In this Disability Sport Info episode, I'm joined by Dr Matej Christiaens to discuss policy formulation and development for grassroots disability sport.
In this episode, we consider the history and development of policy for disability sport, what the current policy landscape is for disability sport, how policy can be improved in the future, and consider examples of good practice. We also cover 400 years of history in 30 minutes.
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Speaker: CB: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK)
Speaker: MC: Dr Matej Christiaens (Participant – Coventry University, UK)
Speaker: CB Time: 0:28
Hello, Listener! Thank you for joining me today for another episode of the Disability Sport Info show. For today's episode, I will be speaking with Matej Christiaens from Coventry University. The focus of the conversation will be about disability grassroots sport policy. I caught up with Matej to discuss what do we mean by policy? How has it been shaped over the years and what is the current landscape of disability grassroots participation from a policy perspective?
Speaker: CB Time: 0:55
Welcome, Matej. So we're gonna be focusing on policy, broadly looking at policy, we'll probably be focusing mainly on UK policy but if we can also think about globally, as well, where that kind of applies. So, to kick us off, how have disabled people, historically, been included in grassroots sport policy formulations?
Speaker: MC Time: 1:13
I think it's really good to start with, like, an historical view of policy because it's always really important to know where we’re coming from where we try to understand where we are right now, right. To set the scene a little bit, and to create a better understanding for the audience as well, I actually want to start in the 1600s, when one of the first policies around disability came into existence, and this was called the Poor Relief Act. And it's one of the first times that we actually started to think about disability in society and how the State will deal with them, which wasn't in a very positive way because it basically legalised the discrimination and exclusion of people with disabilities by putting them within institutions, hopefully funded by the families and, only if not possible, the State tried to intervene a little bit.
But 1600s was about 400 years ago. The next piece of legislation around disabilities is like 370 years ago, and that's when things started to change around the 70s. So that's 370 years of people with disabilities were viewed as being a personal tragedy. “We deserve pity, we need care, we need to be cared for”. 370 years is a very long time. So that's why I wanted to start there, because it's still very much shaping how people with disabilities are viewed and can act in today's society.
That brings us to the 1970s, which is perhaps a little bit closer to the audience perceptions of where we are, and the 70s were very active period of time. A lot of disability movements came into existence, and they were very powerful in shaping some legislation as well. In the 70s, we have the first piece of legislation that's actually giving some rights to people with disabilities. Previously, it was kind of legalised to discriminate, to exclude them from society. Now, we're finally seeing some movements where people with disabilities are getting some human rights, some basic rights, and they had to fight quite hard for that. And this resulted in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Person Act, which some argue is the first piece of legislation in the world, because we didn't want to focus only on the UK, that give some rights to people with disabilities.
Of course, we try to link this a little bit to the sport as well. So what does this mean for disabled people and sport? Because they were getting some rights, it also meant there was broader attention being paid to people with disabilities. In particular, one institution, the Council of Europe, which is very different from the European Union, has nothing to do with it. The Council of Europe is a human rights organisation, where as far as I know, the UK is still part of. They took a particular interest in sports. So at the same time when all these disability movements and disability was attracting attention, the Council of Europe was also very interested in sport. And that resulted in what we know as the ‘Sport for All’ campaigns. So they wanted to bring sport to the masses, they wanted to create an environment where everybody could participate.
Very busy time, this 1970s. So the United Nations took a particular interest in disability as well. So the United Nations, they created the Declaration of the Rights of the Disabled Persons. So that was kind of laying out the foundations of human rights for people with disabilities. They were already doing civil rights, human rights in general, but now they were taking an interest in disability in particular and they created this Declaration of the Rights of Disabled People
A little bit forward in the 1980s, in 1981, the United Nations actually attributed a year to people with disabilities, so they rebranded 1981 as the year for people with disabilities. So when we think back about these ‘Sport for All’ campaigns, they wanted to join in, so they created a special ‘Sport for All’ campaign that was aimed at people with disabilities. So it is 1981 was the first time that we really see some policy directed to people with disabilities. And this all cultivated from the 70s, where all of these disability movements became very active and human rights organisations were starting to pay attention to this issue as well.
This year , with the ‘Sport for All’ campaigns directed at people with disabilities, was really good. A lot of organisations were founded to support people with disabilities. But going back to what we're talking about, we were still very premature. People with disabilities were still excluded from broader society. It was still legal to discriminate against them. So the sport clubs that already exist, the non-disabled sports clubs, they were still turning them away. So we're kind of creating here a situation where people with disabilities are participating in sport in a segregated nature. So we have specialised clubs that deal with sport for the disabled, and we have the other clubs that are for the non-disabled people.
