by Jia Li, ITTF Foundation Communication Coordinator
“Everyone was created for a purpose, and everyone has a gift. Given the right opportunity to enhance those gifts, everyone can positively contribute to society.” – Netina Latu Vea, project leader, CEO of Tonga Table Tennis Federation (TTTF).
Inequality manifests itself differently, sometimes even without us knowing. In the Kingdom of Tonga, where over 170 South Pacific islands are lined in white beaches, coral reefs, and tropical rainforest, project leader Netina Latu Vea saw great societal bias against Persons with Disabilities (PWD). With her programme Smash Down Barriers, Vea and her team at the TTTF aim to promote social inclusion and acceptance by improving the quality of life for PWD in remote villages on the main island of Tongatapu and the outer islands.
Apprehension first, understanding will follow
“PWD are looked down upon in Tonga in a way that they have limited resources compared to the rest of us. It is difficult for them, as there is not enough awareness towards the topic, as well as the daily barriers PWD face in our society.”
Having had great success in her initial project Bounce it Back, Vea has also faced her share of challenges and obstacles.
“Table tennis is fun and a sport that can be adapted for anyone to play and enjoy. It is probably one of the best sports to achieve our goal, but it is also only a minor sport in Tonga. There are a few extra steps needed if we want to use table tennis as a tool for our purpose. The Dream Building Fund had allowed us to extend the reach of our projects and we ought to be strategic about our approach.”
Smash Down Barriers consists of three interconnected projects that provide the roadmap to improving the quality of life for PWD in remote villages and the outer islands of Tonga.
“In phase one, we focus on the inclusion of PWD and changing perceptions within the community. We start on a grassroots level with the already established project Bounce it Back, rolling it out to schools in villages to build school children’s understanding of PWD. Phase two focuses on delivering an inclusive table tennis coaching course to village volunteers, while phase three aims to deliver inclusive table tennis programmes and engage PWD in remote villages.”
The hardest part is getting started
Even with a well-designed plan, Smash Down Barriers has seen a few ongoing challenges.
“A common challenge in our country is delay to due traditional procedures especially in villages if a funeral happens. The delay of implementation could last for a week. We need to be strategic in our approach to ensure our target audience does not lose interest in the programme.”
Traditions aside, the lack of understanding for PWD and their struggles has cast great shadow for families and friends of PWD, creating further barriers for the programme to gain trust from its target audience.
“Our team needs to be careful to ensure the families of PWD are comfortable to trust us to allow their children or family member with PWD to join the programme. PWD are usually frowned upon in our society and families are scared to let their loved ones with PWD come out in public. With the support from the Australian High Commissioner, her Royal Highness Princess Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tuita, and Government Ministries we hope we can relieve this fear.”
Dreams always come a size too big
“… so we have to grow to fit them. Working with the ITTF Foundation has given us the opportunity to make positive change to the lives of our friends and families living with disabilities in Tonga. The opportunity we offer our target audience with our programme will improve their lives and contribute to an equal and inclusive society. Everyone had the right to play no matter the capabilities.”
Seeing her own growth through the programme, Vea encourages everyone to be the changemaker.
“Anyone who dares to make a positive contribution to society needs to have the confidence to go ahead and do what’s in their heart. Do not settle for mediocrity for your dreams. Twenty years from now, you would be more disappointed with the things you did not do, rather than the ones you have done.”
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