Disability Sport Info

Grassroots sport: Intellectual impairments

October 27, 2022 Dr Chris Brown Season 2 Episode 11
Grassroots sport: Intellectual impairments
Disability Sport Info
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Disability Sport Info
Grassroots sport: Intellectual impairments
Oct 27, 2022 Season 2 Episode 11
Dr Chris Brown

This episode of the Disability Sport Info show considers the sport participation and physical activity experience of individuals with an intellectual impairment. 

Dr Eric Svanelöv, of Mälardalen University, considers the sport participation experiences of individuals with an intellectual impairment. We discuss how intellectual impairment is positioned and perceived in society and the impact this has on sport participation. We also consider the relationship between sport and social care. 

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

This episode of the Disability Sport Info show considers the sport participation and physical activity experience of individuals with an intellectual impairment. 

Dr Eric Svanelöv, of Mälardalen University, considers the sport participation experiences of individuals with an intellectual impairment. We discuss how intellectual impairment is positioned and perceived in society and the impact this has on sport participation. We also consider the relationship between sport and social care. 

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, ‘Intellectual impairments’




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

Speaker: ES: Dr Eric Svanelöv (Participant – Mälardalen University, Sweden)



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 an intellectual impairment. To get a better understanding of this area, I caught up with Dr. Eric Svanelöv.

Welcome, Eric, thank you for joining the show. 

Would you be able to kind of describe some research that's being carried out into the grassroots sport participation experiences of individuals with intellectual impairments, please.


Speaker: ES                         Time: 0:54 

Yeah absolutely. First of all, thanks for having me. It's a great pleasure.

I come from Sweden and the disability sports grassroots level of Sweden is organized on, how do you say, an ideological level, there is no payment mostly.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 1:08



Speaker: ES                         Time: 1:09 

Voluntary. Right. But there are very few clubs on the grassroots level, so there are very few opportunities for people with intellectual disability to take part in sports. And a lot of the research that is going on now is about increasing participation, evaluating and scrutinizing possibilities to participate in sports, but also what is participation? How do you know if a person is participation participating in something or just being there, so to say. So there's a lot of research going on to sort of determine or define what participation is. 

But there is also a focus on institutional perspective of disability sports. Because most of the people with intellectual disabilities, which I have found and read, are often very dependent on other peoples for their opportunities to be part of some kind of sports, some kind of activities. Whether it is personal assistance, or group homes, service homes or, for example, daily activity services. There are often people in a higher position of power that often, in some cases determines, which activities could be appropriate or available. And, in some cases, the individual themselves can choose between different activities. 

But there are not so many activities to choose from. For example, if you, like me, love football very much, and perhaps goes to the gym or workout, those opportunities may not be present, because if you live in a group home with a kind of institutional character, there are schedules of what you're doing, which time you're doing it. And you also have daily activity services to services where you go to to these services or activities so, for example, four times a day at a specific time when there's transport to and from there. There are not so much room for, for example, football or going to the gym, because you're dependent on other people for that activity.

For participation sports, it requires a lot of engagement and effort from the individual itself, but also from this area of society, and also the social care around the individual.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 03:12

What kind of sports are often participated in, then, by individuals with intellectual impairments? As you've mentioned about the need for support network and how that potentially then creates a barrier for some individuals, or maybe even some sport, so what sports are commonly participated in?


Speaker: ES                         Time: 3:30 

I would say one of the most common sports is floorball, football. I think about English word, athletics. I’d say those are the most common for people with intellectual disability.

When I was conducting my research, I did an article when I interviewed athletes who were part of sports organisations which just focused on people with intellectual disabilities. So I interviewed the athletes and also the leaders. And I found very few sports organizations that just focus on some people with intellectual disabilities. Because most of them were sports clubs for people with physical disabilities or physical impairments, but not so much for intellectual disability. So the amount of choices that targets intellectual disabilities is quite few, but I would say floorball, football, and athletics are the most common.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 4:23

Ok. And you mentioned that when you were doing your interviews, doing your research, that when you spoke to sports organisations, it was often probably physical impairments that were being focused on. Why was that the case and what is it about intellectual impairment that is not appealing or is not part of the focus for these organisations?


