“It has been established that through sports, people can reduce degree of disability by up to 25%. “People with disabilities have a large degree of normalcy in them and 80% of them are capable of participating in sports,” says Air Marshal Denzil Keelor, the founder Trustee and CEO of Special Olympics Bharat.
Special Olympics Bharat is a National Sports Federation that uses sports as a catalyst to transform the lives of children and adults with intellectual disability. It is accredited by Special Olympics Inc., USA to conduct its sports programs all over India. Under Keelor’s leadership, the program runs across all the states and Union Territories of India covering 679 districts and registering 1.2 million athletes (Persons with Intellectual Disabilities). Intellectual disability is a term used to describe a person with certain limitations in cognitive functioning and other skills, including communication and self-care.
We caught up with Air Marshal Denzil Keelor, who is also a celebrated Indo-Pak war hero, for a conversation. Having had a brilliant career during which he distinguished himself as an exceptional fighter pilot and held key Operational and Staff assignments, he earned recognition for gallantry and distinguished service. Keelor received four Presidential awards from four consecutive Presidents of India, Param Vishist Seva Medal (PVSM), Kirti Chakra (KC), Ati Vishist Seva Medal (AVSM) and Vir Chakra (VrC) and four commendations from the Chief of Air Staff, thus making him the highest decorated officer in the country.
In 2004, he received an award from Special Olympics International for his leadership and efforts to reach out to over 450,000 Special Children. In October 2007, at the World Summer Games in Shanghai, a special ceremony was held where he received the ‘Special Spirit of China Award of Excellence’, along with world leaders Nelson Mandela, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Quincy Jones and others, in recognition of his contribution to the Special Olympics Movement.
In an exclusive interview, Keelor talks about sports as a medium of inclusion.
What is your opinion on corporate social responsibility?
It is a very good concept and is essential. However its equitable distribution is in question. It is more based on vested interest than where it is most needed. In developed countries, it is the strongest supporter of the social sector while the government has the least role to play. However, in the case of India, the government plays a major role while corporates remain too selective.
Which causes are you most passionate about?
I am passionate about causes such as the Special Olympics that instill hope in this community of Disabilities from which flows joy, happiness; not only for them but even for their families and friends.
Tell us about your journey from Air Force officer to Special Olympics.
I retired from the Indian Air Force in 1991 after having served as a fighter pilot. After retiring, I joined YMCA and was Chairman for 10 years in this position. During this tenure, I was approached by Special Olympics International to join the movement as Chairman of the India program. I accepted this request and from 2001 onwards, I took over. The registered number of athletes at the time was approx. 10,000 having risen to over 1.4 million currently.
What are its objectives?
The mission of Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.
We use sports as a catalyst to reach out to people and use the benefits of sports to achieve holistic development. Special Olympics Bharat is a National Sports Federation for Development of Sports for the Intellectually Disabled, recognized by the Ministry of Sports & Youth Affairs, Government of India and the nationally accredited program of Special Olympics Inc, USA.
Which companies has Special Olympics Bharat partnered with?
Special Olympics Bharat was registered with the Indian Trusts Act 1882 in 2001 and recognized by the Government of India as a National Sports Federation 2006 in the Priority Category for the development of Sports for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities. It has been designated as the Nodal Agency in 2010 by the Government for conduct of sports for all disabilities on account of its national presence, outreach and experience. We partner with schools, institutions and universities, and organizations like UNICEF. We partner with communities and corporates like Herbalife Nutrition, Microsoft and Infosys Foundation as part of their corporate social responsibility.
How could sports be a catalyst to transform the lives of people with Intellectual Disability?
It has been established that through sports, people can reduce their degree of disability by up to 25% (scientific studies have confirmed). It was also established that people with Disabilities have a large degree of normalcy in them and 80% of them are capable of participating in sports. They can play and compete in international competitions, if properly trained, and enjoy the experience too! This is the premise of forming the program.
We use non-sports activity along with sports for the growth and development of this ideology. Benefits of sports are not new to the world. The most important element is holistic training, health and wellness. So we exploit this potential to its maximum, taking our athletes from the grassroot level to the International Olympic arena.
In what ways could sports be a medium to promote inclusion?
The biggest benefits that accrue from sports are leadership and team work. To this end, we have added Unified Sports; we find that all types of opportunities emerge for our athletes which change their lives, build confidence, trust, hope and give them a better quality of life.