This episode of the Disability Sport Info show considers visually impaired sport.
Dr Jess Macbeth explains the sport participation experiences of visually impaired individuals. We consider some of the enablers and barriers visually impaired people face when accessing and participating in sport. We also discuss the importance of providers being aware of the lived experience of visual impairment when designing and providing sport.
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Speaker: CB: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK)
Speaker: JM: Dr Jess Macbeth (Participant – UCLan, UK)
Speaker: CB Time: 0:30
Hello Listener! Welcome to the Disability Sport Info Show!
Today's episode focuses on the sport participation experiences of individuals with visual impairment. To get a better understanding of this area, I caught up with Dr. Jess Macbeth.
Welcome to the show. Thank you for joining. It’s great to have you on. Would you be able to describe the research that’s been carried out into grassroots sport participation for those individuals with visual impairments please?
Speaker: JM Time: 0:54
Yeah, no problem at all, Chris, thanks for having me on.
In terms of research specifically into grassroots, there's not a huge amount. But when it comes to VI sport, it's quite a new body of literature, I would say. So, probably, most of it has emerged in the last 10 to 15 years. And to be honest, I think maybe it's more the elite participants that have attracted most attention from researchers. But just to give you a little bit of an overview. There's been some previous studies on the socialisation experiences of people with visual impairments going into sport. And there were a few studies in the 80s and 90s and early 2000s, but they were largely quantitative studies that were just looking at some key kind of influences on individuals with visual impairments. More recently, there's been some qualitative studies that started to explore the sporting biographies of, usually, visually impaired athletes that are maybe at what we’d class at more of an elite level, but that's kind of tracked their participation through the kind of grassroots pathways and into that elite setup they might be in. So, for example, research that I've done around partially sighted footballers who’ve played for England, has looked at their kind of socialisation experiences and experiences at grassroots level.
There's been some work around their socialisation experiences of goalball players in the US, for example, again, Justin Hegel's been involved in that with colleagues. And a lot of that research has looked at the varied experiences or at least revealed very varied experiences of visually impaired people depending on several things, particularly the nature of their visual impairment, their educational experiences, so whether or not they've been educated in mainstream schools or integrated settings, as you might say in the US, or within special education needs schools.
There's also been a fair bit of research that started to look around things like meaning and identity. For example, Ben Powis’s research on visually impaired cricket, delved into that in a lot of detail. Hammer’s study around tandem mountain biking. And there's been some research also on goalball athletes as well in the US by Jenks and Jenks. So, a lot of this research on meaning and identity has started to look at the extent to which participating in sport, at both grassroots and elite levels, is empowering for people with visual impairments, or, equally, ways in which it might be disempowering as well, and the impact that it might have on their identity.
There's also been a few studies that have focused on barriers and facilitators and equity issues, media representations, sensory experiences. And I would say probably the largest body of literature or theme around visually impaired sport is around classification. Now, that's mainly focusing on part of the IPC and IBSA’s, the International Blind Sports Association, projects around reviewing classification systems at the moment. And whilst that's focusing mainly on Paralympic sports, it does have some repercussions potentially down at grassroots levels, or certainly in terms of kind of player pathways for the athletes in those sports as well.
So, that's a bit of a summary of the research that's been done around visually impaired sport, but I suppose what we're most interested in is some of those kinds of issues or barriers and facilitators that impact VI people getting involved in sport and staying involved in sport
Speaker: CB Time: 4:25
Yeah. Really interesting overview. Thank you for doing that. First of all, why do you think there hasn't been huge amounts of research in this particular area? Is this, generally, in disability research, there isn't a huge amount or is it specifically within disability research, there's not a huge amount of for VI? What are your views there?
Speaker: JM Time: 4:41
That’s an interesting question. I mean, I do think that research around disability sport has gathered pace over the last decade or so, definitely. It's become a much more popular area of academic research. And that's clearly been impacted by the prominence of the Paralympic Games now. But the danger of that I think, is that it does neglect, potentially, a focus on Paralympic sport, does neglect a huge kind of range of sports that people with disabilities are involved in. So, for example, if we look at visually impaired sport, the VI sport that is part of the Paralympic programme is only a small window, really, into VI sport, and there's a lot that goes on outside of the Paralympic games that a lot of people don't know about. Even visually impaired people aren't that aware of the opportunities that exist.
So in answer to your question around why there's a limited amount of research on VI sport. I think it's because there's a relatively limited amount of opportunities specific to VI people to participate in sport. It is growing, but those organisations that are responsible for that, are not necessarily particularly well resourced. So the likes of British Blind Sport are quite a small team, not particularly well resourced, do a great amount of work, partner up with the likes of Thomas Pocklington Trust, RNIB and Sport England and Activity Alliance. But there's only so much that they can do within their means. So when there's not a huge amount necessarily going on, then there's less chance that that's going to become something that academic researchers aren't necessarily are of and therefore interested in.
