In this Disability Sport Info episode, I'm joined by Dr Ian Brittain to discuss how theory can help us understand the sport participation and physical activity of disabled people.
In the episode we discuss theories and models of disability, the nature and scope of ableism, and how theory can be used in an applied setting to make change at the grassroots level.
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Speaker: CB: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK)
Speaker: IB: Dr Ian Brittain (Participant – Coventry University, UK)
Speaker: CB Time: 0:30
In this episode, I'm joined by Dr. Ian Britain to discuss how theory can be used to help us understand disabled people's sport participation and physical activity. To begin our conversation, I'd like to focus on the main theories that have been used to help explain grassroots sport participation for disabled people.
Speaker: IB Time: 0:48
There's actually quite a lot of different theories, particularly over the last five years or so there seems to have been a growth in theories as people build on previous theories, but I'll just stick with the, I guess the three main ones that, you know, I've used over my time. The first one, I guess the one it all started with, is the medical model of disability, which is basically based in pathology or the human body. And it basically sort of states the issues faced by disabled people are due to their impairments, and therefore, they're a problem of the person with a disability. And an impairment is something that needs to be cured by some kind of medical intervention, is based on the idea of normative values whereby there's a perfect species typical model against which we're all measured. And the greater your difference from that species typical model, the more likely you are to be discriminated against. So that was sort of the original model, if you like. And as a kind of reaction to that, particularly from disability activists, mainly in the UK in the 1970s, they came up with what they called the social model of disability. And the aim of that was to highlight that the issues faced by disabled people were more often due to the way the built environment was constructed, and also non-disabled attitudes towards them. So, I guess what they're trying to say is, you can have an impairment and it not disable you. Disability is something that is projected on to you by the environment and non-disabled people's attitudes, and the way they treat you. Being academics, obviously, we start to pick holes in every new theory that comes out. And one of the critiques of the social model of disability was it neglected the embodied experience of the individual with an impairment. And so that led to what's called the psycho-social model of disability. And that's a combination of the medical model and the social model, highlighting that some impairments do lead to disabling conditions. So things like chronic pain, you know, that's not due to the built environment, it’s not due to people's attitudes, it is something that's embodied within the individual, and it can severely impact the way they interact with the rest of society. That’s sort of three main ones I’ve used over the last 20 years or so.
Speaker: CB Time: 3:22
So those theories help us to understand how disability has been understood and perceived. And this has changed over the years as you've just outlined. So what are the benefits, then, to using theory to help us understand sport participation?
Speaker: IB Time: 3:36
First and foremost, they provide a consistent analytical lens with which to interrogate data. They also help us recognise, understand, maybe explain, new situations that we haven't come across before. They help us identify gaps in current knowledge. And I guess also, they allow us for a better comparison of different researchers work. So, you know, I may work from, let's say, a social model perspective, somebody else uses a different theory. And, as long as we understand both theories, we can actually compare the findings from both. And maybe that leads to a new theory where we combine those two theories to give us an even better understanding of the situation.
Speaker: CB Time: 4:21
Okay, so it enables us to look at a situation or issue from multiple viewpoints to give us that framework from which we can then operate within.
Speaker: IB Time: 4:30
If you've got a framework, it allows you to be consistent across all of the data that you interrogate because you're applying the same lens rather than just sort of almost making it up as you go along.
Speaker: CB Time: 4:47
It also helps to give that explanation aspect as well, because you can start connecting the dots and finding patterns. Okay, so we understand how theory can be the basis for our understanding of social issues. In recent years, ableism has been a concept and theory that has been explored in increasing detail. And I know you've published a paper with colleagues on this topic in the last few years. But what is ableism? And how can it help us understand disabled people’s sport participation and physical activity?
Speaker: IB Time: 5:17
I think you have to be aware that ableism goes beyond disability, for a start. It's still very much based in this whole idea of normative values. But in a general sense, it's a way to explain discrimination based on a variety of identity characteristics. So, it therefore allows for sort of intersectional research. So I could, as an example, maybe using ableism, explain why a white, straight non-disabled male may suffer less discrimination within society than a black, female, lesbian, disabled individual. I mean, those closest to accepted norms, it actually allows them to hold power over those who diverge from those norms. So, you know, it's used to sort of exclude those that don't fit the norms but include those do closely associate with a certain set of accepted norms within a particular culture or society. And that group is usually the one that is most economically and politically powerful. And then they can therefore use that economic and political power to exclude those and keep hold of certain things that they hold dear to themselves and deny access to others. In sociological terms, it's called social closure and opportunity hoarding. So, you hoard the opportunity to access a certain aspect of society, for a particular group that holds power and use ableist perspectives to exclude others. So you pick on certain identity characteristics, and you discriminate against them in a multitude of ways that will prevent them then gaining access to the area that you want to keep for yourself.