We have to actually wait until 1995 before it becomes illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities, which is not that long ago. So this was the Disability Discrimination Act, which we now know as the Equality act. It's a really important piece of legislation that gives a lot of rights to people with disabilities to participate in society, to participate in entertainment and sport, recreation, all those activities. So it's really important and a really big step towards the sport participation for people with disabilities as well.
The downside of this very active period is that we have so many sport clubs being created, that the government is rethinking what they're doing. The Sport landscape is becoming so complex with so many different sports, different structures, non-disabled sport, sport for the disabled. A lot of clubs coming into existence, and they're kind of worried about how they're going to fund this all. It's too complex. From that perspective, they started thinking, ‘okay, how can we simplify the sport landscape? How can we save money on sport?’ So they decided that they were going to integrate disability within the existing non-disabled support structures. And this is the start of a concept that we call mainstreaming or integration, where we want to make the non-disabled structures responsible for disabled sport participation. So, we're talking about around 395 years of exclusion, segregation, to then come to this policy of inclusion within the existing sport structures, and where we want to welcome them. So I guess it's not that surprising that it's still very difficult in practice to actually carry that out. So it's only about like the last 50 years or so that people disabilities are really being considered in sports policy, are getting more rights to participate and, in particular, to participate within the existing non-disabled structures.
Speaker: CB Time: 9:19
Fascinating, potentially eye-opening account of how much exclusion and discrimination, like you said, have has been going on. I mean, when you break it down, 390 years it's, well, obviously an incredible amount of time and it’s a very strong period of history to try and overturn in a relatively short space of time. Just for clarity, the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act was a UK focused one?
Speaker: MC Time: 9:45
That was a UK focused one but we see similar movements and for example in the US so most of these trends, while they might change slightly, in the exact years, the big trends we can observe within the Western society.
Speaker: CB Time: 10:02
Okay, that's interesting. So it's Western society that we're kind of focusing on. What is the difference? I mean, globally, is there even more discrimination in certain parts of the world compared to traditionally, ‘Western nations’?
Speaker: MC Time: 10:15
It's quite tricky because when we speak about disability, it's a very cultural phenomena. It's, it's something that's very fluid over time as well. So different societies have a different understanding of what a disability is and who people with disabilities are. And that's why I say the Western society because that's where I'm more comfortable with as well. Also, because we kind of view disability in a very similar way, while in other societies, they might few disabilities very differently. When look at, for example, the elderly, different societies treat the elderly very differently. Some societies have a lot more respect for the elderly, while in Western societies we almost start seeing them as a burden. And elderly and disability goes very, very much hand in hand. The older you get, the more likely you have a disability, etc. So that's why I said Western society because it's so culturally shaped. It's a very fluid concept that's constantly changing. So it's quite difficult to speak about a Global Disability.
Speaker: CB Time: 11:27
Yeah, thank you again, for that distinction. I think that's really important, the role of culture and society in terms of how disability is positioned and experienced.
Lots of content I want to pick at really from what you've said, and obviously you have covered 400 years of history there. Obviously, we don’t have time to go through 400 year, but I’m just curious, what, in your opinion, was kind of the spark, and if I can use that word ‘spark’, because is it a spark if it’s taken over 370 years to ignite? I don’t know. In the 1970s you were saying that’s when we started to get some movement and then you said that was crystallised in 1981 with the UN Act. Why 1970s? Why did it start to begin a movement then?
Speaker: MC Time: 12:11
I'm not entirely sure to be honest. I don't know what started it: I’d have to look that up.
Speaker: CB Time: 12:18
Is it anything to do with the social model of disability, do we think? In terms of how more politicising…
Speaker: MC Time: 12:24
In the 70s, we have all of these disability groups that are very vocal about the rights for people with disabilities and loads of protests. One disability group, in particular, was very influential. Before that time, disability was viewed as a medical issue. If somebody’s missing an arm it's a medical issue. While these disability groups they were arguing that it's not really a medical issue of missing a leg: it doesn't make them disabled. It’s society that's organised in a way that they can't function without their leg. And they were arguing that society should do more to facilitate their lives so that they could live a full life without having a leg. And we see later on this cultivated in the removal of physical barriers, ramps, wheelchair access, disability toilets, and all those kinds of things. But, like you said, this is the period of time where we move away from this medical model, influenced by the disability advocate groups, towards a social model understanding of disability, where we start viewing disability as a social issue, where society is structured in a way like we've been talking about 350, almost 400 years, to exclude them from society. So now they're fighting to be included and argue that it's society that has to change so that they can actually function within it.