The other thing is, largely, academic researchers tend to be not disabled themselves that are interested in in disability sport. There's not a huge amount of disabled people, or visually impaired people, who are necessarily researching within the sociology of sport or those types of areas. So naturally, you know, those topic areas might not necessarily be highest on non-disabled researchers’ priorities
Speaker: CB Time: 6:48
Yeah. Okay. And what does the research say about whether sport, grassroot sports specifically, is a source of empowerment or disempowerment for VI individuals?
Speaker: JM Time: 6:59
I think if you take, for example, Ben Powis's work around VI cricket. He did focus primarily on athletes that were involved in the England cricket squad. I think there's something to clarify here. When we’re talking about a distinction between grassroots and elite level in in VI sport, sometimes it's quite difficult to differentiate between grassroots level and elite level because there's not a huge kind of progression pathway there necessarily. But, in terms of some of the work around that Ben's done, for example, on VI cricket. He talked about how playing cricket for some visually impaired players was the first time that they'd actually been part of a VI community. And sport was what brought them together. So that's just one example of the way in which sport can play a really empowering role for individuals. But there's also issues within grassroots and elite level sport for people with visual impairments that could result in some kind of disempowering or inequitable situations for the participants as well. So it's a real challenge for those who are the key stakeholders.
And I think this is another issue that really important is, with all disability sport, and we see it within VI sport specifically, is it’s quite messy in terms of the organisations and the structure. The coordination of opportunities across that range of stakeholders, I wouldn't necessarily say is there yet and is clear. Just to give an example, I was at VI football forum last week that was organised by British Blind Sport off the back of a VI sports forum that was looking at the North-West and what football opportunities there were in the North-West. And the first step with those stakeholders is to do a mapping exercise to find out more and more so providing the activities, to find out more about what each other are doing. Because you've got county FAs, you've got VI sports clubs that are multi-sport clubs, all doing things, but not necessarily knowing what each other are doing, and not necessarily coordinating that as well as maybe it could be. So there's a lot of challenges in terms of the way that things are structured and organised. But if those groups can work well in partnership with each other, then ideally, you know, the opportunities and the provision should be quite strong.
And the other challenge for visually impaired people is also advertising opportunities appropriately. So those organisations that are experts in VI know how to advertise things in an accessible way through their partnerships reach the VI community. But maybe more mainstream organisations don't necessarily have that expertise and need to partner up with those organisations that do, to make sure that information about any sessions reaches the right people in the right way.
Speaker: CB Time: 09:42
And just for our listeners, what is the right way of communicating opportunities?
Speaker: JM Time: 9:46
Well, I think there needs to be more research that also asks that question that works with visually impaired people about, you know, what types of channels of information would you access? There are ways of going through eye clinics, for example. There's the health side of things and avenues that way. There's the mainstream sports organisations. There's lots of different ways in which this kind of information could reach visually impaired people. So I think it's a case of consulting with them to understand what is the best way of advertising those opportunities. But I think the likes of British Blind Sport, RNIB, Thomas Pocklington Trust, sight loss councils that are regionalised around the country, are really important kind of experts in terms of developing accessible materials and getting that disseminated through channels that visually impaired people are most likely to access.
Speaker: CB Time: 10:45
Okay. we've touched upon this already, but just kind of to get real good clarity. What would the literature say, or what does the literature say in terms of how to facilitate sport participation opportunities for VI individuals?
Speaker: JM Time: 10:57
I think when it comes to visually impaired people, there's some similar barriers and enablers as there are to other groups of disabled people; there's some generic ones. When it comes to visually impaired people, I think there's some distinct challenges that comes with being visually impaired that facilitators need to be aware of to try to reduce those barriers.
And one of the key ones is a lack of local provision. And when you've got a spread geographically of sport and physical activity opportunities for people with visual impairment, which requires them to travel, that is one of the most significant barriers, because visually impaired people, depending on their visual impairment, but if you’re registered as partially sighted, you're not able to drive so you're either dependent on someone else or a club to have transport. It's rare, to be honest. Or you’re relying on public transport.
Some of the best ways to facilitate visually impaired people getting involved in particular sessions, Goalball UK, when they put on their club opportunities, they tried to have a meet and greet at a train station, for example, at a particular time to support visually impaired people to get from that train station to whatever the venue needs to be. So the proximity to good public transport links and regular public transport links, but then also that extra touch, that extra support in terms of meeting and greeting is particularly important. So if you’re wanting to attract people with visual impairment who don't have that luxury of being able to drive themselves to a particular venue, then you need to think about those additional things especially. I think they get exacerbated by the fact that because numbers are low, a lot of opportunities need to be organised, maybe spread around the country. British Blind Sport taster days, they tried to cover the country in terms of strategically having something in each region. But that could still mean quite considerable amount of travelling for people to access those sessions.
Going back to the research I've done around partially sighted football, lack of awareness and a lack of local opportunities and therefore the need to travel, were the key challenges, definitely, and potentially the key issues that will prevent more people from getting involved.
Speaker: CB Time: 13:14
Okay. And if we're thinking about one particular thing that needs to be done to increase participation for people with visual impairments, what would that be?
