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Sikh mom's helmet design highlights larger issue of non-inclusive equipment

Tina Singh says she knew how important it was to have a well-fitting bicycle helmet for her sons, but couldn't find one. So she designed her own. (Talia Ricci/CBC - image credit)
Tina Singh says she knew how important it was to have a well-fitting bicycle helmet for her sons, but couldn't find one. So she designed her own. (Talia Ricci/CBC - image credit)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Last week as I was pursuing my various social media accounts, my son sent me a post from 6ixBuzz, the ultra-popular Instagram page for youth with the latest news in Toronto and beyond.

It featured a photo of a mother with her two children, both wearing turbans. The caption, which included a series of applauding emojis, read "W Mom (Tina Singh) created a helmet designed to fit turbans for her kids".

Singh really did earn a "dub" as the kids say. Her win is not only for her own family but for so many Sikh cyclists who have had to compromise safety for their religious practice.

I was struck by the photo. Had no helmet company thought of this before? It seems obvious that children who wear turbans would require alternative designs for this type of equipment.

"I did not try to reach out to any helmet companies before creating my design," Singh told me. "Being a mom with kids in sports for the last 10 years and doing my own research, I knew there wasn't anything I could buy and use that would fit them appropriately."

Singh is quick to point out that her design is not meant for a full turban but rather a patka, a small cloth covering that features the hair in a bun on top of the head.

I wear hijab and I, too, struggle with a larger bun at the back of my head when I wear a helmet. I often just wear my hair in a braid and tuck it into the back of my shirt, where it often itches. But why hadn't this ever been a thing before Singh created it? She isn't even a sports equipment designer. And most often, such equipment is designed from a Eurocentric frame of mind.

I remember last fall when Soul Cap, a cap for Black swimmers, finally got approval from World Aquatics, the sport's international governing body. What did Black swimmers do before then? It was inconceivable that the world of swimming would accept that people from different parts of the world with often longer and thicker hair would be satisfied with the basic cap.

Frustrated at lack of equipment

My work has focused on Muslim women in sports and a large part of that has been examining the needs of women who require uniform accommodation, but also alternate uniform creation. In 2012 I was reporting about hijab prototypes that were designed by women to help lift a ban for hijab-wearing soccer players.

In a recent interview with CBC News, Singh, an occupational therapist, explained that she could not find any helmets that fit her kids properly. As a health care professional, she knew the importance of having her kids protected from head injuries while being physically active.

"I was frustrated that there wasn't a safe option in sports helmets for my kids," she said.

Now, Singh has designed the first safety-certified multisport helmet and after two years of testing it is in production. The helmet can accommodate kids over five years of age who are cycling, inline skating, skateboarding or on kick scooters.

It may seem like a simple thing, but the reality is that it isn't only the safety issue at play here. The visibility of racialized religious groups participating in these activities is important. Proper equipment modification to meet needs is so important because the immediate result is the inclusion of many more people.

Created my own sports hijab

What about if more companies started to think outside the mainstream box?

Sure, every major sports company has a version of a sports hijab including hijabs for outdoor sports and for swimming. The thing is that before these options were available (I remember a time when they were not) we altered clothing or layered in order to meet our own requirements. Years ago I created my own dry-fit hijab for sports workouts by altering a Nike shirt to fit my head.

I find it astonishing that something that is legally required, like a helmet, was not designed in a manner for it to actually be universal. Every province in Canada has mandatory helmet laws for minors. How are they supposed to adhere to the law when the functional helmets do not work with anyone's religious expression? Furthermore, children having to choose between safety and their identity is such a terrible position to be in.

The solution might seem simple but it was never addressed before and I find that shocking. It makes me think about what else we're missing. What are we forgetting, and whom are we (un)intentionally excluding?

And does that mean that we value the safety of some children over others? The diversity, inclusion and equity industry is booming. There is a lot of discussion about solidarity and alliances. But in the sports equipment scene, it often feels like the ones who experience the exclusion are finding the solutions to barriers.

I'm just glad Singh created a product that will help protect her sons, and so many others, too.