Disability Sport Info

Grassroots sport: Voluntary sport clubs

August 05, 2022 Dr Chris Brown Season 2 Episode 8
Grassroots sport: Voluntary sport clubs
Disability Sport Info
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Disability Sport Info
Grassroots sport: Voluntary sport clubs
Aug 05, 2022 Season 2 Episode 8
Dr Chris Brown

In this Disability Sport Info episode, I'm joined by Professor Ruth Jeanes to discuss the role of voluntary sport clubs in the grassroots sport participation of disabled people. 

We explore the opportunities for disabled people to participate at clubs, the effectiveness of clubs in engaging with disabled people, and how clubs can improve the quality of their disability provision. 

Thanks for listening to the Disability Sport Info show!

Please email disabilitysportinfo@gmail.com to share your feedback. I'd love to hear from you.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this Disability Sport Info episode, I'm joined by Professor Ruth Jeanes to discuss the role of voluntary sport clubs in the grassroots sport participation of disabled people. 

We explore the opportunities for disabled people to participate at clubs, the effectiveness of clubs in engaging with disabled people, and how clubs can improve the quality of their disability provision. 

Thanks for listening to the Disability Sport Info show!

Please email disabilitysportinfo@gmail.com to share your feedback. I'd love to hear from you.

Transcript of Disability Sport Info episode, ‘Grassroots sport: Voluntary Sport Clubs’




Speaker: CB: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK) 

Speaker: RJ: Professor Ruth Jeanes (Participant – Monash University, Australia)



Speaker: CB                        Time: 0:30 

Hello Listener! Welcome to the Disability Sport Info Show!  

Today’s episode discusses the role of voluntary sport clubs in the grassroots sport participation of disabled people. I caught up with Professor Ruth Jeans to discuss this area in more detail. 

Ruth, thank you ever so much for joining me today. I'm really looking forward to chatting to you about voluntary sports clubs. To what extent do voluntary sport clubs provide sport participation opportunities for disabled people?


Speaker: RJ                         Time: 0:55 

Thanks, Chris. And thanks for offering the opportunity to chat about this today: it's a subject that I'm really passionate about. 

I think in terms of voluntary sports clubs, the amount that they are able to provide opportunities for people with disabilities - it just really varies across countries across different schools, across sports, and across different contexts. Particularly if we look at my context, which is in Australia, and sort of looking at, you know, the majority of sport participation, particularly for young people, takes place within a community sport or voluntary sport club context. There's been some key sort of policy agendas here over the last 15/20 years which have really looked at sort of trying to mainstream opportunities for people with disabilities. So a lot of emphasis has been put on traditional voluntary sports clubs being able to provide those opportunities for people with disabilities. And I think they’ve probably achieved that to varying extents. Some sports, some clubs have really embraced it and offered some really great opportunities for people with disabilities. Others haven't engaged that much. And I think it's still, so I live just outside of Melbourne, and if I look in my local area and think, ‘okay, if I want to find opportunities for people with disabilities amongst the voluntary sports clubs locally’, there’d be very few opportunities available within my immediate area. Voluntary sports clubs are so potentially important for providing these opportunities, but it's still really lacking. 

And I guess one of the other things I'd say as well is in terms of who voluntary sports clubs provide opportunities for. So, some might cater for certain people with disabilities over here. Participation in sort of all-abilities competitions is quite popular, which really focuses on providing provision for people with intellectual disabilities, but there would be less opportunity within mainstream clubs for people with, say, visual impairments, people with physical disabilities. So it's a real mix, depending on the sport, the area that you live in I think, and the breadth of disability that a voluntary sports club can cater for as well.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 3:16 

Okay, lots of interesting points raised there. So, you said there's a bit of mixed bag in terms of the effectiveness of some of the clubs and we discussed about the locality, the sport itself, the knowledge of the club in terms of disability etc, or the impairment group. 

So, what would you say is the key kind of characteristics or traits that separate clubs which are effective and clubs that are not effective at providing opportunities?