Speaker: JM Time: 13:22
I think, in an ideal world, it would be more local opportunities on the doorstep that are easily accessible for people with visual impairment. Now, in reality, there's probably not enough numbers to justify very local opportunities. But then that comes back to the question is, would that possibly be the case if awareness was raised? And if the advertising of these particular opportunities was reaching visually impaired people in the right way? So I know you asked for one thing there, but I think it is a complex combination of those things that need to all fall into place, really, for things to improve.
I think there needs to be more research around is the demand there as well, but it would be great to get that better understanding of visually impaired people in terms of what their preferences would be in relation to sport and physical activity, and then tailor opportunities around that demand or those preferences that are not necessarily met yet.
Speaker: CB Time: 14:19
One final question. When it comes to mainstream organisations, does the nature of the impairment awareness of opportunities, have an influence on the sport participation of visually impaired individuals?
Speaker: JM Time: 14:31
I think, in terms of mainstream organisations, there needs to be more expertise around specific impairment groups within mainstream organisations. Or if it's not expertise within those organisations, then really kind of joined-up thinking and partnerships with those organisations that can provide that expertise.
So when it comes to the likes of putting on sports opportunities, from mainstream organisations putting on sporting opportunities for visually impaired people, for example, there's not a huge amount of education around how to do that. British Blind Sport and UK Coaching have put together the ‘coaching people with a visual impairment’ course that people can do. That's an online course. Other than that, most stuff is around coaching disabled people, and it's broader. It's much more generic. And I don't think in any kind of impairment group, we necessarily have a huge amount of education for people delivering on the ground how to tailor things towards specific impairment groups, a lot of it's quite generic.
I think a lot of work could be done in those areas around specific impairment groups, but that work needs to be done with people from those specific impairment groups informing that in the process from the very start.
So I do think there's some useful awareness raising resources out there. So for example, again, there's a document around VI friendly athletics, VI football, the generic coaching people and visual impairment course that that can be done. Recently, Thomas Pocklington Trust and UK coaching have developed a toolkit called, ‘inclusive facilities supporting people with visual impairment’, and that's aimed at leisure facilities, at gyms, at sports facilities. And that's specific to visual impairment, which is great. So we're starting to see an increase in guidance that’s aimed at supporting specific impairment groups, but I think until that's happened, we've only really had very generic supporting disabled people resources and guidance, and therefore it's been very superficial. So I think that's fundamental if mainstream organisations and leisure facilities, for example, are to support visually impaired people and support them effectively, and to be welcoming to them, I think some of those kinds of educational resources are really, really important. It's good to see them starting to develop. I think they're really important. But it’d be great to have more of those that are also sports specific as well.
Speaker: CB Time: 16:55
Okay. I think that's really good clarity. I’ve talked about this with another interviewee that disability is quite a catch-all term, isn't it, really? It belies the individuality and complexity of disability. You know, an individual with one particular impairment, their lived experience is going to be different from someone with a different type of impairment. So if we only have generic resources about, you know, disability generally, well, we can only have guidance: we don't really have the specific insight.
Speaker: JM Time: 17:22
When we talk about visual impairment itself, that in itself is a considerably broad label as well. And within that, you know, you've got people from partial sight, who might only just fit into that category in terms of the nature of their visual impairment, through to completely blind. And the differences in terms of the challenges that they may have for sport and exercise, generally, could be quite diverse. And then when you start to look at some of the research Ben and I have looked at in terms of football and cricket, demonstrated that one person could face particular barriers within the sport of cricket that are not as severe within a different sport such as football. So whether or not they've got central vision or peripheral vision, and the outdoor conditions and how that can impact things. All of these factors make it quite dangerous to just label people, you know, use the label visual impairment without understanding more about individual unique lived experiences of visual impairment that specific athletes might have or specific individuals might have that shape how they can, or how they might not be able to, access particular sports or sport in general.
Speaker: CB Time: 18:37
Okay. I think that's a good way to end actually. I think we've touched upon the complexity. Unless there's anything else you'd like to add before we close?
Speaker: JM Time: 18:44
In terms of running, the activity of running, if we're going back to thinking about some examples of enablers. The likes of Parkrun along with Sport England, have had a visually impaired running scheme in recent years, so they're trying to make Parkruns more attractive, and working hard to try and attract more visually impaired people. And that all kind of links in with the fact that there's a find a guide database that can help visually impaired people who do need a guide runner to try and access that, those kinds of opportunities.
But, through our research, we found that, you know, depending on where visually impaired people might be located, there can be a lot of difficulty in getting guides. Not just getting a guide, but one that's able to meet you at times that are convenient for the two of you, ones that are willing to run and match in terms of your speed. But also having more than one guide, so you're not always reliant on one person necessarily. But there's also been some developments within running around, for example, last September was the first Bristol VI 10k Run took place. That's the first ever VI specific run that's been part of, I suppose branched off an existing running event. Visually impaired people would ordinarily take part in standard kind of running events that would take place and have been doing that for many years and have enjoyed doing that as well. But that's the first time that there's been a VI specific race that's taken place. So whether we'll see more of that in the future or not, will be interesting to see. Certainly, the dependence on somebody else to guide, can complicate further the kind of being able to take part in particular events as well.
*** Discussion ends ***
Speaker: CB Time: 20:19
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.
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