Komal Mehra is the head of Sports Initiatives and Associations at Usha International.
‘Strength lies in differences, not in similarities’ – this saying hits home and truly defines the power of diversity in today’s times. With 19 medals in Tokyo, India rewrote its history at the 2020 Paralympic Games in spectacular style. The 54-member Indian contingent held promise, but nobody thought they would deliver such sensational results. The last census (2011) pegged the number of people with disabilities in India at about 2.68 crore, which undeniably includes many with a plethora of talent that unfortunately remains hidden and untapped for lack of platforms and support. Over the past decade, government bodies, sports authorities—with various brands and foundations—have taken a keen interest in developing sports infrastructure and training in India. It has, in part, contributed to improved results, but we still have a long way to go.
From athletics to badminton, shooting, and even table tennis, India’s differently-abled sportspeople are breaking barriers to mark a difference and make the country proud. Over the years, federations and para-athletes have struggled to find sponsors to achieve their dreams. While an increasing number of brands are now working towards the agenda of diversity, equality, and inclusion, regrettably many of them are barely scratching the surface, acting more as performative activists.
On the occasion of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, let’s look at how brands and organisations can lead the way in ensuring inclusivity:
Equal opportunity & platforms for all
There is barely any society that can truly declare that it is free from discrimination. Discrimination percolates across all strata of society. To create awareness and acceptance of an inclusive society, organisations need to work towards breaking down barriers and increase access. An organisation’s action speaks louder than words, making it imperative they go beyond lip service to support and celebrate equal opportunity. Differently-abled students, colleagues, and athletes should be appreciated for their ability and talent; not viewed through the disability lens.
Grass-root level upliftment
Brands and organisations need to genuinely work towards ensuring pervasive inclusion of vulnerable persons such as the differently-abled community. This is especially true for para-athletes as they miss out on mentorship programs, physical and mental training support, access to world-class facilities at a young age, and more. Brands need to partner with them at a grassroots level to shape their lives as successful professionals in their own right.
On-board para-athletes as brand ambassadors
How you treat your brand partners reveals the values and culture of your company. Brands should not simply associate with them when there is an occasion or opportune moments they can leverage, the intent needs to be bonafide. Brands should associate with differently-abled athletes on a regular, ongoing basis to give them a boost and renew their confidence to showcase their potential.
The inclusion of differently-abled people must not be restricted when it comes to their roles in the organisation. They must be empowered to take on leadership roles, just like anyone else. We must look at global sporting platforms and take inspiration from the journey of para-athletes, who overcome numerous challenges to achieve success. Brands should give them centre stage as role models to inculcate a culture of inclusion, teamwork, and empathy amongst employees and their family members.
Be part of something bigger, not just the noise
Brands must introspect and re-evaluate whether the campaigns they build are truly symbolic of the brand’s core values. While organisations continue their usual brand associations, they must also choose platforms that represent inclusion and celebrate diversity. This needs to be an honest, immersive 360-degree narrative enhancing the brand reputation.
Lead by Example
The only way brands will inspire trust, is when they lead by example and others will follow suit. It should never be about winning or losing. It should be more about participation, a celebration of being alive, being active, and being encouraged in all walks of abilities. When one sees brands jumping on the bandwagon to associate with para-athletes immediately after they have won international laurels, it makes one skeptical and questions their real motive. If a brand’s heart is in the right place, they will stand by their players—para and otherwise—through all the highs and more importantly, through their lows.
A brand is a direct manifestation of the values the organisation represents, and at the core of those values must lie empathy and an ethical value system. Brands must shoulder the responsibility of not just focusing on revenues, but also playing a role in creating a more equitable society where everyone must get an opportunity to fully realise their potential and become the best version of themselves. Brands that take disability inclusion seriously are going to win the real race—that of humanity.
The writer is a head of Sports Initiatives and Associations at Usha International.
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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