FOR most able-bodied individuals, participating in sports and recreational activities is somewhat routine in their daily lives.
But not so for those with disabilities.
For the disabled, there are barriers to sports that deter them from the physical, mental and social benefits that could be had from such participation.
Among them are lack of understanding and awareness of how to include people with a disability in sport; limited opportunities and programmes for participation, training and competition; and the lack of accessible facilities, such as gymnasiums and buildings.
The Universiti Malaya Disability Sport Research Centre, also known as Sportability, is actively looking into ways to remove these barriers.
Head of the centre Associate Professor Dr Selina Khoo said while para-athletes gained recognition and accolades at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, Brazil when Malaysia won two gold medals for the first time and with current focus on doing well at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, there is still some way to go for the development of adaptive sports for the disabled.
“Although there has been more equality in terms of policy and practice of disability sport, there is still room for improvement,” she said.
In its efforts to support disabled athletes in terms of studies and career development, Sportability has two undergraduate programmes: Bachelor of Sport Management Science and Bachelor of Sports Science (Exercise Science).
Khoo said there are currently four national athletes and one state-level athlete enrolled in the programmes — among them are Ahmad Solihim Mohd Nor, 29, a second year sport management science student who has represented the country in 100 metre and 200 metre events under the T46 category (single arm), and first year sport management science student Nur Syahmina Aisyah Azmi, 21, who is a Ten Pin bowler for Perak in the B3 (low vision) category.
“The idea is to have UM graduates who have strong and adequate knowledge to make a difference in sports in general, and disabled sports in particular,” said Khoo.
Currently, training for the 2020 Asean Para Games in Manila in the Philippines as well as the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Solihim is no stranger to the world of sports. Born with a stump on his right arm, the best SPM student in Terengganu under the disabled category for 2007, represented the State in football at both primary and secondary school as either striker or winger.
Feeling that it would be difficult for him to go far when playing with a team of able-bodied sportsmen, he broke into the national paralympic athletics circuit in 2015 and has been representing the country since.
“Athletes can be in action for many years but without added qualification, it is a waste. With the apt qualification in hand, there is a higher added value that I can contribute towards the development of sports — not only for disabled athletes but the world of sports as a whole.
“For me, as an athlete, winning is a responsibility. But there is more that we can do in contributing to society,” he said.
Syahmina’s eyesight impairment, meanwhile, occurred after her eyes caught an infection from cat fur when she was in Primary Year 2.
But that did not stop her sporting spirit. With proper prescription glasses, she started off as a chess player during Form 1 when studying at SMK Pendidikan Khas Setapak (Cacat Penglihatan) in Kuala Lumpur.
She then found her love for bowling and represented Kuala Lumpur in the sport until Form 5.
She was wooed by Perak to join their team and represented the state during STPM exams in Para SUKMA 2018 where she got a bronze model in her category.
“Despite the busy period, I managed to score a grade of 3.75 for my STPM and I applied to study sports management via UPU, and subsequently was offered a place in UM,” she shared.
Syahmina is passionate about both sports and academics. Currently training for Para SUKMA Johor 2020, she has this to say: “I want to show society at large what disabled people can achieve. I want to chase my ambition of bowling for the country and at the same time excel in sport management — either for corporates or organisations.”
In terms of research, Sportability is focused on work related to adapted physical activity and disability sport at various levels.
Sports psychologist and former national tennis player Yuhanis Adnan, who is wheelchair-bound due to a spinal cord injury, is looking into ways to encourage Malaysians with disabilities to participate in physical activity.
“We have organised free exercise sessions for persons with disabilities on Saturdays at 9am at the centre in UM. Our undergraduate students have also helped out in exercise sessions for persons with learning disability from Dignity Services. We hope to have more support to continue with these activities, particularly in terms of transport and accessibility,” said Yuhanis.
She has also secured a community grant together with Wheelchair Tennis Malaysia to promote the sport among students with disabilities in UM.
This project also aims to encourage students with and without disabilities to play together.
“Sports in campus environments should be inclusive. This is the first step we are taking. Other than wheelchair tennis there could be a tandem bicycle, water sports and also recreational activities like running with buddies for both students with or without disabilities to partake together. When you make the environment facilitate inclusivity, it will remove psychological barriers and promote a more positive attitude towards and among disabled groups,” she said.
As accessibility is often cited as a barrier to participation in sport and physical activity, Sportability is conducting access audits of sports facilities, including the Paralympic Sports Excellence Centre in Kampung Pandan, Kuala Lumpur. The project is being led by Centre of Sports and Exercises Sciences lecturer Dr Nor Eeza Zainal Abidin and Associate Professor Dr Naziaty Mohd Yaacob who lectures at the Department of Architecture.
“We are developing a checklist for accessibility which will include solutions for sports venues that adhere to Malaysian Standard MS1184: Code of Practice for Access for Disabled Persons to Buildings. This will essentially provide a guideline for sports facilities when it is still in the design and development stage rather than have adjustments be made for disabled people as an after-thought,” said Nor Eeza.
Khoo emphasised that it is high time the approach to sports for the disabled and sports inclusivity be viewed from a social model perspective.
“It shouldn’t be viewed from a welfare perspective. Those who have disabilities have a right to participate in sports and recreation together with able individuals and Sportability is working to facilitate that vision,” she said.
She added the centre’s future activities include monitoring the health of athletes with disabilities, training workshops for coaches and research in technology and equipment for adapted physical activity.