Speaker: RJ                         Time: 3:44 

We’ve done quite a lot of research in this space, me and colleagues, looking at how community sports clubs catered for diversity. And the key thing we found where clubs do well in this space, and particularly in relation to people with disabilities, is they nearly always have an individual champion. They've got a person that's absolutely passionate about a particular area, providing opportunities for people of difference, people with disabilities, whoever it might be, and they have gone all out to make sure that their club provides opportunities for them. And I think that sort of time and time again, we kept seeing that in the studies we've done, that this one person, and often they might be a parent of a child with a disability who, you know, just wants their child to be able to play sport, wants them to be able to get engaged in sport in their local community, have gone to their local club and found that there's no provision there's, so have said,  ‘okay, well, we'll set this up and we'll get this going’. So those people are often the ones that have planted the seed, they then often have the networks into sort of organisations that work with people with disabilities or within, say, special education, and are able to recruit young people into the clubs as well through those networks. But they’ll also be the ones that are sort of looking at, ‘well, how can I chase funding? How can I go to my local government? How can I go to my sporting association?’ And they're the ones like looking at the grant applications, they’re applying for funding for equipment, for modifications, all those sorts of things. And from that, they're able to sort of build a kind of platform that enables some level of sustainable provision within the clubs. Because I think that's sort of been really key in distinguishing a club that is kind of effective in this space to ones that perhaps don't offer that much provision or don't offer any at all. 

I think other examples where we've sort of seen provision being developed - it can be off the back of a particular funding stream that comes from a governing body and the sports associations over here, as they’re known. They might have a drive on developing opportunities for people with disabilities. They give short-term funding to develop projects and from this we sometimes see things like, you know, a come and try, or a six-week programme for people with disabilities to come and try the sport. But the kind of infrastructure and the impetus within the club isn't necessarily there so it doesn't continue after that six weeks. So those kind of individuals that are just so passionate about this space just makes such a difference into how a club sees people with disability, how much they think it’s important, and how much they want to engage in the space.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 6:37 

Okay, so it seems there has to be, well at least at the beginning, you might have to have an advocate or a key champion, as you say, to really drive the work. From what you're telling me, it seems that if we don't have that individual or few people in the club who are passionate, it’s unlikely there is an inclusive culture already existing to enable, specifically looking at people disabilities, participation to occur. 


Speaker: RJ                         Time: 7:02 

It takes that person to really push it to the forefront of the agenda and what we kind of found as you’d expect and as you’d understand, you know, voluntary sports clubs are busy places, they're under pressure with limited capacity and volunteers. For many, I think catering to any sort of dimension of diversity can seem daunting, and it can seem as something that they don't have the resources to do. I think that's particularly the case for people with disabilities where there’s a certain fear about, well, ‘how do we actually do this and what do we need to do and how do we adjust and what modifications do we need to make and we don't have the expertise to do that or the time to get the expertise’. I think there's this concern within clubs that they can't cater effectively and so they sort of stay away from it really, whereas that individual person can be the real kind of key element in flipping that mindset as well. 

What we sort of saw time and time again within clubs is this kind of feeling that, say, providing opportunities to appeal for people with disabilities, was kind of periphery to their core business. You know, it wasn't necessarily what they were there to do. They saw their role very much as providing sports opportunities for the local community, for, you know, competing in leagues and tournaments. Ensuring that they were successful in those. And often developing a disability provision, a disability section, or integrating people with disabilities into those existing mainstream teams, was just sort of seen as something that like, ‘well, okay, that's kind of nice to do, but it's not what we're here for’. So still sort of see elements of a kind of resistance, I guess, in some ways to really wanting to kind of engage in the space. And, again, that's not all clubs. I'm sort of generalising a bit here, but where we sort of found clubs weren't engaging, those were typically kind of the reasons given, ‘that we just don't have enough resources. We're just too busy. We just can’t cater for diverse participants in our club structure’. 

One of the other things as well that we sort of found from cubs that weren't engaged in this space was that there’s quite a lot of sort of overarching policy in the area. There has been this drive across different sports at different times to increase the number of people with disabilities participating, to look at how to develop more opportunities to support clubs better with this. What we sort of found was that policy climate is helpful, but without that individual person really kind of driving things, well, you kind of needed the two to meet together for opportunities really to come to fruition. The policy climate on its own wasn't enough to drive change in clubs and to get clubs to engage in the space. You needed those people that were really willing to take that on and to get involved, and to grab that sort of policy agenda and say, ‘okay, we're going to make that happen at my club.’


