Para-sports: Ground-up initiative PlayBuddy more than just a disability sports programme

SINGAPORE - In 2012, Dr Teoh Chin Sim reached a turning point in her life.

She was at the Paralympics for the first time, as Team Singapore's chief medical officer for the London Games. And the experience proved to be insightful.

Over 19 days, she mingled with more than 4,000 para-athletes, and was once among a few able-bodied individuals in a dining hall.

The 54-year-old told The Sunday Times last Friday (Feb 22): "When I was in that dining hall, I thought: who is normal and who is abnormal now?"

"That's when something clicked in me and I realised that it's not about normal or abnormal, it's about what you do with what you have."

An inspired Dr Teoh returned from London wanting to contribute towards the disabled community in Singapore, but no one pointed her in the right direction.

So, she decided in 2016 to start the PlayBuddy project with a physiotherapist who wanted to work with children.

It is a free, volunteer-based programme for children with disabilities. They meet to play sports every Saturday morning. They learn a sport for four to eight weeks before moving on to another.

"It's different from therapy because in a sporting environment, they start being competitive which motivates them to keep moving," said Dr Teoh, who gave a talk on transforming the disabled at the Carehab medical conference on Saturday.

She works with a core group of three physiotherapists and a primary school teacher, who handles the administrative work. Equipment and location support come from national athletes such as bowler Shayna Ng and the women's rugby team.

While PlayBuddy hosts only six to eight children regularly, Dr Teoh said: "My vision is to have 50 to 100 children playing together."

Over the past three years, PlayBuddy has evolved into a social group for families and caregivers.

Shirley Sim, the mother of Joel who has attended PlayBuddy for more than a year, says her family looks forward to the weekends.

"As a family, we all benefit because we hardly have the time to exercise, so PlayBuddy is a sacred time for the family to work out together," said the 39-year-old. "It promotes this inclusiveness which makes everyone feel at home. Our children can play and kick balls like normal children without people looking at them differently.

"The volunteers are so giving with their time and their love. They could be doing other things on a Saturday morning, but they choose to spend time with the children and I think that's really nice."