IT was the first ever marathon for Sharone Stephen, 14, a girl with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder which affects her body movement and muscle coordination, but that didn’t stop her from pushing through and finishing the run.
It was a marathon unlike any other. Organised by the Kinabalu Running Club, in partnership with Unicef and various civil society organisations, the 2017 Borneo International Marathon (BIM) encouraged participation of people with disabilities.
“For the tenth edition this year, BIM is even more meaningful with the partnership with Unicef,” said Datuk Dr Heng Aik Cheng, president of the Kinabalu Running Club.
“We were able to promote the inclusion of children with disabilities and help them realise their full potential through sports.”
The marathon also included a special 3km fun run for children – with and without disabilities – and their parents, to provide an opportunity for children like Sharone to participate.
“My dream for the future is to see a world free of barriers,” she said.
“I want to participate in everything my friends do – as if I were one of them. This marathon shows me how that world can be possible.”
The start of the run was timed so that those running in the full and half marathon would merge with the special needs participants towards the end of the run – all in the spirit of inclusivity.
“Inclusive societies are sustainable societies,” said Unicef Representative in Malaysia Marianne Clark-Hattingh.
“A society cannot be just and fair unless all children are included, and children with disabilities cannot be included unless the environment around them changes to support their participation.”
Hardcore marathoner Sambri Putat took part in the 42km route on his wheelchair, and he experienced that sense of inclusivity first-hand.
“I could feel my wheelchair veering to one side,” he said, as the wheels started to become unaligned. “I had to stop, but luckily there was another man in a wheelchair to help.”
The man loaned Sambri his set of hex keys to straighten the wheels, and the two carried on to the applause of the runners around them.
“It felt great,” he said. “Because they’re able-bodied runners, and to be accepted by them feels amazing. Every time I rolled past someone, they would clap.”
No man left behind
A study commissioned by Unicef last year on knowledge, attitudes, and practices showed that there is still limited knowledge about the actual causes of disability.
It also showed that stigma and discrimination is real at different levels for children, parents and families of children with disabilities.
“The biggest barrier to children’s inclusion in society is our own ignorance and misunderstanding, and in some cases, total misconceptions surrounding disability,” said Clark-Hattingh.
It wasn’t difficult to find disabled people with tales of discrimination at BIM.
“My childhood was tough,” said Sambri. “Kids would say things like, ‘Oh you can’t walk, you can’t play with us’. It made me feel ashamed and embarrassed.”
“When we fear or shun the unknown, or those that are different, then these children are subjected to bullying for being different,” explained Clark-Hattingh.
Also sharing her experience of being bullied as a child was partially-blind Paralympian Felicia Mikat, who was ostracised by her peers growing up.
“They said things like ‘You can’t play with us, your eyes are weird’,” she said. “But then it became so common, I grew to ignore what they said.”
Felicia managed to overcome her difficult childhood, eventually winning three gold medals at the 2015 Asean Para Games in Singapore.
Athletics may have been Felicia’s refuge in her youth, but it’s now her strength. Both Felicia and Sambri are using sports to take on the negative stereotypes that fuelled their childhood exclusions.
“I want to prove to all ‘normal people’ that whatever they can do, we can do too,” said Sambri. “We’re not all just sitting around at home waiting to be taken care of.”
Chances and opportunities
Sambri is a volunteer with Cheshire Home Sabah (CHS), which helped organise BIM.
“The marathon is very important,” said CHS regional manager Jennifer Liew. “It’s an event that sheds light on – and helps advocate for – a lot of the work we and other NGOs are doing.”
According to her, there are still a lot of buildings and facilities in Malaysia which aren’t friendly towards disabled people.
“For example, a lot of buildings are without ramps, proper toilets for the disabled, and with unclear signage.”
For now, Cheshire Home is doing the best it can to exemplify the spirit of inclusivity that BIM promotes, by tackling real-life issues. It provides early education, skills training, and family support for disabled people, giving disabled people opportunities to learn young.
Thanks to the home’s efforts, Sambri was able to get an education, and subsequently, a job working as a maintenance man in a hotel. Before that, he could barely read, having missed out on school due to a lack of wheelchair-friendly facilities.
“It’s no longer enough to just give disabled people a place to stay,” said Liew. “Disabled people are part of society, they aren’t going anywhere, and if that part of society isn’t brought up to be independant, how are you going to grow as a country?”
At the end of the run, Sambri and Felicia both received their finisher medals, alongside 500 participants with disabilities.
“We all learned something today,” said Cheng. “The runners learned about children with disabilities and what they can do; and the children themselves built their self-esteem and overcame obstacles to their participation.”
The organisers are already looking to promote next year’s marathon as an inclusive event and attract runners with disabilities from all over the region.