A one-on-one chat is all that is required for one to realize the great passion that this former engineer brings to his (honorary) job. Meet Dr J Paul Devasagayam, Area Director, Special Olympics Bharat, Tamil Nadu (TN). A vocal proponent of social inclusion of children with intellectual disabilities, he has almost single-handedly revolutionized the disabled sports scene in Tamil Nadu. His efforts as a Special Olympics Bharat representative over two decades have been decisive in making sports accessible to the Intellectually Disabled (ID) in even far-reaching corners of the state.
On a balmy December morning in Chennai, R Sriram Srinivas, 22, begins his day at seven with an hour of yoga. He then cycles for an hour, in and around his neighbourhood, before attending school at 10 am. In the early evening, post school, he is back to his exercise regimen, an hour of swimming followed by more sports training. Late evenings, Sriram relaxes at the grocery store run by his family, until it's time for dinner.
Sriram’s schedule, which remains unchanged on most days, may seem overwhelming to most of us. But when you consider that less than three years ago, he could barely stand without support, it makes his story that much more inspiring.
Sriram was born with multiple disabilities: mental retardation (intellectual disability) and spastic diplegia.
Sriram was aggressive and restless through his adolescent years but ever since sports became an immutable part of his life, things have taken a turn for the better. “There are two benefits of taking up sports,” says Dr Devasagayam. “First, it keeps the child physically fit and helps alleviate behavioral problems. Second, it facilitates social interaction with [the child’s] peer group, especially when playing as a team.” Research has shown that involvement in a sport improves self-esteem in children with ID. Despite these positive indications Dr Devasagayam finds that parents of children with intellectual disability hesitate to introduce their child to physical activity. They assume that their child cannot cope with any kind of physical exertion. The lack of awareness in general is the reason why adaptive sports (or disability sports) are yet to gain mainstream acceptance and support in India. Thankfully, this school of thought is slowly fading. Dr Devasagayam mentions that while there were only 2,000 registered Special Olympics athletes in Tamil Nadu in 2008, that number has soared to approximately 1.65 lakh now. The registrants belong to all 32 districts of the state and come from all walks of life. “Parents have finally come to the conclusion that physical training is a viable option more so than vocational training,” he says.
Sriram was 12 years old when his parents gave serial casting a shot. The procedure entailed a plaster of Paris cast custom fitted to Sriram’s legs to hold them in a position that will keep the leg muscles stretched; this helped Sriram to some extent by enabling him to walk using assistance. He however had to spend three months in these heavy casts (12 kilograms), that were replaced every 10 days, subjecting Sriram to excruciating pain in the process. Apart from the routine of assisted walking sessions, Sriram remained confined to bed, unable to move or bend. "When Sriram was around 15 years old I had an epiphany that I was putting him under a great deal of stress,” says R Vanitha, Sriram’s mother. That’s when speech, physio, and occupational therapies plus unorthodox treatments such as Ayurveda, Botox, Acupuncture, Electrical Muscle Stimulation, among other things, that had been part of Sriram’s “painful life” ever since his diagnosis at 6 months old, were halted and the family began their quest for better alternatives.
In 2013, they met Dr Devasagayam through Sriram’s tutor, G V Arumugam. This meeting was a turning point. His parents, who had neither heard about Special Olympics Bharat nor had a clue about the therapeutic benefits of sports, enrolled Sriram to train with Dr Devasgayam. Within a year of training, Dr Devasagayam signed Sriram up for the 100 metre Assisted Walk event at a national level Special Olympics Meet in Delhi. Vanitha was a bit apprehensive about Sriram’s participation, but after Dr Devasagayam reassured her, she relented. To her utter surprise, Sriram pulled off a podium finish in his first ever walking event. “I never expected Sriram to finish the race, so, honestly, I was a bit shocked to see him cross the finish line without any hiccup,” Vanitha recalls. Though Sriram’s father, S Rajasekaran, was initially a bit skeptical about the prospect of sports as medicine for Sriram’s condition, he has come to embrace it wholeheartedly now.
The old, restless Sriram does make an appearance every now and then, and has a long way to go before his behavioral issues can be completely managed, but his progress has brought about a lot of positivity in the family. “Sriram can now stand on his own without support for a longer duration, his cardiovascular system has been strengthened considerably, and his reliance on others to perform daily tasks has also decreased thanks to his involvement in sports.” Dr Devasagayam says “I'm positive that he'll compete in an international sports meet in 2019.” With such a healthy support system around him, it wouldn’t be long before Sriram is able to stand on his own legs.
It’s a tough world out there for the differently-abled. More so for individuals with multiple disabilities. Dr Devasagayam rues the lack of infrastructure catering specifically to the needs of the intellectually and physically challenged demographic in the country. India is home to one of the largest populations—70 million—of persons with disabilities in the world. Yet, disabled-friendly facilities, especially sports venues, are a rare sight in this part of the world. “That’s the biggest hurdle in training these kids,” he says. “Training a differently abled child is no different than training an able-bodied kid… It’s about time the government addresses their needs.” He credits programs such as Unified Sports, which brings together children with and without disabilities, to remove preconceived notions about children with special needs in our society. “Whether in an academic setting or through a sport, only when these kids move together will the idea of inclusivity gain momentum.” He drives home the importance of the three P’s—patience, persistence, and perseverance—to all the stakeholders through this popular Tamil adage: "Nambikkai endru ondru irundhal mattrum podhum, irutil nadanthalum Himayam varai chellalam," which roughly translates to 'With faith and hope, you can overcome any situation and emerge victorious.'