"Differently abled, not disabled" -- this is how Noor Nahian, the founder of Bangladesh Wheelchair Sports Foundation captioned a photo of himself sitting in his wheelchair, that he posted on Twitter.
Similarly he is very clear about something else – disability is a social construct.
"Accessibility is the biggest issue, and this is because of discrimination by society, not because of a lack of ability on our part," said Nahian.
It is with this idea that the foundation was created to inspire the practice of sports -- to inspire mobility -- among mobility-bound wheelchair users.
Noor Nahian has been a wheelchair athlete since 2015. He is the vice captain of Bangladesh Wheelchair Cricket Team and has participated in wheelchair cricket tournaments internationally.
But in an atmosphere where the needs of differently abled people are always an afterthought, he decided to go beyond his own interest in cricket and create an umbrella organisation that supports a number of sports.
"We started work in April 2018. Our main motivation was to teach differently abled people how to play a certain sport while sitting in a wheelchair. On the cricket pitch, we are the ones fielding, bowling, batting, conducting the whole game. Many differently-abled people wonder how they can do all this while strapped to a wheelchair," said Nahian.
That is the crux of it -- the foundation is a support group that teaches differently-abled bodies to adapt to the challenges of fitting into a world that denies them space and opportunities.
The lack of movement among wheelchair users can be life-threatening. In 2015, Nature journal published a survey done on 350 spinal cord injury patients by Centre for Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) and John Walsh Centre for Rehabilitation Research at University of Sydney. The survey found that one in five people with spinal cord injury that are wheelchair-dependent die within two years of leaving CRP due to sepsis from pressure ulcers.
Pressure ulcers, or bedsores as they are commonly known, are a common skin injury that paralysed patients suffer from.
But more than just teaching, the foundation also arranges the logistics of movement. "We arrange for volunteer support from able-bodied individuals. They push the wheelchairs, carry food, bags and help players use public transport," informed Nahian.
"We dream of sending our athletes to the Paralympics. Currently we are working with sports like badminton, table tennis, basketball," said Nahian.
For many spinal cord injury survivors, wheelchair sports also offer one of the only scopes for mobility because differently-abled people are less prone to be included in education or job opportunities.
"Most wheelchair users sit at home and are dependent on the meagre amount of government welfare. I completed my graduation in computer science last year in December 2019 from East West University and was looking for jobs. The first thought I had was whether the office will be accessible for me. A friend of mine who walks with crutches got a government job and was hesitant because the job required a lot of movement – and while he was not afraid of his ability, he feared whether his needs would be accommodated," he said.
An article by CRP researchers in a journal published by the International Spinal Cord Society in November 2019, studied 410 adult spinal cord injury survivors discharged from CRP over five years. They found that five years into leaving the hospital the median income of the cohort was an alarming US $0. Zero dollars. Before being paralysed, almost all of them were employed.
While that is an indicator of the financial distress of wheelchair users, it also tells us that this population is probably spending years sitting at home. And that is where wheelchair sports can make a difference.
The pandemic however put a damper on their activities for a bit. "We could not move about at all during the pandemic. For example, I use an Uber or CNG-run auto-rickshaw because buses and rickshaws are impossible for me, because there are no wheelchair ramps. So we branched out to providing telemedicine support for the differently-abled. In addition, last July we organised a virtual chess tournament to keep up the pace," said Nahian. They are also organising wheelchair donations.
The foundation currently has coordinators in 11 districts of which eight districts are represented by wheelchair-users. Two of the other three districts are also represented by differently-abled people but they are not wheelchair users.