At this Ability Camp in Leh, disabled youth literally skate on top of the world!
Bright blue sky, glittering white snow all around, and the sounds of happy shrieks filling the air.
About 40 youth participate at the Annual Ability Cup in Leh
The First Annual Ability Cup in Leh, organised by the Canadian Himalayan Association of India (CHAI) with the support of Jammu and Kashmir Police Leh, Department of Health, CanAssist Society and People's Action Group for Inclusion and Rights (PAGIR) saw the coming together of 40 children with special needs for a 10-day ice hockey camp.
The first such camp was hosted way back in 2008. The long gap was because CHAI was told that disabled kids were not welcome at the one and only ice rink in Leh. It was only three years ago that another rink was organised and the police stepped forward to help.
"These are children and youth with disabilities, including different learners, from remote villages in western Leh district", says Cynthia Hunt, Project Director at CHAI-India, which is a group of volunteers from Canada and India working together in various development projects in the Western Himalayas and in schools in Canada. Hunt has been based in Leh for close to 30 years and says the NGO focuses on the marginalised communities, as well as people with HIV, mental health issues as well as disabilities.
Given Canada's national passion for ice hockey and Leh being home to the second highest ice rink in the world, the idea of a ice hockey camp was in some ways inevitable.
"Being Canadian, I am big fan of ice hockey and we started holding some games to support youth with mental health issues. Some parents of disabled kids asked us why we could not do it for their children as well" - Cynthia Hunt, Project Director, CHAI-India
The logistics, though, took lots of will and creativity, because the sport was unfamiliar to the locals so equipment and expertise had to be sourced from Canada. Funds were raised through private donations for adapted sledges and wheelchairs, and three hockey coaches were flown down from Canada for month-long training camp.
Funds for adapted wheelchairs, sledges raised through donations
"Through the 10-day camp, children would play ice hockey in some form. some of them in wheelchairs", says Hunt. "The idea is that they all learn how to play. They also do activities like building mobility devices, some artwork and banners. The really young ones play the role of cheerleaders on the ice rink. When they come they are shy and not-so-confident. Now they are bold. Ice hockey can do that for kids".
For many parents, who make the trip from remote villages, it is also an opportunity to get their children properly diagnosed at the main city hospital. Many of them come from Hanu village, which has among the highest disability rates in India. Ironically, as Shruti More, the camp facilitator, who works at the Handimachal Therapy Centre in Kullu points out, its a reality that finds no reflection in the state census.
"In the 2011 Census, Jammu and Kashmir had no figures that reflected disability rates in the state. This is despite the fact that in in places like Hanu in the western part of Leh district, almost every family has someone with a disability. The most common one is cerebral palsy" - Shruti More, Camp Facilitator
From adapted sledges to adapted hockey sticks, there was a chance given to every child to be on the hockey field. A team of officials from the Canadian High Commission came down for a day for a friendly match. Fifteen adapted sledges were donated for the camp, many of them from the High Commission officials. What was interesting was that the camp was kept inclusive and open to everyone, a welcome change in approach from the 'special olympics' and special games' that is usually seen.
With the local officials stepping up in a big way, CHAI plans to hold this camp every year.