Speaker: ES                         Time: 4:45 

When I talked to the leaders about their view of the athletes. I trace back, when I talked to the athletes, first, I talked to them about their participation, how they think about sports, about their being an athlete. And they identified themselves as an athlete. They are not disabled athletes; they are athletes. But they said they were a part of disability sports, so they were very aware or had quite a lot of experiences of organizations regular sport, so to say.

But when I talked to the leaders, I said that other athletes, they identified themselves as athletes, it's part of their identity, what they are doing, it makes them feels strong. The leaders didn't acknowledge them as athletes. It was just something that they did or an activity or they were having fun. They didn't see them as athletes, but the athletes themselves identified themselves as athletes.

I did another research about this, where I sort of did a discourse analysis on how you talk about disability sports. And I found that intellectual disability could be wrapped up in cotton, so to say. You try to protect them and not expose them of dangers, so to say. And sports could be one of those ways, because when I began talking, it was that you were dependent on, for example, staff group homes, daily activity services, the people around you, to be part of these activities. And when these peoples around the individual may not like sports, so there is not time for sports, disability sport could be something that could endanger or be potentially harmful in a way. You sort of wrap in cotton and try to protect the individual. 

There was also talk about disability as sort of inconvenience. It was more work and it was, yeah, a sort of inconvenience, that disability was constructed or talked about as an inconvenience. It becomes a problem going to and forth, and what if it hurts itself disability sport, who shall you call then, that kind of thing. So you’re trying to protect but it also could be viewed as an inconvenience and a problem.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 7:04

Ok. that's really interesting. 

So, we were talking off air about how, in Sweden, perhaps the approach and perception of disability is often medicalised in nature, and that seems to be shining through from what you're talking about in terms of organisations and leaders’ approach to providing opportunities for intellectual impairments. Is that a fair assessment?


Speaker: ES                         Time: 7:24

Yeah. I would say that.  

I’m a doctor in social work and one of the main focuses that I have in social work is that we work with a social perspective. But disability services and legislations are based on a sort of a medical diagnosis and a medical perspective, which I, in a way, think is necessary as well. You need to have a sort of categorisation in order to have the correct services and availability to certain locations, for example, daily activity services for disability sport. But it is what we do with this categorisations that may become a problem. To have the categorisation in itself doesn't have to be a problem or result in marginalisation. But what we do with it can be a problem. For example, if we see disability as an inconvenience or a problem when creating opportunities to be part of sporting activities, for example. 

So I would say there is a medicalised focus, which I think is necessary, but it is how you work with it that can be problematic for the individual.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 8:30

Ok. Yeah. So I mean from what I’m getting from this conversation is that maybe some organisations aren't necessarily actually speaking with their target group or the individuals they're trying to work with. It is a non-disabled perspective being imposed and kind of being filtered through in terms of attitudes, rather than actually thinking about how we can enable and empower these individuals to participate in sport. 


Speaker: ES                         Time: 8:53

Exactly. When I talked to the athletes and the leaders. And with disabilities sports, as I have found it when I have talked to these people, are built up that you cannot be a part of the regular sports here. That is sort of the discourse of the way you talk about disability. You are deviant so you cannot be in this place. So we have created another place here, which is the place where you can participate on your terms, so to say. Which is a good idea, the idea of the sports organisation is to increase sport participation, self-determination, creating something good. But by doing this binary view of sports where you have regular sports and disabled sports, even if the aim is to provide something good with increased participation, what it does is also to increase segregation between those. And also sort of point out individuals you cannot be part of here so you’re part of that. So being a part of disability sport can be both something positive, but also something negative. It could create a sort of identity of an athlete. You can increase your self-determination and sort of strengthen who you are, an expression to be who you want to be. But at the same time, it could be stigmatising because you're labelled as a disabled athlete or disabled person. 

I have an example which connects to the disability sports, how you talk about it and how you segregate it, but it is from daily activity services. There was a staff walking at the town and she saw one of the persons that she worked with at the daily activity services. And the staff had her working clothes on and she walked towards this person and greeted her and said, ‘hi, how are you?’ and the person didn't want to say hello to the staff. She just ignored her and then they awkwardly walked away. And when I talked to the individual that had this daily activity services, she said that, ‘I didn't want it to say hello to her at town because she had her working clothes on’. She didn't want to be connected to the daily activity services and that's because that is a categorisation as disabled. 