Speaker: CB                        Time: 10:22 

Yeah, I think that’s an excellent point. I think, yeah, what you were saying, if you don't have those two strands meeting together, you're always gonna get some sort of resistance in one shape or form. If it's just policy it's probably just seen as a tick-box exercise. And then once that policy is taken away or the funding is over, as you mentioned earlier, activity goes down. If it's just an individual on their own, they’re potentially fighting against resistance or people no longer pulling in the same direction. So I think that is really key, what you said, about the nexus between policy and inclusive culture. 


Speaker: RJ                         Time: 10:55

Yeah, I think sort of, you know, a lot of the time when we're looking at how do we address this, it's sort of seen as policy and initiatives as the top-down is seen as the way forward, but we kind of forget about the bottom-up drive here, and the need to sort of say, ‘actually, can we sort of take a strengths-based perspective and look at where we've got interest and where we've got clubs that might have people that want to sort of get this started’ and work more intensely with them, rather than trying to push something down to a club that's just not willing, or ready, or wanting to do that.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 11:33 

That’s something that’s really shined through in some of the other conversation I’ve had with academic experts is the need to obviously engage with the population group. Which is a very basic thing to actually talk about but, you know, sometimes you do get the policy just imposed from the top down without consultation or collaboration with the grassroots.


Speaker: RJ                         Time: 11:52

Yeah, and I think that's so important on so many levels, particularly in this space. There’s the actual consultation with the club's themselves and their volunteer base and the coaches within that as well. And then also beyond that, you know, with people with disabilities, with young people with disabilities, actually sort of seeing what do they want and what they do they need from their club environment, and what do they see that can actually help make that happen?

A lot of the research today in community sports side, community club side as well, hasn't really captured the voices of people with disabilities. I’ve done bits in my own work, but I've also focused quite heavily on the experiences of coaches, of the club volunteers and the structures around to understand what's happening within the club structure. But the voices of people with disabilities and their experiences of community clubs is still really lacking, I think, in research in this space. And greatly needed to sort of better understand, well, how do we take this forward, how do we enhance clubs to improve the experience of people with disabilities?


Speaker: CB                        Time: 13:08

Okay. So, we've got the idea that you need to have that policy and you also need to the inclusive culture if you want to utilise clubs effectively for participation in sport. 

Okay, so those that are involved and are engaged and are trying to provide opportunities, how is it provided for disability in general? Because, obviously, disability is a very multifaceted concept. And lots of different impairment groups, lots of different experiences, it manifests itself in very different ways. What is the kind of spread in terms of opportunities for people with disabilities?


Speaker: RJ                         Time: 13:38

Yeah. I think that's a really good question because it is such a diverse population base and that diversity has implications for what provision’s needed to cater to that diversity. All the research I've been doing in the different clubs that I’ve been to and visited, there’s none I'd say absolutely catered fully across the inclusion spectrum. And I'm not sure whether a voluntary club would have the capacity to do that necessarily. What I've seen here is that mainstream clubs in particular, tend to only offer a provision for people with disabilities that have intellectual disabilities by and large, and generally within the sort of mild to moderate categories of intellectual disabilities. I think that obviously has to do with how much the sporting activity requires modifications needed to equipment for that group of people. So, generally, what we've sort of found is, you know, coaches might need some support on how to slightly modify how they coach. There might be some slight modifications needed to equipment to make certain coordination aspects easier, again, depending on the sport, so things like cricket, we might see slightly larger balls used and those sorts of things. But generally, the club doesn't have to do that much to cater for those individuals to participate. And sometimes even we'll have people with intellectual disabilities playing within mainstream teams within the lower leagues of mainstream teams. There is that sort of overlap with the existing provision. 

