A Table Tennis program in Tonga that creates participation opportunities for people with a disability, and works to change community perceptions of disability, has won a prestigious World Health Organization (WHO) award in recognition of its contribution to improving the health and quality of life of Pacific Islanders.
The Smash Down Barriers program, which is funded by the Australian Government through the Pacific Sports Partnerships (PSP) and delivered through a partnership between Tonga Table Tennis Federation (TTTF) and International Table Tennis Federation - Oceania (ITTF - Oceania), won the WHO Healthy Islands Best Practice Recognition Award in acknowledgement of its efforts to use table tennis to promote and protect the health of people in Tonga, including those with disabilities.
The program, which began in Tonga in 2017, employs a national participation officer, Simote Lavulavu, who runs weekly activities at five different organisations for people with disabilities in and around the capital, Nuku’alofa.
Although the inclusive table tennis program has a grassroots focus, it has also been instrumental in building the ranks of para table tennis in the Pacific. An estimated 85 per cent of players in the Oceania region discovered the sport through the program, and many have gone on to represent their country, including at the Arafura Games in Darwin in April, and the recent Pacific Games in Samoa.
Tonga Ministry of Health CEO Dr Siale ‘Akau’ola received the award at a ceremony in Tahiti in August, and presented it to TTTF staff on home soil.
The award includes a grant of USD $10,000 to TTTF to strengthen and enhance its activities. Its president, Hasiloni Fungavai, said: “It is an honour for Tonga Table Tennis Federation to receive this award, as we have been working hard to deliver and improve the lives of people living with disability through the Smash Down Barriers program.
“The award is nice recognition for the program’s success to date, but will also enable us to expand the program in the near future. I would like to thank the Australian Government’s PSP program and ITTF-Oceania for their support with this project.”
This is the second time an Australian Government-funded sport for development program in Tonga has won the bi-annual WHO award, with netball’s Kau Mai Tonga Ke Tau Netipolo program collecting it in 2013.
The Smash Down Barriers program in Tonga has also recently been the subject of two short films.
One tells the story of Lesieli Mafi, a young Tongan woman who has Down syndrome and discovered table tennis through the program. Lesieli’s mother explains how her daughter’s participation in table tennis is creating more positive perceptions of people with Down syndrome in Tonga and, in turn, positively influencing Lesieli’s self-perception.
Another features Tongan para table tennis players Siaosi Vaka and Selemaia Loamanu in a longer documentary that explores the lives of people with disabilities living in Tonga. The duo also discovered para table tennis through the grassroots Smash Down Barriers program, before going on to represent their country.