We all know that sport and exercise is good for us, and can be an exhilarating pastime too. So why in 2016, when we have the Rio Paralympics coming up, is it still a struggle for some disabled people to access sport? Writer and avid sports fan Clive Gilbert explores.
The goal was simple. Throw as many balls as close to the jack as possible to score points. Whoever has scored the most points after four rounds wins. While some players launched the ball with an underarm swing, my competitors and I – whose disabilities made it difficult to make cast the ball with precision – did so by rolling it down a carefully aimed ramp (which was in my case typically made from a piece of reincarnated rain guttering).
Like many other disabled people discovering the world of disability sports for the first time through the bowls-like game of Boccia I played while at school introduced me to a range of experiences and emotions that no other activities came close to engendering. The thrill of winning. The despair of losing. The unique adrenaline enthused buzz of competitive rivalry and sense of achievement that comes from taking part in sports has few equivalents.
Similar feelings are often aroused when watching sports. Witnessing the near religiosity with which football fans support their favourite clubs or the sense of national unity that emerged almost spontaneously when the UK hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012 was fantastic.
Whether you are in the throes of a competitive tournament or cheering on Team GB the stands, sport is an important part of our national culture and acts as a force for social engagement,
But four years after the London Paralympics 2012, poor accessibility at many sports venues and events continues to be an obstacle for disabled people.
Dropping the ball
A survey of disabled spectators published last October by the Department for Culture and Sport and the Office for Disability Issues highlighted a number of accessibility barriers at sports venues. While most said they were able to attend sporting events, many disabled sports fans cited transport problems, a lack of wheelchair spaces and uncertainty about the physical layout of the stadium as key concerns. Frustratingly given our digital age, many reported that they could not book tickets online for accessible seating areas, even when the option was open to non-disabled spectators.
Responding to the findings, Minister for Disabled People Justin Tomlinson MP said: “This report paints a compelling picture of the challenges faced by disabled sports fans – their voices can no longer be ignored, and there can be no excuses for inaction.”
The government recently consulted on a new Strategy for Sports that will seek to widen opportunities for disabled people. But how long with that take and will the changes really make a difference?
More access to sport
Disabled or not, there is a significant demand for more opportunities to take part in sport. According to the annual Active People Survey, 56% of disabled people would like to do more sports compared to 58% of non-disabled people in 2014/2015. Despite this, around 50% of non-disabled people participate in any kind of sport, while only 26% of people with disabilities do so.
Since the zenith of my sporting career at school when I was captain of our table cricket team, participated in the national junior games at Stoke Mandeville and witnessed the early days of powerchair football, my own participation in sports as a young disabled adult is now limited to the Sky Sports channels and weekly visits to an accessible gym.
Taking part in sports as a disabled person often requires much more effort than simply booking a session at the local Power League venue. Even if you happen to be in a position to bring together enough electric wheelchair football players to make a match, you still need to somehow get your hands on a £40 wheelchair football and wheelchair attachments, which can cost £375 per player.
Getting back on level playing field
Joyce Cook, chair of the charity Level Playing Field and Managing Director of the Centre for Access to Football in Europe, says that the negative attitudes of sports clubs and venues are among the biggest barriers to inclusion.
Ms Cook notes: “Many clubs and sports venues still consider costs to be prohibitive [of making places accessible] and that’s just not true. We have to dispel the ridiculous myth about not being able to alter old stadiums. It is perfectly possible to create access at any venue, but you have to have the determination to make it happen.”
Ms Cook points to Wrexham football club’s installation last season of an elevated wheelchair accessible viewing platform ss an example of what can be accomplished on a low budget.
Efforts to get more disabled people involved in sport have been spearheaded by Sport England’s Inclusive Sport programme. Since its launch in 2013, the programme has invested over £18m in 88 sports initiatives in England.
For example, the iCAN project in Suffolk aims to promote participation among disabled young people coming out of full time education. That way they can remain engaged in sporting activities beyond their school years. Through the scheme, local clubs organise sport sessions and competitions, which provide opportunities to play anything from football, rugby and tennis to gymnastics, cricket and Boccia.
Making sport venues accessible to disabled people often requires a shift in organisational culture. To do this the the English Federation of Disability Sport is running an Inclusive Fitness Initiative, an accreditation scheme that raises awareness of the benefits of physical exercise among less active disabled people. The scheme encourages gyms to improve gym goers’ experiences by changing attitudes and putting more accessible equipment in their facilities.
It’s not just those that want to play sport that are having difficulties, disabled spectators also encounter multiple hurdles when trying to attend sports events.
Dr Kris Southby of Leeds Beckett University conducted research with football fans with a learning disabilities to learn more about the barriers. He found that although some clubs are able to remove some accessibility barrier, but then often leave others still in place. For example, the free carer tickets offered by venues to reduce the financial disadvantages of being disabled only helps when the beneficiary can physically get to the ticket office to purchase it in the first place.
Accessible sport for all
When disabled people do enjoy equal access to sports, it can be a force for greater equality. As Dr Southby notes: “One’s knowledge of the team, history and commitment to supporting a given club, and demonstration of support could be more highly valued within the fan community than other status symbols.”
Sport has always been a great enabler for me, providing stimulation for my mind as well as my muscles. Clubs and venues can and must do more to ensure sports are accessible, to be played and watched by everybody, regardless of their ability.
By Clive Gilbert
In the run up to the 2016 Rio Paralympics we’re looking to publish a whole host of articles on sport, fitness and the Paralympics. If you’re interested in writing for us, get in touch by messaging us on Facebook, tweeting us @DHorizons or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.