Tonga’s Just Play programme reaps rewards

Tevita Telini was not born with a disability, but in primary school he had an operation on his head that went wrong. Consequently, he lost all his strength and struggled to walk or stand without assistance.

Some 90% of disabled children in the Pacific Islands do not attend school. Negative perceptions surround people with disabilities, who are not given the respect or equality they deserve and are often excluded from physical activity, which increases their risk of developing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Luckily, Tevita attended the Ofa Tui Amanake (OTA) disability centre in Tonga, where the Just Play programme is run once a week.

Tevita took part in Just Play every week and attended weekly workouts with the Tonga Football Association to build up his strength. When he began, a 2kg weight was too much for him to lift while standing up, and he could only do one sit-up before he was exhausted. Tevita’s lack of fitness and inactive lifestyle put him at a higher risk of developing NCDs. However, he is very determined and worked hard to build up his strength at the OTA centre and through Just Play.

His hard work paid off when, at the age of 31, he was selected to represent Tonga in the 2015 Special Olympic Games in Los Angeles. After two years of training, Tevita was capable of lifting 20kg, and could complete three sets of 20 sit-ups. His tenacity has also earned him a place at the 2017 Special Olympic Games, where he will compete in the javelin, shot-put and discus.

Not only has Tevita improved his lifestyle, built up his strength and lowered his risk of developing NCDs, he has also become a role model to aspiring disabled and non-disabled athletes around Tonga. He has proved that with hard work and determination, you can overcome obstacles and achieve something great. Tevita and many others who have participated in Just Play have changed perceptions surrounding disabled people in the Pacific Islands, proving that they deserve respect just like everybody else.

While Just Play is a sport for development programme that targets children aged 6 to 12, the programme has no age limit for participants with intellectual disabilities. Just Play is managed by the Oceania Football Confederation, with support from the UEFA Foundation for Children, the Australian Government, the Australian Football Federation, the New Zealand government and UNICEF.

To find out more about Just Play programme