What was really rare for us to find in mainstream clubs, and it's not really surprising, is people with more complex needs and complex disabilities, clubs just didn't have the capacity or the expertise, really, to accommodate people with more complex needs. Depending on the sport, you sometimes find the clubs catering for people with physical disabilities. So, within basketball in Australia, there's been a big drive on wheelchair basketball. It's fairly common for a Basketball Association to have a wheelchair basketball league and to sort of be able to, again, although there's sort of modifications there, the actual game doesn't change that much. The court doesn't change that much. The equipment doesn't change that much. So I think it sort of feels fairly familiar. It doesn't seem like a long stretch to be able to cater for those individuals. 

Sensory disabilities are nearly entirely provided for within separate clubs. It's rare for that to be attached to mainstream provision is what I've sort of found over here. It's very mixed between fully separatist provision which might often be community providers offering sports opportunities, particularly for those with more complex and diverse needs, right the way through to clubs offering but barely adjusting mainstream provision to offer for people with intellectual disabilities that can more or less engage in a similar way to their mainstream participants. 

It's a real kind of broad church, but I think what I’ve definitely seen is clubs are more willing to engage with people with disabilities when they feel that they don't have to change very much and they don't have to sort of think of inclusion in a much broader way, in a broader spectrum. It's basically like ‘no, we can continue doing what we've always been doing but, great, we can include these people as well within that’.  Some of the coaches that we've sort of done research with as well definitely sort of feel that way in terms of, ‘well, I don't have to adapt my coaching that much to work with this group of people and therefore that's great. And that's easy.’ It's often the kind of least challenging pathway, I think, that clubs engage with in this space.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 18:10 

And, in terms of that approach, you know, the least hassle, effectively, how much of that is influenced, do you think, by issues with relying on volunteers and time constraints, all that kind of thing, but also the inclusive culture maybe not being fully embedded or fully understood? What do you reckon is likely driving that?


Speaker: RJ                         Time: 18:30

I think it’s a combination of factors. I think it is kind of resourcing and thinking about resourcing in voluntary clubs definitely limits capacity and what can be done. But, as you say, I do think it’s also this idea of thinking more broadly about inclusion, what inclusive participation actually looks like. And I also think part of it as well comes from the way the sporting associations also do frame their resources in the policy, and typically what we've seen here is where sports associations invest in this space, they do so very much with a kind of performance pathway in mind. So, it's about how to foster clubs to support teams that can then feed into state level competitions that can then feed into more elite levels as well. So it's sort of that kind of taking, you know, what's considered the mainstream sporting pathway and just imposing it in community disability sport, and you kind of see the investment in there as well. As I said about wheelchair basketball, there's a clear elite pathway there. All-abilities cricket’s been another big sort of focus, particularly in Victoria where I live. And that's very much been developed by the sporting association based on this idea of ‘well, we'll develop leagues, we'll have tournaments, we’ll have a state level team’, and really focus on this kind of performance pathway, which I think as soon as that kind of happens, and it's crafted on the idea of mainstream sport and what competitive mainstream sport should be doing, it just kind of closes down some of those ideas of wider inclusion. It sort of stops us saying, ‘well, okay, how can we make the most amount of people with the most diverse needs participate?’ And to do that we might actually have to completely sort of change what cricket looks like for that group. But I don't think there's a willingness or kind of desire to do that. It's like, ‘no, how can we keep, again, soccer or cricket or whatever sport it is, as it is, for people with disabilities?’ It kind of gets limited I think in that way.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 20:47 

So I mean, I don't know if this is fair, but it sounds to me like it is the customers, the individuals, that have to adapt rather than the sport adapting for them?


Speaker: RJ                         Time: 20:55

Yes, exactly. And I think that, and again, some of the really good clubs that are really heavily engaged in this space, will totally adapt how they actually offer their activity and, you know, will be very mindful of who they're working with and, what the people that they're working with, what they want, you know, what's gonna suit them and their abilities and they’ll change. But in terms of the structures and systems that have been put in place to support disability sport, it's very much just a fixed way of engaging in that particular activity that's kind of recognised, with small modifications along the way. 

