In this Disability Sport Info episode, I'm joined by Professor Simon Darcy to discuss enablers and barriers to sports participation for disabled people.
In this episode, we consider factors that can enable sports participation as well as potential constraints to sports participation. We also reflect on potential solutions to some of the highlighted constraints.
Please click on the following link to access a free pre-print version of Simon's paper on enablers and barriers: https://bit.ly/3OLyljm
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Speaker: CB: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK)
Speaker: SD: Professor Simon Darcy (Participant – UTS, Australia)
Speaker: CB Time: 0:29
Hello, Listener! Welcome to the show. Today, we have Professor Simon Darcy, who is going to talk about the enablers and barriers that people with disabilities may face when trying to access sport and physical activity. I caught up with Simon to discuss the enablers and barriers in more detail and to get his expert view on these issues.
Speaker: CB Time: 0:48
What would you say are the main enablers and barriers to sports participation for people with disabilities?
Speaker: SD Time: 0:54
Thanks very much, Christopher. First and foremost, I must say that I’m an insider to the process. I had a spinal cord injury in a surf-related accident, and I realised it was a pivotal moment in my life for a lot of reasons. So, in speaking to you here today, I will talk some aspects of the personal, but certainly from the perspective of understanding the lived experience within the research and academic space is incredibly important. So, one of the first things I’d say to the people listening to this is to work with people with disabilities; don’t think of them as subjects in the research. So the first starting point: think about working with people with disabilities, not carrying out your research on them. And also understanding that there are key variables, and those 2 key variables are what type of disability, and I think, broadly, from the perspective of access needs, try not to use physical disability. Think more about people who have got some form of mobility disability. And then the other major types in that space are across hearing or Deaf, capital D, community. People identifying as being Deaf, capital D, they see themselves as part of a different cultural group. They don’t necessarily see themselves as having a disability. And there are different types of sign language; they do vary by continent. Then there’s people who are visually impaired or blind. People with cognitive developmental or learning disabilities. And they’re the four major groups. There’s a lot of talk about neurodiversity and what that means, and it’s a very different space, once again. Some really good work being done by the Premier League clubs, who are a little bit behind, around inclusive design for spectators.
Outside of disability type, the variable that actually identifies levels of participation, very hard for disability type, is the level of support needed for individuals. Now, the World Health Organisation, talks about none, mild, moderate, profound, and severe. We generally talk about somebody being independent, low, moderate, high or very high support needs. Basically, going from an independent person with a disability who requires very little social consideration, right through to someone who requires 24-hour care, maybe ventilator-dependent, may not be able to communicate without an assistant, et cetera. So those two variables and the way they interact do give you a really good understanding of how people can be affected and what their support needs are.
So, in coming back to your question about what some of the enablers and barriers are, I start with the work of the Australian Sports Commission. And this hasn’t been published as widely, but it’s about the benefits people get, and it’s really interesting. So, if you took people who are independent with no real support needs, then you just really think of that group as having the same motivations to engage as, probably, the person you’re sitting next to in class, who might regard themselves as a bit of a sports fanatic. But, as you go through low, medium, high and very high, you move from a health and fitness focus to a little bit more with people with low support needs who have some impact on self-development. People with medium support needs, really starting to move into a socialising area, where they just want to mix and mix with others with like attitudes, and want a sense of achievement, they want, as I said, an opportunity to socialise, they want to improve the way they feel about themselves; self-esteem. They want to spend time with friendship groups, and they want to enjoy the company of others. And that’s very similar to people with high support needs. But when you get to people with very high support needs, it doesn’t matter whether it’s mobility or cognitive, they just want something interesting to do because the constraint levels are so high. I use the word, ‘adventure’, because sport isn’t something they generally do on a regular basis. It becomes sporadic, and the reason it becomes sporadic is that there aren’t offerings close to them. It's not easy to get to. The coaching or the facilitation has rarely had the training that’s required. The family and the friendship groups are under stress because of the ongoing high levels of support that are required. A really key one, and it’s really interesting because we find this from Paralympians right through to community level, they want to feel they belong. Because everywhere else in life they feel different. They want that sense of freedom. And there is a difference again if somebody is born with their disability or, as I outlined earlier along with my own circumstance, they have a traumatic injury. And they just want to be stimulated. So when we’re thinking about all the things sport can offer, they just want to be excited about life again. So there’s a boredom. And that boredom is because when the challenge is too high, people are anxious. When the expectation and challenge are too low; they’re bored. A lot of people with high-level of disability have been bored senseless, because their level of support may not be funded. You know, in the broader UK system, we know austerity in 2008, the broader global crunch, really cut back on programmes for high-level support needs. And they were left in the community to not do too much. So, while many people will be thinking about having, you know, nicer pecs or calves, or whatever else they want to do with their body, this other group are saying, ‘I just want to do something that breaks the monotony’. And it is that bad. And it’s still that bad because both the UK and Australia have been incredibly successful at the Paralympic level, but most of them don’t base that on good grassroots participation. They base it on talent identification schemes, championed by Australia in the lead-up to the 2000 Games, so much so in Australia, that the Australian Paralympic Committee dominated 85% of all funding at the Commonwealth level, Now, the caveat on that is that at the Commonwealth level, most local community sport doesn’t occur at that level, but talent ID means you’ll travel around geographically but, I’ve always liked a bit of Monty Python, ‘bring out your dead! I’m not dead!’, and in this case, bring out your cripples, they measure them up. Work out the ones that are gonna have most probability of success, and the other 95% who don’t make it, go back to a community where there aren’t opportunities for them.