I mean, in terms of disability, ableism emphasises discrimination in favour of non-disabled people based upon their ability. But you also have a concept called, disablism, which emphasises discrimination against disabled people, usually based on an economic imperative. And again, it’s going back to normative values. It's about perceived ability of disabled people to contribute to economics. And, you know, they're usually perceived as slow and often taking time off work for sickness, etc. A lot of the research completely disproves this. But these ideas are so strongly ingrained and socialised into society that they still linger, even though the research says something completely different.
Ableism, in terms of disability, it sort of encompasses the impact of the environment and social attitudes, as well as having this economic aspect to it. And it's very powerful in that it can actually be internalised and impact the way that people interact with the world around. You know, if you work for somebody really powerful, you know, somebody, maybe you admire, and they’re constantly telling you that you're useless. Over a period of time, if they just keep telling you you're useless, you start to believe it, and you internalise that belief. And then that starts to impact what you believe you can and cannot do in different situations. So it can actually prevent you from trying things that you're probably quite capable of doing, but because you've been told so often that you're not capable, internally, you've got this mechanism that holds you back from doing it. In terms of sport, I guess, if you think of it, non-disabled sport embodies these normative values of physical perfection, meaning that disability sport, by comparison, is devalued, because it diverges from this idea of sport as physical perfection: the fastest, strongest, the highest, etc.
Speaker: CB Time: 9:53
That was a very good introduction to what can be quite a complicated issue to understand. So ableism seems to have a strong hold and is quite deep-rooted, from what I'm understanding based on your conversation. So what is the difference between disablism and ableism? Is disablism more direct discrimination against disabled people, whereas ableism is it always intentional, can ableism be unintentional?
Speaker: IB Time: 10:21
I don't know about intention. Unintentional’s maybe not the right way of looking at it. Maybe, conscious/subconscious would be a better way of looking at it. In that you can be socialised into ableist perspectives, you know, that can make you racist, it can make you sexist, and can make the disablist, etc. But often, people don't even realise they're doing it. You know what I mean? They've sort of, it's not like. People will make comments and they won't realise the impact of the comment that they're making until you pointed out to them, and then they go, “I've never actually thought of it like that before”. I mean, yes, obviously, some of it, particularly with racism, etc, is very, very deliberate. In certain cases, disablism is very, very deliberate. But I would say it's not deliberate or a conscious act for everybody. It’s just something that we're sort of drip-fed as we grow up: it's all around us. We're socialised into believing, as we’re socialised into this whole concept of normative values, you know, as we are as we grow up in society by all those around us by adults, etc. And it just becomes part of our subconscious.
Speaker: CB Time: 11:54
So how do we change that then? It sounds like a really difficult issue to deal with.
Speaker: IB Time: 11:57
I mean, it's going to be going on long after I'm dead and buried! Now, all you can really do, I guess, is make people aware of it. increase understanding and education of the impact of people's actions and words, and put in strong policies and laws, maybe for the more extreme end of ableism. But those policies and laws need to be acted upon: they need to have teeth. Quite often what we see is what I call just government smokescreens. They'll put a piece of legislation in place, but then never actually enforce it. So it's like, “oh, look, aren't we doing a wonderful job, we've got all these policies”, but at the end of the day, they don't actually do anything about it.
Speaker: CB Time: 12:58
Okay. Yep. So we need firmer action. And I suppose we also need to speak with individuals who are experiencing these ablest practices,
Speaker: IB Time: 13:07
They’re your fundamental source of information. The number of policies that get enacted without actually, anybody that those policies are designed to help being spoken to, is just ridiculous. They should be your primary source of information when you're trying to design and develop those policies. As I say, the problem is there's policies are often for show: there’s no real intention to change anything.
Speaker: CB Time: 13:41
Okay. So we also need the will and the determination to actually make a difference and to change values. But, as you said, this has been going on for a very long time and isn't going to change overnight. So something we need to consistently work at and try and change. And it's a long term process.