The other thing, and I think this is true of the UK as well, but certainly in Australia, the disability sports space is very chaotic. So, part of the research we just tried to map all the different organisations.  And a lot of clubs we spoke to and, you know, local government as well, sort of said, ‘the area’s so chaotic. It's quite hard to know, when you're trying to get something going, who's the best people to connect with and why, you know, why should you connect with them and should you connect with this group?’ So I think that's made it quite challenging, although, there has been, in the last five years or so, efforts made to try and coordinate and have an overarching national group that kind of brings all these different bodies together.

I think for the club on the ground and those volunteers who are sort of thinking already, ‘Oh, this might be quite a challenging area to get into and we're not really sure how to best do it’, it kind of makes it even harder, because it's like, ‘Oh, gosh, I've got no idea who I should be working with to take this area forward in my club’.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 22:43

Yeah. I think you’re correct in terms of saying it's like that in the UK, I think lots of different organisations, lots of fragmentation, complexity, and like you said that that can create added issues for some of the clubs perhaps. 

So, if we're thinking about those individuals who are inactive, who don't participate in sport and maybe not even do much physical activity, how effective are clubs, then, for getting inactive disabled people to be participating in their sport?


Speaker: RJ                         Time: 23:10

I think that's a real challenge for clubs. I mean, I think it's a challenge for clubs, regardless of whether the person has a disability or whatever. Someone who hasn't been active, who doesn't particularly have much of a sporting background. And if we think about people with disabilities, and we look at literature that talks about their experiences in physical education, and generally it's not good. And if that person's been in a sort of special education setting, they might not have had that much access to regular physical education. If they've been in a mainstream school, may well have had poor experiences in physical education. So not that opportunity to build up that skills and knowledge and capacity to engage in sport as much. For those people, jumping into a club is it is a huge step, and it's an intimidating one. You know, you've got this issue of starting an activity that you don’t particularly know much about, also going into an environment that you're not 100% sure whether it's going to be welcoming, whether it's going to be inclusive, whether it's going to be supportive. And, you know, particularly if you're working with coaches that have, you know, lots of coaching experiences, sporting experience, but not that experience of working with people with disabilities, it’s a lot of ifs and concerns.

Certainly, the research I've done with families and parents with children with disabilities, parents get really concerned about putting their child in a position, quite rightly so, when they're not sure what sort of reception they're going to get and how inclusive and supportive that environment is going to be. So I think there's quite a lot of issues and barriers there for someone that hasn't been that active. 

And I think again, it goes back to what we were saying about how much a sports club or sport overall is prepared to kind of modify what they do, and offer that kind of transitionary pathway into, you know, come and have a go at the activity, we’ll modify it to suit you. We’ll build it up. There’s not an expectation that you move into a sort of more traditional form of the sport from the get-go, and just how willing and supportive clubs are to be able to do that. 

I think where I've seen this transition being kind of well-managed, has been where clubs have been very proactive, making partnerships with special education units or with special education schools in their local area, where they've connected to disability groups, where people come together for other purposes, and they've sort of said, you know, ‘for six weeks of your session, you come to us at the club and just come and have a go at the activity’. Again, there’s such a lot of onus on the club and on volunteers, but where they've really done great outreach work to other places and spaces where people with disabilities are, and really trying to invite them and welcome them into the club environment. 

I think, as well, we kind of miss, when we're looking at engaging people with disabilities, we've missed the other intersections as well. So, gender’s come out as a really strong issue in a lot of my research in looking at young women with disabilities who feel particularly marginalised, often within a club environment. And, you know, if you think about traditional forms of voluntary sport, it's divided by gender all the time, and then when we get to people with disabilities, we sort of say, ‘oh well, it doesn't matter. Mix everyone in all together and it’s all fine’. You know, we've kind of ignored that gender dynamic and the gender aspect. So the work I did with cricket, I had a number of young women that were playing cricket in a disability group. They felt quite excluded and quite isolated because they were playing with young men, essentially. And all the same issues that you might have with mainstream participation of the young man they were playing with had more skills, more knowledge of the sport. They really wanted to do it but they just didn't sort of have that support there. And the fact that, because they were disabled, it was almost like it was gender blind, and no one was cutting considering those dynamics that were happening there at all. 