That all sounds pretty bleak, and it’s not as bad as it was, but it’s not as good as it could be. Because we also know there’s a phenomena in sport and recreation research and that is, ‘distance decay’. The further you are from leisure and sport opportunities, the less likely you are to participate. And in the Australian context, although there’s some very good surf spots, although a little bit colder, around the UK, surfing’s a classic example. If you’re living X distance from a beach, you’re less likely to surf on a daily or weekly basis.
So, I will get onto the barriers now. So when we come down to this whole area of constraint. We see that there are some constraints across all people with disabilities. And what has previously been attributed as intrapersonal, we believe can be reclassified as interpersonal or structural. Things like, a person isn’t able to communicate, isn’t so much intrapersonal, but it’s got to do with the structural modes of communication., You know, a very good one around that is people who require sign language interpreters. Is it there intrinsic inability to communicate? No, of course it’s not. It’s people communicating in a way that they understand, so through sign language or captioning. And for people who are blind or visually impaired, it’s got to do with websites and the ability of screen-readers, so they can find out and plan. So, when you look at those constraints: transport, economic advantage, access to equipment, where competitions are played, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You see the intrapersonal is a more complex web of structural constraints. So when you look at the ecosystem that services sport, it’s a multi-level analysis. It’s understanding the ecosystem that sport exists within, the social context of that particular locality, region or nation. If you look at sport without taking into account the social context, well, you can’t really understand what’s required to enable and what’s been constraining.
Speaker: CB Time: 11:57
I’m just interested in the distinction you made between support needs and also the nature of the impairment. In terms of an organisational perspective, because that has been highlighted as one of the constraints as well in your paper, do you think organisations are aware of the need to distinguish between different support needs and different impairment types, in terms of how they’re offering sport participation or physical activity opportunities?
Speaker: SD Time: 12:24
I think at organisations there is an awareness. In Australia, we use a figure, ‘75% of sport is delivered by volunteers’. Now, if that’s the case, then it’s not just disability; it’s gender, it’s LGBTSIQ communities, it’s people from refugee backgrounds. Australia is a migrant nation; we’ve got a first nation community. So it’s very difficult in a club sense at a grassroots level to be able to marshal your resources and get the greatest effect.
I was at a seminar just before COVID closed down face-to-face seminars, I went to hear about diversity in different areas of employment, and all we heard about was gender. And when I asked, ‘I came to listen to diversity and gender’s important, there are other areas of diversity’, I was told in no uncertain terms, ‘there’s only enough oxygen to deal with gender at the moment!’. And that was honest, but also very upsetting. Because, in this sense it was an employment sense, that they made a very strategic decision. Now, I think that occurs a lot of the time. So, you might have a champion in the organisation that makes a decision. They might have a personal interest; they might have first-hand experience of disability. And they’re going to do a disability programme. So, there are limited resources and you’ve got to understand that.
I’m a big believer in behaviour change. Because I don’t think you can really change someone’s personal attitude to the way they think about disability, but you can certainly change the way they behave, so that they will be more aware, more empathetic to dealing with disability in a more systematic way.
Speaker: CB Time: 14:22
Last question to wrap-up. You have mentioned some of the challenges, we’ve obviously talked at length about some of those, but what are the main obstacles, do you think, that need to be overcome in order to reduce some constraints that are faced by people with disabilities?
Speaker: SD Time: 14:39
Not using the term, ‘people with disabilities’. What I mean by that, and I’m not getting back to social model language around, you know, ‘disabled people’ or ‘people with disabilities’. I think, in a learning context, you’ve got to understand that it’s not a single group; not a homogenous group. And that somebody with a learning disability is so radically different to somebody with a spinal-cord injury, that you’re talking a different language when it comes to challenges that they’re facing. So, be specific. Co-design; work with people with different impairments. And I will use that word, ‘impairments’. Understand what their support needs are. And work with them and their organisations to be far more nuanced around what those support processes are that can allow them to get active and be supported in the communities where they live. If you’re gonna, you know, travel half an hour, the likelihood is you’re not going to do it every day.
I’ve got wonderful footpaths and pathways around the areas I live. Then, when you extrapolate that to what’s close, where I go for a roll, and one of the first things I wanted to get to was my local pub. Well, I go past the swim centre, I go past a Buddhist temple, a catholic church, a major conference and convention centre, a number of other restaurants. And, after we got, you know, pathways put in, all of a sudden there's prams, there is people jogging, there is other people that are older in the community, now that the footpaths are level, they’re not trip hazards, engaging in, you know, a reasonably liveable community. But that doesn’t happen by chance. Sometimes you’ve got to make people feel uncomfortable in order to move forward as a community. We’re very lucky living in a developed nation where we do have democratic processes and, in general, at the local level, you know, the old leisure centre mentalities, where they generally want to address as many people in the population as they can. But, sometimes, they need a hand in understanding that it’s complex and it’s nuanced, and that each of those groups, if you address what their needs are, you know, you’ll have another group that you can more than adequately deal with, with some training and some resource.
Speaker: CB Time: 17:25
Really interesting points and I think that’s a fine way to end our conversation. So, thank you ever so much, Simon. I really do appreciate some very fascinating insights and also some potential solutions, as well, which is always good to have that approach to our discussion.
So, thank you ever so much. I look forward to catching up with you soon. Thank you ever so much.
Speaker: SD Time: 17:45
Thanks for the opportunity, Christopher, and, as one of my early bosses said to me, ‘don’t come to me with a problem; come to me with a solution’.
Thanks very much.
Speaker: CB Time: 17:54
Excellent way to end. Thank you.
*** Discussion ends ***
Speaker: CB Time: 17:57
That’s it. That’s the end of the show. Thank you for listening. And stay tuned for another episode of the Disability Sport Info show. Until then, goodbye.
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