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Supporting Specific Needs

Journey Towards Making Disability Sport More Inclusive and Accessible Still has a Long Way to Go

Paralympians, academics, coach education developers and a much-revered parliamentarian, gathered at Liverpool John Moores University as part of the Erasmus-funded ParaCoach project for two days of debate on disability sport and physical activity. Themes centred on how to increase participation in sport and physical activity for the disabled community, how to create more effective coach education systems, how to get more disabled people into coaching, and how to effectively capitalise on the success of the Paralympic Games to inspire the next generation of disabled participants. UK Coaching’s Blake Richardson summarises the ideas and opinions of some of the panellists and presenters

Those of a certain age, cast your mind back for a moment if you will to the 1980s, to the sheer dearth of opportunities and accessible facilities that existed for disabled people wanting to engage in sport and physical activity.

It wasn’t so much that people – from public bodies to policy makers – were struggling to find a solution to the participation problem; it was that most people couldn’t even see that there was a problem.

Thankfully, ‘most people’ have seen the light, but while great strides have been made by our sector in those intervening years, nobody working in sport and physical activity is fooling themselves: plenty of hard work remains to be done before we achieve any semblance of equality of opportunity for people with disabilities.

As Paralympic Hall of Famer Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson so pithily put it: “The marker that we know we’ve truly made it, and are at a point of inclusion and equity, is when we get the first Paralympic athlete who has a million-pound shoe deal.”

Tanni was on stage for a Question-and-Answer session with Professor Greg Whyte OBE – an authority on physical activity and a two-time Olympian in modern pentathlon, who has become well-known as Comic Relief’s resident ‘coach and motivator’, supporting celebrities who undertake gruelling challenges for charity.

Speaking in his full-time role as Professor in Applied Sport and Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moores, Greg shed light on the complexity of Paralympic and disability sport when he disputed the widely held view that the Paralympic Games creates a social legacy for disabled people.

“There is a clear separation between the Paralympics and the lives of disabled people who aren’t athletes. Major Games are entertainment, they are not inspiration. They do not create legacies.”

Tanni echoed those words and laid bare the bigger picture around the Paralympic Games’ ineffectiveness at changing perceptions of disabled people in broader society.

“I struggle when people tell me the London Paralympics changed the world for disabled people,” she said, providing a forthright description of the current state of play regarding slow progress and ingrained prejudice.

It changed free parking, it changed Kings Cross Station in London, it changed parts of the South Bank, and it definitely changed the lives of some Paralympians, but it didn’t stop compulsory do-not-attempt-resuscitation orders involving tens of thousands of disabled people during the pandemic.”

As I say, a long way to go.

Personal AND professional development

Understandably, as Director of Sport at the British Paralympic Association, Penny Briscoe OBE offered a more upbeat perspective, fresh from Britain’s phenomenal achievement in finishing second in the medals table in Tokyo.

The ParalympicsGB’s Chef de Mission in Tokyo said: “We’re here to celebrate para sport, and the success of the most complex, challenging Paralympic Games ever, but we’re also celebrating ability and acknowledging the incredible influence para-sport athletes can have on social change.

Ultimately, we know that if athletes are successful on the field of play, that leads to so much more in terms of influence and change off the field of play.”

Jonathon Riall is the Head Coach for the Paralympic Programme at British Triathlon.

He addressed the legacy debate in his panel session with Jon Pett, the Head of Para-Cycling at British Cycling.

“I came back from Rio; the first time I’d led a team at a Paralympic Games, and we had one gold medallist. And did it change his life? It didn’t at all,” said Jonathon.

“He actually got taken off the programme a year after because of a classification change. So, I think when you look at the Paralympic movement, you can often think it’s changing more than it is.

There’s a lot of talk about how London changed the lives of the people with disabilities. And I’ve heard a lot of reflections from people that that isn’t the case. So, I think as a sport it is our responsibility, massively, to acknowledge something beyond medals.”

Responding to my ‘question from the audience’, Jonathon agreed that it is imperative elite coaches and governing bodies are as genuinely committed to supporting their athletes’ holistic well-being as they are invested in maximising their performance.

Building skills inside the sporting arena that are transferable to life beyond sport should be an intrinsic part of the Paralympic pathway – as indeed it should any pathway.