Speaker: CB Time: 13:59
Obviously, disability is a catch-all term, and obviously belies the complexity and individuality of impairment and the lived experience. So when the policies were starting to get formulated a little bit more seriously, was it equal amongst different impairment categories and impairment groups? Or was there kind of a more specific approach to sport participation for particular groups? Do we have that information?
Speaker: MC Time: 14:26
Legislation is usually focused on how is the State going to give money to people with disabilities? And that's why the State groups people into different categories, so qualification of disability plays a very big role in that, because the State is mainly worried about how much money am I going to give to different kinds of people? So they don't necessarily get that much about the different categories in the same way as we would consider it in sport. For them, it’s mainly a consideration about who are they going to give money to? So, how impaired are they? How much can they still contribute to society? That's more the way that governments usually think.
It’s a very interesting concept that I think takes us mainly a bit away from policy, because people with disabilities themselves, they view disability in a hierarchy, as well. So discrimination doesn't only come from outsiders, the non-disabled, but also from insiders. Some groups of impairments feel worse off than some others. So they view within all disabilities that there's some kind of hierarchy where usually the wheelchair users quite on top because they're very visible, can quite easily integrate into society these days. While some other disabilities, particularly some mental disabilities, are viewed kind of at the bottom where it's not as visible but also requires a lot more support in a way. So it is a very tricky kind of situation.
And then to bring it back to sport, we also see that there's there has been differences in how different impairment groups have participated in sport. People with hearing impairments, we don't always consider them to be disabled themselves, because they just consider themselves to be part of a language minority, because they speak in sign language. They've been very early with sport participation, while other groups kind of evolved from the paraplegic and the rehabilitation side of sport.
Speaker: CB Time: 16:50
Yeah. It's a bit beyond the scope of this discussion, because we only have a certain amount of time, but I think maybe there's also a distinction between design of policy and the implementation of the policy when it comes to access for sport participation.
Speaker: MC Time: 17:02
Policy today, it kind of starts where we ended our last discussion, where we are in an environment where the non-disabled sports organisations are made responsible for disability sport as well. We can argue how successful that policy is. To receive government funding is now mandatory that you have a strategy or a plan in place to deliver sport to people with disabilities, as well. And for those who don't know, sport policy in England, is created by Sport England, and we have a similar organisation in Scotland, in Wales and Northern Ireland, as well. So they're responsible for setting out the strategy and policy within their regional area in terms of grassroots sports, what we're talking about here. So they've been tasked by the government to basically spend their money on projects and sports to improve the situation.
When we look at current policy, it's really focused on still the ‘Sport for All’ idea, and particularly on what they call underperforming groups. So all of the groups of people, usually, this has historical roots, who don't participate in sport that much. Usually includes people with disability but also for very long time women, people from minor ethnic backgrounds, elderly, and some other groups. So the policy that Sport England creates and what's active at the moment, it's really focused on diversity. How can we increase diversity? How can we get all of these groups participating more in sport? The big problem with this policy is that it's so broad and vague. And I think that's kind of been the problem for the last 10 years or so. They always talk about diversity, and we need to increase diversity, and that we need inclusion, inclusion in the broader sense of all of these diverse groups. When we look at one group in particular, in this case people have disabilities, there's actually not a lot of policy around this. So the only really big movement we see in policy is that they made it mandatory for these governing bodies of sport to create a plan for disability sports to get government funding. Again, the impact of this is reduced because when England is moving away from funding these big organisations towards more project based funding. At the moment, there's not really that much data yet the about what the impact that is, particularly for people with disabilities.
Speaker: CB Time: 19:50
Okay, very interesting. It's non-disabled sport organisations that are kind of primarily now responsible for sport participation at the grassroots. And that’s this concept of mainstreaming, and you also mentioned the concept of inclusion. For our listeners, are you able to just kind of define what that means in terms of the concepts of mainstreaming and inclusion, and what opportunities and challenges exist with those approaches?
Speaker: MC Time: 20:12
Quite tricky to define all of these terms because disability is a cultural-based phenomena, and language around it is constantly evolving.
