As the curtain raises on the Tokyo Olympics and some of the worlds best athletes vie for precious gold its hard to contain the excitement. If your home is anything like ours, cheering, swearing and anthems bursting with national pride can be heard echoing from the living room as we celebrate the blood, sweat and tears these incredible folk lay on the line in the spirit of competition.
Although it doesn’t get much better than seeing an Aussie on the podium, the thing I love most is the moments of comradery, when people are just people regardless of where they are from or what they look like, a hand up on the basketball court, a hug on the pool deck between the fiercest of rivals, cheering on the underdog. That’s what makes the Olympics great and I just can’t get enough.
But although I am on the edge of my seat and cheering with the masses I cant help but look ahead to the 24th August when around 4,500 athletes from 160 countries go head to head for a chance at Paralympic Gold. So this week whilst watching our elite Olympians beat the odds to reach faster, higher, stronger I have found myself thinking ‘lets see you do it with your eyes closed’.
There is often negative conversation surrounding the use of the word inspiration when it comes to disability. But the grit, determination and hard work shown by all our athletes is as inspiring as it gets and it has nothing to do with disability. The Paralympics celebrate elite sport at its finest and a shared resounding voice that says anything is possible and any dream achievable.
As you watch this years Paralympics you might notice a sleek flash of silver or hear the jiggle of a bell as some of the worlds most advanced Assistive Technology seamlessly blends into the background, enabling a whole new level of competition. From the slickest of running blades to the lightest carbon fibre chairs at Eazilee we celebrate the role AT has in elite (and grassroots) sport and the incredible makers behind these innovative products. When it comes to AT mostly its the flashy stuff that gets all the attention… because I mean a balls a ball right? Except when it isn’t.
For competitors in the Paralympic sports of Boccia, Football and Goal Ball the design and unique sound of the ball takes on another level of importance. Bells inside the goal ball and football help to orientate the players by indicating the direction of the oncoming ball. Therefore while play is in progress, complete silence is required in the venue to allow the players to concentrate and react instantly to the ball.
I was honored to connect with Kirsten Bromann the Co Founder of Handi Life Sport (supplier of the Official Blind Olympic Football) to learn what’s so special about all of those balls and where it all began.
What inspired you to start Handi Life Sport?
Handi Life Sport was founded back in 1987, when my husband and I were young. My husband Jens, who is a lawyer, was at that time working for the ministry of Social Affairs, but in his free time he was totally dedicated to disability sport on an international organizational level.
He, being blind since the age of 10, had been a goalball player playing on the Danish National Team, and he had benefited tremendously from his sport activities. So, he thought that sport was the way for people with disabilities to be recognized in society, gain confidence and independence.
Back in 1987 we knew that Danish locomotor disabled had started playing “Boccia” with balls they had made by a local shoemaker. They just loved this sport, but the balls were uneven, fragile and expensive. Furthermore, this sport was gaining popularity in several other countries, like UK, Holland and even Japan, but everyone was playing with rather bad balls, manufactured locally. So we thought: why not try to make professional boccia balls, to encourage this new sport, and why not make a company that develops and manufactures sport equipment for disability sport in general? Since then we have been manufacturing a range of sound balls to enable vision impaired athletes to participate in a range of sports.
Jens shares his amazing story in the video below.
What was the biggest challenge you faced designing your products and getting them ready to share with the world?
At the beginning we were not sufficiently aware of the importance of keeping the costs down, primarily because we knew nothing about how to manufacture goods. We made an innovative indoor/outdoor croquet game back in 1991, and was awarded with an international design for it – but it was much too expensive, and possible the design was also too “different” from what people were used to. So, we have learned to put functionally and affordability first.
We had to learn not to believe too much in what other “experts” say, but to trust in our own “gut feelings”, and to go on with your own research. We had to learn not always to take no for an answer but to go on, also after failures and things that went wrong. To get “Back in the saddle!” was something I had to learn.
Finding the right people to work with is sometimes a challenge, but it becomes a lot easier with time & experience, and today we have a fantastic network all over the world. Among our resellers around the world are the most amazing people, and some of them have become our personal friends.
You can see the Sound Football in action at the Rio games below.
What did seeing your products on a major stage like the Paralympics feel like for the first time and who will you be cheering for these games?
Actually, I got a bit scared when I saw our Blind Footballs in play! What if the balls breaks or is in other ways make a scandal?
After a while it was fun to watch our equipment in play, and of course it is great if somebody wins a boccia match with our Boccia Balls. I will cheer – of course – on the Danish participants, but except for them I will actually cheer on all athletes, who should be proud and happy that due to their hard work they made it to the Paralympics and that, through their exceptional performances they pave the way for a new, less narrow-minded, less prejudiced and more open view on having disabilities.
In the long run it is not an “either/or” to have or not have a disability. Most people will experience a disability (mental of physical) at some stage in their life, and the hardest thing about that often is – I believe – other people’s lack of understanding, acceptance and respect. Also in our Scandinavian welfare societies! People with disabilities may have good economic living conditions, but sadly enough they are often excluded from work life and often they cannot even take the bus, because of lack of accessibility. At least that’s how it is in Denmark
Technology is constantly evolving. Are there any new technologies that might influence your future designs?
Certainly! We have developed a rechargeable electronic sound device, to use in audible balls and in Blind Sport in general, and in the coming year we are going to implement this device into different kinds of equipment.
So this Paralympics spare a thought for every ball that jingles, every pair of glasses, tether, blade, chair, prosthetic and piece of AT not matter how big or small and the incredibly talented maker behind them enabling our paralympians to share their ‘spirit in motion’. I can’t wait.