education policy and I think the Commonwealth Games presents an excellent example of inclusion,” says the teaching graduate.
What Buis is talking about is stigma.
Inclusion is key not only to producing athletes that will go on to win Paralympic medals, but also to bringing disabled children into mainstream education because many are still kept at home.
Dana Donohue and Juan Bornman correctly state in their 2014 article in the Journal of Education: “In South Africa, up to 70% of children of school-going age with disabilities are out of school. Of those who do attend, most are still in separate, “special” schools for learners with disabilities.”
When we put children in special schools and give them their own races to run, we stigmatize them as different.
By so doing we forget the transformative power of sport. One of the best examples of this transformative power can be seen in the achievements Paralympic medallist Ntando Mahlangu.
The teenager grabbed headlines when he took silver in the 200m at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Mahlangu competed in the T42 category, above the knee amputees.
His rise was meteoric.
He only got his prosthetic limbs when he was 10 but by the time he was 14, he was winning medals on the world stage.
Mahlangu says he got his first pair of legs in 2012 he immediately started playing football with other kids. He attributes his success to this.
“I always wanted to be a soccer player. I was always wanted to be like Cristiano Ronaldo and I’m going to be the best player.”
And like du Toit and Pistorius, because he didn’t see himself as different, he enjoyed success in able-bodied sport.
In April 2016, Mahlangu won bronze at the South African Sub-Youth, Junior and Under-23 Championships in Germiston.
Imagine home many more Ntando Mahlangus South Africa could produce were it to completely transform school sporting structures and physical education programmes.
Imagine if school sports accommodated all children and allowed them to compete together.
The United Nations Division for Social Policy and Development makes the argument that, “By improving the inclusion and well-being of persons with disabilities, sport can also help to advance the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
For example, sports-based opportunities can help achieve the goal of universal primary education (MDG2) by reducing stigma preventing children with disabilities from attending school.”
The logic is undeniable and Mahlangu’s success is a powerful example.
Even in inclusive schools roughly a third of disable children are physically active, while only two thirds of non-disabled children participate in physical activity.
Therefore, in the drive to build a more understanding and compassionate society, we must allow children from Primary school level to participate in sport regardless of their physical and/or mental disabilities.
There are obviously certain practicalities that may prevent the more seriously disabled from participating in sport, but very effort should be made to accommodate the differently abled.
It is time to add sports inclusion in our schools in a more prescriptive way. This will encourage more disable children to go to school and escape poverty, and for those that show sporting ability, competing against their able-bodied counterparts will allow them to make the best of their talents. Talents which could see them grace the Commonwealth or Olympic Games one day.
Whitehead is a sport writer and broadcaster