So there is a lot of stigma in the categorisation. So that's what I said earlier that the medical perspective can be good, but it’s what we do with it that’s important.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 11:21

Yeah. It’s interesting as well because it's quite a different approach to what we have in the UK. So we've often had the concept of mainstreaming, where it is the non-disabled organisation’s responsibility to include both non-disabled and disabled people. Theoretically, that's a good approach, but maybe some organisations implement it well and some perhaps not so well. So it's interesting to have the contrast, and of course with all these things it's how you implement them and how you utilise it. In itself, they’re not necessarily bad or good, but it can be used in negative or positive ways and it's just interesting to see the different approaches.


Speaker: ES                         Time: 11:57

Yeah, yeah. Because I was wondering, in the UK, there is a lot of focus on social view of disability.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 12:02

Social model, yeah.


Speaker: ES                         Time: 12:03

Yeah. And in Sweden there's a lot of focus on the relational model where you sort of acknowledge the medical and social model. I mean both have their pros and cons. My view is more towards the social model or cultural model of disability but, I would say that. disability politics in Sweden is built upon the relational model.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 12:24

Yeah. The influence and importance of policy shines through, you know. If it's being set up from the top, then, you know, the actors are going to be implementing the policy that has been set from above. So, yeah, really interesting. 

So when we look at grassroots sport participation itself, what are the kind of experiences that go on for individuals with intellectual impairment? What are the benefits, what are the challenges, what are the enablers? Are you able to kind of speak about those kind of points?


Speaker: ES                         Time: 12:53

One of the big things of being part of disability sport which is just wonderful when I went to different sports clubs and talked to them, I mean, it was the love they expressed of identity construction; being able to express who I want to be and what I want to do. And these are for the individuals that had opportunities to be part of disability sports, and these people often had families that were very supportive or school environments that were supportive. And also showed, presented different opportunities to be part of disability sports. But the one thing that is, it is the identity that disability sport provides. It is both an individual identity - finding yourself - but also sort of a collective identity. 

One of one of the athletes that I interviewed said that with disability sports everybody can participate, no matter what. And that is something that I didn't really find when I talked to the leaders because their focus was on having fun and don't pressure individuals. Whereas the individual themselves, I mean, they competed, they were athletes. There was so different views of what being an athlete really is. 

I wrote a Swedish article about this, which is titled, ‘the two edged sword’, where disability sport is constructed as something that could be positive, but also negative. It could be invigorating but also negative. It could strengthen your identity of being an athlete and, as I said, being who you want, but also stigmatizing; you’re being labelled as disabled. 


Speaker: CB                        Time: 14:40

So, just from what you're telling me, there's a lot of benefits for the individual. That’s clear. You focused quite a lot on the identity construction. However, that idea, that thought, doesn't seem to be pervasive in the minds of those who provides sports opportunities or could provide sports opportunities. So how do we bridge that gap? How do we communicate that, actually, it's not a risky enterprise, it's not about danger. Let's turn it around and make it more of a positive thing and actually, look, we can provide benefits to these individuals, and we should be providing sport participation opportunities. How do we bridge that gap, do you think?


Speaker: ES                         Time: 15:22

I've thought about this a lot and also tried to answer one of these questions in my dissertation. And the simple answer is sort of talk about it. Talk about what disability is. Talk about what an athlete is. Talk about how you see yourself and talk about how others see other people. 

But one of the sort of boring answers is resources also. There are some researchers I know and I have also found it that disability sports and sports in general tend to have quite a low status within social care, because you focus on the care aspect of social rather than social aspects of social care. So one of the main thing is to increase the knowledge about what sports can do, the knowledge about the benefits that sports can do within social care.

I know that just in my department here that sports are not a big part of social care or social work, for that matter, even though there are so much research of the benefits of sports, whether it is physical, psychological, social benefits. 

So talk about what sport does but also it needs to happen on a higher political level in terms of resources for different social care interventions, for example, daily activity services, group homes, personal assistance, because those are often enablers or gateways to different sports activities.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 16:54

Yeah. No, I completely agree. It's not just going to be a one solution thing, you’ve got to focus on it quite holistically, you know, broadly. And, as you said, there's social aspects and, in terms of the environment, there's also, of course, the organizations, etc. 

