When a child is born, their life seems filled with so many possibilities. They can become whoever they want to be; they can grow and develop like every other person.  

But as that child gets older, the outside world starts to limit what they can and cannot do. And for people living with disabilities, these outside limitations are so much greater.  

For a start, some communities look down on people with disabilities. Even parents of disabled children often see them as a burden, and they are kept or left at home, denying them social engagement with their peers and, in most cases, an education.  

And without an education, they'll spend the rest of their lives struggling to make a living, leaving them dependent on family and charity. And in cases where families do want their disabled children to gain an education, most schools lack the facilities and the specialist teachers to make it work. 

As well as education opportunities, people with disabilities lack special health care and protection. There is only one rehabilitation centre in the entire southern region that caters for people with disabilities. And this is far more than the hospital has the capacity to support. 

But perhaps most crucially, people living with disabilities are much more likely to face threats to their safety. Many will experience physical, domestic and sexual violence, often enduring their abuse in silence because they are unable to communicate, due to fear or their disability itself, what is happening to them.  

Despite the Malawi Constitution insisting on the protection of the rights of all people, those with disabilities experience discrimination and exclusion from society at every level. They come up against barriers in education, transport and specialist health care; they are excluded from public events, decision-making and entering inaccessible buildings. 

And one way in which this directly affects people with disabilities' psychological wellbeing is their exclusion from mainstream activities; activities that people without disabilities are able to enjoy without even thinking; activities like sport.  

The main communal sporting activities include playing football, netball and basketball, which are not adapted for those with disabilities, which means they are left out.  

Fair Play Malawi

Sport can play a major role in rehabilitating people with disabilities into society. It can be a space where those with and without disabilities can equally participate, demonstrating what real inclusion looks like to those who would try and keep them segregated. Following our launch of Fair Play, our inclusive sports programme, in Ghana last year, International Service is bringing Fair Play to Malawi.  

In the 2008 census, Malawi registered 498,122 people living with disabilities nationwide. And more recently, research conducted by the Malawi Council for the Handicapped (MACOHA) in 2018 registered over 1,044 people living with disabilities in Blantyre alone. This is the region where we will launch Fair Play. 

The sport that will kick off our inclusive sports programme in Malawi is sitting volleyball. Sitting volleyball is not just a disability sport, where only disabled people participate; it is a truly inclusive sport. This means that sitting volleyball enables people with and without disabilities to compete alongside each other. And the sport will not only serve recreational purposes but will also foster an environment of inclusiveness whilst raising awareness of rights for people with disabilities in the community. 

To make sure that the sitting volleyball teams we start and train can outlive the life span of the project, and continue to make new teams, all the equipment will be made from locally-sourced, recycled materials. And the communities will be closely involved in the process of sourcing  materials and making the equipment so that they can continue making them long after we have finished the project. 

An inclusive society is essential. Everyone that makes up a community is equally important regardless of gender, race, physical or mental disability. Everyone has something to contribute to society: all we need to do is give them the platform.  

Written by Alice Chunga, Malawi office Business Development volunteer.