So, the four terms I’d like to touch on are exclusion, what we talked about in the beginning of our conversation. About 390 years of exclusion where people with disabilities are not allowed to take part in society. In terms of sport, that means that they would have been turned away, they wouldn’t have been welcomed.
Then we have segregation. This is where we see the development of all of those disability sport clubs, where they get some rights, there allowed to participate in sport, but it has to be in their specialised sport clubs. So that's what we call segregation.
And then we have the concept of integration or mainstreaming. I believe these are quite synonyms to each other. Integration or mainstreaming, it kind of comes from the educational sector: it happened there first. But it's where we tried to place people with disabilities in a non-disabled environment. Issues with that is that we need quite a lot of support to include people with disabilities in a non-disabled environment. And those support structures are often non-existent or insufficient.
And then we have inclusion. Inclusion is kind of this Utopian ideology, where people with disabilities can participate in the same activity in a non-disabled club, and that their participation is equal. Challenges with that are particularly found in team sports. It's really difficult to include a single person with a disability within a team sport because it can create a disadvantage for their team, while it’s a lot easier to do so in individual sports where we're more focused on how they can participate within their club. And because it's an individual, that should be able to take place quite easily. So inclusion is kind of what we've, what the government is always holding forward as this ideal that we need to achieve. From my own research, I've noticed that inclusion shouldn't necessarily be the endpoint, or not in the way that it's about placement of people with disabilities in a non-disabled setting. It should be about inclusion within sport in general, which also accepts disability sports clubs as an equal part of the sport system. It’s proven very important to people with disabilities, particularly people who acquired a new disability. They feel more confident participating in a setting that shares values with them where they feel at ease compared to being placed immediately in a non-disabled setting where their disability is being emphasised and put under a magnifying glass.
That's the difference between these terms that we use and some of the challenges as well.
Speaker: CB Time: 23:17
If you were trying to summarise it in a succinct way, how would you describe the current policy environment for grassroots sport participation for disabled people?
Speaker: MC Time: 23:25
I think current policy, like I said, is a little bit too vague and too broad. It gives a lot of space to individuals to interpret what inclusion is; that proves to be very troublesome. Because a personal interpretation of inclusion isn't always fit with what people with disabilities want or how they see inclusion. It very often leads to what we call ableist practices. This is where sports clubs take a very light approach to inclusion, usually focused on physical barriers. So a lot of sports clubs, from my own research, said that they were inclusive, and that was purely based on that they had a ramp for a wheelchair user to come in, that they had a disability toilet, accessible toilet, and that that they had some parking spaces. And they found themselves to be an inclusive club based on some of those physical characteristics. While inclusion goes much further than that; it's about can they participate equally, in your sport? Do they have the support that they need? Do coaches know what they're doing when there's somebody with a disability in the club? And from policy having that very broad focus on diversity in general, without actually speaking about what is inclusion? What is our end goal with inclusion? How are we going to achieve inclusion? Particularly in terms of people with disabilities, it gives so much space for all of this kind of malpractice to happen. And it's, it's very much an educational thing. It's not that they deliberately want to exclude people with disabilities, it's that they hadn't been taught differently or told differently. And, sadly, you still hear quite often, sport clubs saying, ‘well, we're not a disability sports club’, or ‘if they can achieve the same standards, then they're welcome’. And current policy kind of facilitates that in a way because it's so vague and so broad.
Speaker: CB Time: 25:32
Interesting. Thank you for that was really enlightening to kind of focus on that gap, I suppose, in policy definition and how that has created different interpretations. So finally, just looking forward, what policy changes need to happen in the future to give the best possible environment for increasing participation in sport amongst disabled people?
Speaker: MC Time: 25:56
So building on what I just said, I think sport policy needs to be much bolder and clearer about what they mean when they talk about diversity and inclusion. They need to specify for the various groups that they consider under those terms, and create a strategy in which they explain what they mean with diversity inclusion, how they envision that that would work in practice, because that's often missing, and what they hope the end result will be? Because if they don't know what the end result will be, or what end result they're striving towards, then it becomes very difficult to do any of the other bits of policy. So I think that is a really important one for me, where they work together with Disability Support Organisations, and disability movements, and create a more long-term vision about how they see the sport landscape. And then we can make steps to actually try to achieve that.
The other thing is that I really believe that we should start treating disability sport clubs as equal, that we consider them as an integral part of the sport participation for people with disabilities.