So this question is probably gonna be quite hard to answer them. So I apologise in advance, but what is the main thing that needs to be done to increase participation for people with intellectual impairments?

It’s a tricky one!


Speaker: ES                         Time: 17:21

Yeah. Absolutely. I mean there are a lot of research going on now that sort of try to distinguish what, I mean experiences of disability and experiences of being part of different activities. I think these kind of researchers are great because they increase the social awareness in the community about what disability is. But also, one thing that I focus a lot on is commercials, everyday talk, TV series. How disability is depicted in everyday community because that also increases the awareness of individuals. 

I start my dissertation with the word ‘idiot’ because that was the way of talking about people in not so long ago, and it has happened so much in the recent years, but it could happen so much more. So sort of increased awareness and I, I really don't know how explicitly how to do it. Because it needs to happen, as I said earlier, on a high political level, it needs a lot of resources, but what we can do is talk about it.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 18:34

Yes, yeah exactly. 

And what were you talking about actually has kind of just led me to another question, if I can be so bold, to ask you another one. 

How do you think intellectual impairment is seen compared to other impairment groups or other disabilities? And how does that influence the sport participation that is available?


Speaker: ES                         Time: 18:53

I would say there is a lower status than other kinds of impairments or disabilities.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 18:58

Why, why would that be?


Speaker: ES                         Time: 19:00

One of the reasons is what I said earlier that you are sort of wrapped in cotton. Disability becomes an inconvenience. It can become sort of a problem when you're doing things. Because from a normative perspective you deviate from intellectual cognitive ideals of how an ideal human should be. And that is sort of a horrific way to look at disability; just seeing that you are sort of a normative deviant. And you focus so much on what the individual cannot do, so you forget to look at what the individual can do. And that is also one way that you, with your previous question, change perspective on how you look at things. 

So, if you focus rather on what you can do rather than what you cannot do. And that is also one of the things that enables or hinders availability to take part in disability sports, whether you focus on what individual can do and what you cannot do.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 19:55

Is there any kind of positive work that you'd like to highlight in terms of what's going on at the ground level in terms of sport participation opportunities and experiences?


Speaker: ES                         Time: 20:03

I’m trying to think. I mean my research, obviously, is really good!

My research focuses more on the processes of categorisation and labelling people, which is a big part of sports. I mean, if we look at Special Olympics or those kinds of events, there are different categorisation for different competitive categories within that, so categorisations, labelling on a grassroot level or social care level is also important for disability sports. So how we are working and talking about the labelling process and the categorisation process is a big part. 

But I don't have any specific names but there is great research that focus on these kind of labelling and categorisation processes. If you look at, for example, able mindedness and those kind of things. 

I mean one of those things that really inspired me when I started to look upon disability sport and how it is experienced is, I mean able mindedness, what is an able body and what is a disabled body, or something like that.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 21:12

Okay, all right. Well, I think we've covered quite a lot there. Is there anything you'd like to finally add before we close our discussion for today?


Speaker: ES                         Time: 21:20

Just be open and talk about different things, but also be reflexive about how you talk about it and why you talk about it. So you have a sort of an agenda and idea with your talk. And be open for other people's perspective.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 21:36

Yes, I think that's really important and a really great point to end: be open minded. That's the best way to have progress, hopefully.

Well, Eric, thank you ever so much. It's been great chatting with you and great to have this conversation about intellectual impairments and the experiences in Sweden. 

So thank you ever so much, and it's great to catch up, and I look forward to seeing you soon.


Speaker: ES                         Time: 21:54

Thank you very much for being here.


Speaker: CB                        Time: 21:56

Thank you. 


*** Discussion ends ***


Speaker: CB                        Time: 21:57

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



Research on sport participation of individuals with intellectual impairments
Type of sports participated in
Perception of intellectual impairment in sport
Grassroots sport participation experiences
Enabling more sport participation opportunities
Perception of intellectual impairment in sport compared to other impairments
Positive work in the intellectual impairment sport participation field
End of discussion