I am Manoj, I was affected by Polio at the age of two. I faced many challenges in my younger years, but was never given the opportunity to play sport. I have always been passionate about promoting diversity and inclusion, specifically in disability development. Stemming from my passion, I found Choice International www.choice-international.com (Choice) in 2009, a not-for-profit organisation promoting diversity and inclusion in the UK and overseas. Richard Frost, former CEO of Motivation UK, joined Choice as a Director in 2016. To date Choice has developed several initiatives focussing on disability sport, specifically to reach more diverse communities, using inclusive sports as a tool to promote diversity and inclusion globally.
I had never played sport till my late adult years. I started playing Wheelchair Tennis and Wheelchair Basketball only a few years ago to develop a basic understanding to support some of the development projects Choice was delivering. I never dreamed of playing tournaments or developing myself to play professionally, but here I am today, competing nationally and internationally, but most importantly I enjoy playing.
Over the past few years, many disabled people have played wheelchair tennis with me, but they don’t all follow through. Many of them say they feel it’s a very difficult sport and hard to learn. From a young age I have always liked a challenge, and so I have enjoyed the challenges I faced as a newcomer to wheelchair tennis. Once I realised my potential and skills in this sport, I was determined to learn to play professionally, so that I could support other disabled people from diverse communities in the UK and overseas to be successful in Wheelchair Tennis via Choice.
Choice initially focused on promoting disability sports and social inclusion in developing countries and piloted Wheelchair Basketball in India in 2013. This initiative progressed well and led to the initiation of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of India (WBFI) www.wbfi.org.uk .
Our focus In the UK is on promoting diversity in disability sports. We run weekly sessions in wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis and inclusive fitness in East London, Kent and Leicester. We specifically selected these locations to reach disabled people from diverse communities and backgrounds.
Choice has had an impact on several lives over the years, with many participants still engaged in our regular sessions. Most of our players are disabled but new to wheelchair sports, they play for leisure and are progressing well, with a few looking to develop more professional skills.
One of the most remarkable success stories is that of Asif Abbasi and his professional development in wheelchair tennis. I believe Asif’s involvement and development in wheelchair sports has been a positive outcome of our work and supported my ambition of promoting diversity in disability sports.
Asif had never played wheelchair sports before he joined our wheelchair basketball sessions in East Ham, Newham in March 2017. He was affected by Polio at a young age, and he migrated to the UK from Pakistan in his adult years.
After a few sessions I learnt that he actually plays standing tennis and has been playing for years, coaching children in standing tennis too but never thought about competing professionally due to his disability. I encouraged Asif to try wheelchair tennis and Choice lent him a Motivation www.motivation.org.uk low cost wheelchair to practice and develop his skills further.
“Joining wheelchair basketball in East Ham and through Manoj’s encouragement to play wheelchair tennis, allowed me to take a sports wheelchair home and gave me a new life. I usually sit in the sports wheelchair at home and simulate tennis strokes. Whenever possible I take the wheelchair to the local park and practice wheelchair skills and play. I watch international tournaments and simulate movements and shots made by top players. I also ask Manoj to practice with me whenever possible. This is how I started my new journey in wheelchair tennis”.
Asif and I spend hours and hours practising in our local park to improve our skills. As my body is just getting used to playing sport, often repetitive movements in tennis that I am not used to from a young age, lead to injuries. Still, I push myself to get better as I want to see Asif progress and I enjoy playing tennis with him.
As we are both in our late 30’s when we thought about playing wheelchair tennis competitively, we realised that we don’t have much time to practice before joining tournaments. I also realised that it was less likely because of our age, that we would get much support to develop as professionals. As a result of this, we decided to use national and international tournaments as a platform to improve our performance. Winning has always been secondary to us. Our main aim has always been to use every tournament to learn and improve ourselves. We would use the opportunity to talk to other coaches and players to get some advice. We watch other players and observe how their coaches help them get better.
Asif participated in his first wheelchair tennis tournament, The Weald Open, in April 2017, using a Motivation sports wheelchair. Asif won the singles and we both won the doubles. Following this we both signed up for most of the national tournaments organised by the Tennis Foundation.
Asif has participated in 5 national tournaments to date, 4 of which he has won, including the Roma National Finals. Asif is now the top ranking player of National Roma tournaments and was awarded the title of best performing player in 2017. https://www.tennisfoundation.org.uk/play-tennis/events/wheelchair-national-series
As a doubles pair, we won the Weald tournament and came runners up in Warwickshire as well as the Roma National Finals in Shrewsbury, December 2017.
Another milestone in our sporting careers was when we decided to participate in international tournaments. We realised that Great Britain has one of the best wheelchair tennis programmes in the world, with a great track record of producing top ranking players in the world. Although we live in the UK, we realised that most Asian countries including our countries of origin, have poor representation in wheelchair tennis.
Taking this on board, we decided to represent India and Pakistan in international tournaments. We believed this can be our personal contribution for future wheelchair tennis development in developing countries and be a platform to promote diversity in international wheelchair tennis.
In 2017 we participated in two British Open and one ITF future tournaments. As we expected, we were the only two players representing developing Asian countries. Asif won the ITF future singles. Just by participating in 3 internationals, Asif went from a ranking of zero to his career best 119 in 2017. Asif and I both enjoyed representing Pakistan and India respectively. We hope this would lead to some positive changes in wheelchair tennis in Asian countries, and enable others like ourselves to participate.
Choice International will be launching a new project in 2018 to promote disability sports and social inclusion across South Asia, beginning in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
At Choice we are passionate and ambitious about diversity and inclusion. We encourage disabled people wherever you live, young or old, whatever facilities you have, to try your best to get involved in sports. Even if you aren’t aiming to be a national or international sportsperson, just participating would certainly improve your quality of life, it’s a life changing experience which will improve your health, wellbeing and make you realise your potential.
“We aim for 2018 to be another stepping stone for us and to help us to promote disability sports and diversity in the UK and overseas. We are confident in the future of Pakistan, India and other developing countries that would take a serious step towards promoting disability sports, specifically wheelchair tennis. Participating in ITF tournaments as given us an excellent platform to learn and develop an amazing network in wheelchair tennis. Thanks to the ITF, Tennis Foundation, Dan Maskell Trust, London Borough of Newham, Lee Valley Tennis Centre, and most importantly our fellow British and international players, who are always positive and supportive sportspersons, who respect differences, and who encourage us all the way and have been key to embracing diversity in wheelchair tennis” Manoj and Asiff