Different dynamics as well to consider in terms of how the club engages different types of people and particularly people that haven't been active before. It's not just about considering the disabilities, all those other intersections that will impact on why people may or may not have been active in the past.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 28:10

Yeah. I think that’s an excellent point mentioning about intersectionality. Because the temptation is just to kind of view people from one perspective, when that is just as too simplistic, and ignores the reality and complexity.


Speaker: RJ                         Time: 28:24

Yeah, it's really rare to find any sort of sporting association or policy, and certainly not at the club level, necessarily, where they do think with that intersectional lens, particularly in the space of disability, it is just seen as like disability is the whole thing and that's all we're dealing with. Okay, we've got a spectrum of people with disabilities, so there’s difference there, but without fully taking into account all the sort of other dimensions that can impact that. 

It's almost like it's sort of an afterthought and a bit of a surprise, but like, ‘oh, okay, the young women aren't enjoying it, and they're not feeling included’, but they're not feeling included because of their disability; they're not feeling included because of the gender dynamics that are existing in that very masculine sporting space, you know. It just sort of gets lost I think when we're considering about these issues.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 29:21

Yeah. Again, fantastic point and I completely agree. 

So, let's conclude. So what I like to do is kind of look to the future but also provide a kind of solution focused approach if possible. So if there are members of clubs, or people involved in the running of clubs, and they are interested in providing opportunities for disabled people and haven't perhaps currently got that provision, what would you recommend that these clubs need to do? What is the best course of action if a club wants to provide sporting opportunities for disabled people?


Speaker: RJ                         Time: 29:50

I think there's several kinds of things to do here. Ideally, try and connect with those organisations that do have expertise in this space. And that might be, you know, starting with the governing bodies, starting with your local authority, and just seeing what expertise is there. 

And then definitely connecting with different disability organisations in the local community, is a great way just to understand the space and to understand who’s actually in my local community that might want to come and play sport at my club. 

And then I think from there, engagement with people with disabilities trying to sort of find out, ‘well, what are their needs? What sort of provision would they like?’, is a great step forward.  

Certainly, with junior sections and young people, we’ve really found that parents are just the most wonderful resource, but understanding how to work inclusively. I’ve had some great examples of parents providing education for coaches on, you know, ‘this is how to communicate effectively with my child. This is how you might modify this to make sure everyone’s included in this activity’. So, I think there’s often a lot of local resources that a club can tap into it, particularly if you get a few participants along, really using that to sort of learn from those people and to understand how to best adapt provision.   

Certainly, working with your different sporting associations and your local authorities on what funding is available, what resources can we draw on to help us with this? 

And I think one of the most powerful support for clubs getting into this space was, we actually developed some communities of practice over here, and networks amongst clubs, so pairing up clubs that are interested in developing provision for people with disabilities with those that have already done it, and just really powerful hearing other volunteers telling you about the journey. So I think that’s a great way to really get going, is to talk to clubs that have done work in this space and to see how they do it. And there’s a lot to be said for having that advice from someone who’s in exactly the same situation as you, ‘so, yeah, as a volunteer group, this is what we did. This is what was successful’.

I think a few different strategies but it’s certainly reaching out and getting that information is the key first step. 


Speaker: CB                        Time: 32:27

Excellent. Thank you ever so much for that. It’s been really great chatting to you, Ruth. I really enjoyed talking about it and learning from your knowledge. Fascinating discussions. 

So, yeah, thank you ever so much for chatting and spending your time with me. I know in Australia it’s in the evening for you so really do appreciate you taking the time. And I look forward to catching up with you soon. 


Speaker: RJ                         Time: 32:44

No. Thank you, Chris. That was great. It was great to chat. Thank you. 


*** Discussion ends ***


Speaker: CB                        Time: 32:48

That’s it. That’s all we have time for. Thanks for listening to this episode of the Disability Sport Info show. Stay tuned for another episode. Until then. Goodbye. 





Disability provision
Effective engagement
Policy and inclusive culture
Clubs and disability diversity
Inactive individuals
Best practice solutions
End of discussion
Conclusion to the podcast