Even though my school excluded me from sport, I made it to the Paralympics

It was difficult for me to get an education as a child growing up with a disability in Malawi.

When I was only one week old, my mother noticed there was something wrong with my eyes. She learned that I had developed cataracts, but there was only one paediatric eye surgeon in the whole country so I was not able to get the sight-saving operation that I needed.

My vision is very limited, and I can only see objects that are incredibly close to my eyes. Everything else, I cannot see properly.

My grandmother who raised me sent me to school once when I was young, but I couldn’t see the blackboard, so the teachers told me to go home and come back when I was older and more literate. My grandmother worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope so she kept me at home. It made me feel like education wasn’t for me.

When I finally did get to school at age 10, I wasn’t allowed to participate in any sports activities because of my disability. The teachers thought that because I couldn’t see well, I wouldn’t be able to compete.

They would say: ‘No, you can’t do this. You can’t run with this condition.’ So, I had to hide my passions at school. It made me feel like I was incapable of doing sports like the other children.

This happened to me many years ago, but sadly mine is a familiar story for millions of children with disabilities around the world today.

Many children, especially girls, end up not going to school as a result of gender and disability discrimination. In Malawi, as in other countries, there’s sometimes a belief that people with impairments can do nothing to participate in society.

Even before the pandemic, more than 33million children with disabilities in low and middle income countries were out of school, and many who have not attended during the past year will never return.

Despite my teachers’ disbelief in my ability, I started running in my own time and found I really enjoyed it. But I didn’t get seriously into running until I was discovered by an organisation called NICE (The National Initiative for Civic Education) when I was 16.

I had been attending one of their projects for young people with disabilities to learn and do activities together when they got a call from the Malawi Paralympic Committee asking if there was anyone at the project who would be suitable to send to a local competition. They selected me and said that if I could compete and do well there was potential to train for the Paralympics.

I ran the 400m and 800m and came first in both. I was on top of the world. I was so happy, and I couldn’t really believe that there were truly organisations that were there just to help people with disabilities. It was a dream and a revelation to know that the Malawi Paralympic Organisation exists.

I was soon getting selected to run in national and international competitions. Thanks to their belief in my talents, I realised that I was not only capable of running competitively, but also that I was good at it.

I do have difficulty running when it is really sunny and the sun shines directly in my eyes, as this can make it very hard and distracting for me. So to avoid this, I prefer to run at night and most of my training takes place then, though bright artificial lights can also be an issue.

In the daytime I will sometimes wear a hat to shade my eyes from the sun. Despite this, I have never had any real physical problems with running and have always enjoyed it.

My main challenges were always social ones, when I wasn’t allowed to run with people without disabilities or to join in sports.

For example, one day when I was a teenager attending the school for the blind in Kasungu, our school told us to go for a running race at another school within the district. When we arrived, we were told that the activity was not for children with disabilities and that our organisers had been mistaken.

We went back humiliated. I asked myself a question: ‘Are we not humans like anyone else?’ But I kept on running because I believed in myself. 

I love running because it keeps me mentally and physically fit. It has also opened up so many opportunities for me, especially the chance to travel and see new places. Before the Paralympics, I visited countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe to run in international competitions. My performance in these led to me being selected for the Paralympics.

Running professionally means I can support my son, as I am a single mother, and provide for my family. When I am not competing, I work as a farmer, which I also enjoy. Having my own career helps break down stereotypes that people with disabilities cannot be productive members of society.

Ahead of the 2016 Paralympics, I trained really hard in a camp where I didn’t see my son for two months to prepare. I missed him so much but it was worth it.

The opportunity to visit new places really is amazing, and the 2016 Paralympics were life-changing for me. It was the first time I had ever been on a plane or left Africa.

I didn’t even know before there were different types of disabilities, I thought maybe I was alone. It was such a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere where I was able to meet athletes like me from all over the world.

It was a dream come true to race in the Paralympics, but it was also a bad experience for me as I fell behind in my race and was ultimately disqualified for leaving my lane. Though this made me lose morale it also taught me some important lessons.

This year, I am really excited to have competed in Japan. Following my disqualification, I trained really hard to get my tactics right and pace myself.

Our training ground may be basic, but my coach Agnes followed the best international methods. It has been more challenging this year following the Covid-19 regulations and sadly my other teammate Alinafe Puwa was unable to come with me as he contracted the virus.

I want to make Malawi proud and to show the world that disabled people are just as capable as anyone else. I want children with disabilities to see me up on that world stage, see what is possible and have faith in themselves.

I have been so fortunate to have been so well supported to follow my dreams and make a living from the sport I love. But this was not always guaranteed, and not every girl like me gets the same chances in life.

It is so important for children, and in fact anyone, with disabilities to be encouraged to participate in sports and to explore what they enjoy and are good at.

Sport can open up new relationships, new experiences and help develop new knowledge of the world. It has helped me to grow mentally, physically and socially.

When people with disabilities are involved in mainstream sports, it also helps to challenge the stigma and discrimination that is often associated with disability. However, people with disabilities are far more likely to be physically inactive than those without a disability, especially in low-income countries where there can be many barriers to access.

Globally, children with disabilities, particularly girls, are also less likely to go to school, less likely to complete school and more likely to be illiterate than children without disabilities. This needs to change.

Governments need to ensure that all children with disabilities have an opportunity to learn and take part in sports at school. Teachers need to be trained to understand how to deliver inclusive education.

Facilities and learning materials need to be made accessible to everyone. And negative and incorrect ideas about disability need to be challenged.

Disability does not mean inability. I want to be recognised for who I am, not restricted by what people think I can’t do.

Taonere Banda is currently supporting Sightsavers’ ‘Equal World’ campaign, which calls for the rights of people with disabilities to be upheld around the world and for children with disabilities to be included in education.

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