WHEELING TO LIFE: A match between Wheelchair Sports Association and Bodhisattvas in Action, at the Army Physical Training and Sports Centre hall in Lagankhel.
The Army Physical Training and Sports Centre hall in Lagankhel echoed with the skidding of wheelchairs and thumping of a basketball. With onlookers cheering and coaches barking directions, the players vigorously propelled their wheelchairs while simultaneously taking aim. Sitting in his wheelchair on the sidelines, Bijay Bhatta contemplated his upcoming strategy as he observed his competitors battling it out.
Bhatta is one of two earthquake survivors who are among the 89 physically disabled players participating in the wheelchair basketball league championship organised by ENGAGE, an NGO based in Kathmandu. The 17-year-old had just completed his tenth-grade finals when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck central Nepal in April last year. Bhatta was trapped under the debris of his house and sustained a permanent spinal injury. “I thought my life was ruined,” he said.
Some 5,000 persons were disabled as a result of the earthquake. “After training here I realised that given the right opportunities, people like us can do a lot,” said Bhatta, who is now playing for Nepal Spinal Cord Injury Sports Association (NSCISA). “And this social network is important, without it some of us might feel isolated and fall into depression.”
Bhatta’s friend Kesh Bahadur Tamang, a fellow competitor, also believes in shaping his own destiny. “It was hard to deal with my situation initially. But I realised that I still have my hands, if not my legs,” said Tamang who had fallen off a tractor while distributing relief materials, during a strong aftershock that hit Laprak, Gorkha. He is now a peer counsellor at the Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Centre in Sanga, which has its own basketball team.
Supported by Turkish Airlines and the Embassy of Switzerland, six male and three female teams are competing in the championship that is spread over seven Saturdays. The finals are slated for 9 July.
“The game makes us sweat, releasing various toxins from our bodies, which would otherwise not be possible for most of us through urination,” explained Himal Aryal, who is team captain of the Nepal Army Wheelchair Basketball team and has been playing for the last five years. His paralysis from the waist down was caused by a mine blast in Makwanpur in 2003 during the insurgency.
ENGAGE brings in volunteer coaches to support and motivate the teams. “Our aim is to create a system that can bridge the gap between persons with and without disabilities, through sports,” said Simone Galimberti from ENGAGE.
The training focuses specifically on a range of wheelchair manoeuvres and hand movements. Certain rules have been altered to suit the players’ needs but all games are held in international-standard basketball courts within the Valley.
“I have come with the hope of winning,” said 27-year-old Sarita Koirala, who was sixteen when she was buried under a landslide while working in the fields in Kavre. She feels the sport plays a key role in challenging conventional notions about people with disabilities. “People look at us differently now that we are identified as players,” said Koirala.
Additional investment is needed for infrastructure and wheelchairs, but league commissioner Michael Rosenkratz, who had helped bring coaches from the USA in 2013, is optimistic that this will evolve into a national-level tournament one day.
He said: “It is about creating opportunities to lead a full life. It is not about disability, but discoverability.”
Wheels of determination, Toh Eh Ming
No right of passage, Sulaiman Daud
Soldiering on, Kunda Dixit
Not seeing is believing, Lochana Sharma