We did a review off the back of Rio, and the concept about an athlete thriving in their personal life as a performance tool was one of three or four key objectives that we created. We called it Project Thrive… and it’s now become a relevant culture within our sport.”

Jon agreed that you shouldn’t need to take away from athlete welfare to deliver medals. The two could, and should, happily co-exist.

“There’s a phrase ‘happy heads, fast legs’ and it’s true,” he said. “One of the things that we’ve always tried to ensure is that the environment is conducive to elite performance but equally that it is enjoyable. If you can do that, you’re onto a winner. As soon as someone is unhappy, you need to ask the question why? What is it that is causing them anxiety or stress?”

Levers of change

Increasing the numbers of disabled coaches and participants and ensuring we capitalise on the success of the Paralympic Games to inspire the next generation involves pulling a lot of different levers but, “fundamentally”, says Tanni, “it all comes down to education”.

At UK Coaching we are here for all coaches, and we work hard to support coaches to be more confident when working with disabled people.

We champion a person-centred approach to coaching because we recognise that coaching the person in front of you is a key catalyst to achieving positive change, helping to remove the fear-factor that still exists around coaching and including disabled people.

“Talk to disabled people and be open about learning, and don’t be frightened,” was Tanni’s advice to coaches.

People panic: ‘oh, I don’t know what to do’. It’s lack of knowledge and lack of education. If you are a good coach, you can coach anyone.”

Two of the first ‘levers’ Tanni referred to that need to be pulled if we are to increase participation amongst the disabled community, are to make sure that disabled children are not excluded from doing PE in school, and for clubs to be more inclusive.

“Be welcoming to disabled people. It’s too easy to walk away if that initial contact is not welcoming,” said Tanni.

And those words were brought into sharp focus in the final presentation of the conference by UK Coaching Diversity & Inclusion Manager Esther Jones, who has cerebral palsy.

Esther (currently on a year’s secondment with Sport England) testified to the harmful effects of disability stigma, and people’s preconceived notions around impairments, by discussing her school-day experiences that deterred her from taking part in sport and physical activity and negatively impacted on her confidence and mental health.

“I loved sport, but it was also where I was at my most vulnerable as a disabled person. It became more visible when I went to catch things, throw things, and run. So, I fell out of love with sport and physical activity. I didn’t want to do anything in front of anyone else.

Then my mum introduced me to CP Sport as a youngster. It was a lifesaving organisation for me. It gave me back the confidence I’d lost and introduced me to other disabled people, which was important for me at that time as it was quite isolating to be the only child with an impairment in a mainstream school. And it also introduced me to competitive sport at a level I could take part.”

Detailing how her first experience of attending a local athletics club was to be told by the sprints coach that he couldn’t help her because he “hadn’t done the disability athletics training course”, Esther added: “I needed him to understand and help me… a young person who was mad keen on sprinting. I didn’t need someone with a knowledge of CP and how it affected me. I had that!”

Esther flourished after finding an inclusive club that saw her as a person, not as a disabled person, going on to break the 400m world record twice and win Paralympic and World titles, including a gold and two silver medals at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympic Games.

Equal access to opportunities

In his closing address, Dr Tabo Huntley – Senior Lecturer in Coaching and Disability Sport at LJMU – talked about fighting the ableism that remains rooted in our systems and social structures, and which is hampering the drive for equality.

On the journey toward a shared vision of creating opportunities for all, Tabo said: “People with disabilities should have opportunities for high quality sporting and physical activity experiences, as they choose and as they desire, whether that is community lifelong participation, or to go to the elite end and participate in the Paralympic Games or other elite sports contexts.”

In his session with Tanni, Greg shared an anecdote that spoke a thousand words and perfectly captured the ‘opportunity for all’ ethos.

“I remember David Bedford doing a newspaper interview in the pub about breaking the 10,000-metre record. He was asked ‘what is it like to be the best 10,000 metre runner in the world?’ and his response was, ‘you know what, I might not be the best 10,000 metre runner in this pub! But the difference is, I had opportunity and I took that opportunity’.”