And that inclusion, as in putting people with disabilities in a non-disabled environment, is perhaps not the best strategy. We need to see how can we approach sports participation from a holistic perspective, and it's about getting people disabilities engaged in sport participation. And that doesn't necessarily have to be in a non-disabled club. I think that's quite important as well.
Maybe the last thing is perhaps not that much policy based, but I really believe that non-disabled support clubs have to change the way that they look at disability. Again, sports clubs have traditionally been excluding people with disabilities from the club because they belonged in those specialised clubs. So there's this very long history of that happening, and we can still kind of see that today. It's not necessarily exclusion, but as you call it, nativity or being naive, so they don't really see people disabilities as the target audience. They don't have any strategy in place to include them or to market towards them. So sports clubs could do a lot more to show that they're open to the idea of accepting people with disabilities. That is about the language they use on their websites, pictures they use, but also actively working with disability organisations in their areas, and things like that. So sports clubs themselves could do much more to show that they are open to inclusion, that they are open to people with disabilities.
Speaker: CB Time: 28:59
Excellent. Yeah, some really interesting ideas. I was particularly taken by the co-design principle. You know that actually it's not about having it imposed upon disabled people. You actually need to get them involved because, ultimately, that's going to probably breed the best possible opportunities if you're actually hear from the grassroots in terms of actually understanding the main areas. Also, if you want to try and get a discretionary activity going, and sport is a discretionary activity, choice. Yeah. So don't just be forced to go into a specific type of setting: have that choice. And then yeah, finally, the culture I suppose, and the approach of key organisations such as sports clubs.
I think that's it really. Is there anything else you'd like to add before we close for today?
Speaker: MC Time: 29:40
Yes, because we've painted quite a negative image, perhaps, about sports. So, I must say, from my personal research as well, there are some very positive movements in the sport landscape as well. They're often initiated by a single advocate within a sport club, but it is very promising. Some of the ideas is that we should move away from the distinction between disability and non-disability, and kind of create an identity around the sport that they participate in. If you look at athletics, for example, you have a lot of separate groups. You have the throwers, you have the sprinters, you have the jumpers. And I found some sports clubs really tried to use that as the point of similarity where they create an identity around the throwers and where they'll engage with each other and tried to move away from that separation of disability and non-disability. So that was really interesting.
And then, another very interesting movement, is where we actually see the creation of a hybrid club, where a disability sport club merges with a non-disability sport club. And that way they break down barriers where it becomes a lot easier to move between them, but also the cooperation and those kinds of clubs are really interesting. So there are definitely some positive movements out there that hopefully we'll see more of in the future.
There's some individual people with disabilities as well, that I had the chance to talk to and they’ve had some amazing experiences where they went into a club and were accepted with open arms and when a club tried to accommodate as best as possible. And we're talking about somebody in a wheelchair or crutches who wanted to play squash, who wanted to go mountain climbing in a wheelchair, a person with a hearing impairment who got very engaged with athletics and is one of the biggest stars at her club. So there's some very interesting and positive personal stories and some positive movements within the sector as well.
Speaker: CB Time: 32:02
And that’s very important, too. It’s obviously quite easy to be negative or critical, and I was perhaps guilty of that myself, but there is good practice happening, and there are positive updates happening. But, as we spoke about at the beginning when we began the discussion, there’s been three-hundred odd years, 370, even 90 years, of discrimination. And so it’s not going to happen overnight, is it?
Speaker: MC Time: 32:25
No. It’s a long journey and hopefully we can take small steps towards a more inclusive society and sports landscape.
Speaker: CB Time: 32:35
Yeah. And that’s a perfect way to end. We could have talked for a lot longer I think, but, you know, our listeners have a finite amount of patience, I’m sure.
It’s really been fascinating to learn about how policy has developed. We even went all the way back to the 1600s to Today, so thank you ever so much. Appreciate it. It’ll be great to catch-up soon.
Speaker: MC Time: 32:55
Yeah. Thank you for inviting me. It was very interesting to have this chat and hopefully your audience will find it interesting as well.
Speaker: CB Time: 33:02
No. You’re welcome! Thank you.
*** Discussion ends ***
Speaker: CB Time: 33:03
That’s the end of the show, Listener. Thank you for joining me for another episode of the Disability Sport Info show. I hope you’ve managed to learn a bit more about policy as a result of our discussion. Stay tuned for another episode of the Disability Sport Info show. Until then, goodbye.
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