Speaker: IB Time: 13:58
You know, people like yourselves, who lecture people coming through the education system, and the more they’re made aware of these issues. I'm not saying you’ll change everybody's mind, because some people, you'll never, ever change their attitudes. That's just an unfortunate fact of life. But, you know, if you can change a majority of people's attitudes, or at least increase their understanding and awareness of their actions, and the words that they use, then hopefully we can move towards a better situation. And I’m not a sort of utopian who thinks we’re ever going to reach Shangri La. But we do need to keep pushing that envelope.
Speaker: CB Time: 14:42
Yeah. Certainly. For those individuals who are listening and are from organisations that maybe work in this space about sports participation, how would they kind of do an honest review of their approaches and practices to understand if there are any ableist practices going on?
Speaker: IB Time: 15:01
First and foremost, talk to their users. They're the ones that are being impacted by those policies and practices. The problem is, though, often, the people you really want to talk to are the ones who come once, are treated badly and never come back again. And you’ll never know why. Because you never see them again. But, you know, you do have a core service group. And, again, the problems start to arise then, it's like, “oh, well, yes, we talked to them. And they said, we need to do this, or we need to do this, but we've only got this much money. And therefore it's impossible for us to enact the changes that they're requesting”. I’m not sure you're there for the right reasons if economics is all that matters to you. You’ll find ways. If you really want to change things, you'll find a way.
Speaker: CB Time: 16:04
It's a culture change, isn't it? It's not just about having one champion. Obviously, that’s important, to have a champion within the organisation, but we need everybody to be signed up to this agenda to actually try and provide sustainable long-lasting change.
Speaker: IB Time: 16:18
Everybody needs to be championing it and not just within their own organisation. So, when they go out into their social lives, etc., they still need to take those values with them. And, if appropriate and possible, pick people up on it if they meet somebody socially who is disablist towards somebody, say, “well, can we just have a chat about this, because I don't particularly like what you just said or what you just did”.
Speaker: CB Time: 16:51
Exactly. Yeah, if we can root it out, wherever we see it, that's obviously going to be really important. Okay, we've had an interesting discussion about ableism. And we also understand a bit more about how disability has been perceived and understood, and how it's changed over time. So some of the criticisms of theory, I suppose, from some practitioners or other theorists, is that it’s a little bit abstract. And how can we bridge the gap between that kind of abstract, higher level kind of thinking, and actually what happens on the ground on a day to day basis? So how can we bridge that gap, how we resolve that tension, to make sure that the theories that we've talked about can actually translate to meaningful impact and changes for sports participation?
Speaker: IB Time: 17:36
Well, as I’ve already pointed out, first and foremost, your source for your data needs to be the people that are being impacted by whatever aspect of ableism it is you're looking at. Then I think understanding the issues and the barriers to participation is the first step to making those policy and legal recommendations, particularly if the data is coming from the end-user. And so that will allow you to make these policy and recommendations to remove these barriers and increase awareness and understanding. It's almost like the old spiral staircase, you know, you slowly move up the spiral staircase. But obviously, if you get something wrong, you can soon end up going back down the spiral staircase. So it's often, you know, two steps forward, three steps back, or two steps forward, one step back, if you're lucky, at least you made one step advantage in the second scenario.
Education and awareness and understanding of the situation is the key, and I think that theory-based research allows you to provide concrete examples from those end-users that can then be used to increase awareness and understanding. And with awareness and understanding comes self-awareness, knowledge, and, hopefully, the desire to change.
Speaker: CB Time: 19:14
Nicely put. And I think a fine way to end our discussion. So it's been really interesting and educational, learning more about theories of disability, models that have been used to help us understand and explain disability, but also going into quite a detailed conversation about ableism: what it is, how it can have an influence in society at large but also when applying it to sport participation.
Always great catching up with you Ian, always lovely to chat. So thank you again for being on the show. And I hope listeners have been able to learn a bit more about how we use theory to help understand disability, but also sport participation for disabled people.
So thank you ever so much, Ian. Really great chatting to you and I look forward to catching up with you soon.
Speaker: IB Time: 20:00
*** Discussion ends ***
Speaker: CB Time: 20:02
Doctor Ian Britain, there, talking about theories of sport participation and how theory can be used to help us understand disability, but also to understand why and how disabled people might access sport and physical activity. Well, that's it. Thank you. That's the end of the show. I appreciate your time. Thank you for listening to this podcast. Hopefully you've learned more about how theory can be used to help us understand grassroots sport participation.
Stay tuned for the next episode of the disability sport Info Show.
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