For Laura Sugar – Paralympic gold medallist in the women's KL3 para canoe sprint in Tokyo – visibility holds the key to sport becoming more accessible to disabled people.

“The more disability sport is shown, suddenly the more interest there is in it, and then that has a knock-on effect of more money coming into those sports, and more coaches getting involved, and then more disabled people wanting to become a coach.

It is vital we also retain para athletes as coaches and within the workforce generally in business roles. By increasing their voice, only then can we make positive change happen.”

This opinion was shared by Esther, who added: “People must feel that they are able to move through the workforce, voluntary and paid, and can input into the future direction of sport and physical activity.”

Unfortunately, a career in coaching is not considered a viable option by many disabled people.

“We need to do more to help disabled people feel comfortable about starting a career in coaching, collaborating with partners to put a curriculum in place,” said Esther.

Disabled people coaching disabled people

Attitudinal behaviours continue to derail the drive for inclusion and equity.

The presumption that disabled people can’t play sport, for example, or that people who are disabled don’t have a job.

“We need to move away from those patronising attitudes,” said Tanni, who said high on her list of bugbears is the notion that, if you are non-disabled, it’s perfectly fine to be bad at sport, but it’s very difficult for disabled people to be.

“We see a lot of disabled children being asked if they want to be a Paralympian. You don’t say that to every non-disabled child.”

Also high on Tanni’s wish-list is a desire to see more disabled people coaching disabled people in sport.

It is a vision we share at UK Coaching and we are working hard to ensure that our coach development programmes at all levels are fully inclusive, whilst targeting organisations so that we can engage with, and learn from, coaches who have impairments.

There was more evidence of the huge scope for improvement on this front when we heard from Para Powerlifting Paralympic medallist and former world champion Ali Jawad, who said he found it surprising that “not one person has ever approached me to say, ‘with all your years of experience, have you ever thought about transitioning into coaching when you retire?’”

It has nothing to do with granting preferential treatment or being ‘fast-tracked’. It has everything to do with being included in the conversation.

The correlation between health and wealth

Returning finally to Tanni, and those Levers of Change.

If only it was as straightforward as the old signal boxes next to railway tracks and those waist-high manual levers that were connected to signals and switch points on the track. You could choose the desired direction of travel, pull the lever, and lock the journey in place.

After bemoaning the fact that the Paralympic pathway is only open to a very small number of people, Tanni said she would love to pull a lever that widened the bottom of the pyramid so that more disabled people were able to carve out a successful sporting career.

A key barrier preventing that from happening is the fact that equipment and facilities are so expensive.

The average cost of the talent pathway is £10,000 a year for 14–15-year-olds. We are not getting the talented athletes through; we are getting the athletes the parents can afford to pay for.

“Now is the time to think about how we do things differently. We have to be a lot smarter. We have an inactivity crisis and Covid has put huge pressure on the NHS. Getting active is a really important thing for a disabled person, to help them live a normal independent life.”

Greg picked up the baton and added: “We’re almost moving back to the Victorian era of sport, where it’s for the haves and not the have nots. It’s become inordinately expensive: access to facilities; access to coaching; access to competition. What we are now moving towards is that sport is becoming much more middle class and eventually the end of that road is that it is effectively just for the aristocracy as it was in the Victorian era. And that will happen in an accelerated way with disability sport.

We talk about accessibility being more accessible showers, putting a ramp in or a push button to open a door, but actually you’ve got to get to the door in the first place. It’s the continuum of support that is pivotal.”

It was heartening to hear from so many leading figures from the world of sport and heartening too to see so many disabled people in attendance offering their input and sharing their lived experience. “This is the most disabled people I’ve seen at a conference talking about disability,” said Tanni.

Reflecting on that comment post-conference, Tabo said: “I then realised the significance of what we had achieved – we had created a space for the voice of disabled people to be listened to.”

The debate on facilities and accessibility for people with disabilities may be a difficult sentence to get your tongue around but it’s one our sector must work even harder to gets its head around.

Following their Q&A, Tanni and Greg officially launched LJMU’s Disability Sport and Physical Activity Network (DisSPA) – which has been created to address the lack of quality opportunities people with disability face accessing and progressing within sport. Key to its success is connection and collaboration among external stakeholders.

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