Why this matters
Opportunities and investment in adaptive sport has grown over time, but financial, educational and medical barriers limit participation in sport by people with disabilities at the amateur, professional and Paralympic levels.
One billion people, or about 15% of the global population, live with some form of disability. People with disabilities face discrimination in all walks of life: education, healthcare, labor, and community life, which includes access to participation in sport.
A recent study from the Global Sport Institute set out to further understand the barriers faced by athletes with disabilities using qualitative research interviews aimed at understanding the world from the participant’s point of view.
The study concluded that athletes with disabilities, whether they are professional competitors or not, face individual and institutionalized forms of ableism and discrimination as well as structural and multifaceted barriers to participating in sport, in a variety of forms:
- Travel to and from facilities, activities, and competitions consumed financial, physical, and emotional resources and time, and more distant locations required even more of these resources and time that independently and collectively constrain opportunities for engagement.
- Equipment often has to be personalized to the athlete and their individual needs. Specialized equipment has few manufacturers, making options limited, both in availability and in opportunities to find competitive pricing. Additionally, those new to the sport are often unaware of where to find the equipment.
- The majority of available coaches have experience in training only able-bodied athletes and have limited knowledge of disability issues. Participants recognized the importance of having a coach or a trainer, especially for improving their skills and performance
Adaptive Sport and Its Challenges
Adaptive sport can be defined simply as recreational or competitive sport for people with disabilities. While often used interchangeably with inclusive sport, the two are different. Adaptive sport allows modifications to make the game more accessible, compared with the similar inclusive sport, which permits athletes with disabilities to compete with non-disabled athletes.
A lack of knowledge, access, investment, and proper healthcare all lead to ableism in adaptive sport.
Knowledge and Access
Participation in sport is proven to be incredibly beneficial both physically and mentally; however, this study demonstrated that there is a lack of widespread awareness among many people with disabilities about what adaptive sport is and how they can participate in it. Several of our interviewees spoke about not knowing that adaptive sports existed for years of their lives.
While there are not many programs for adaptive athletes, the bigger issue is that details and information about these programs are often hard to come upon.
Charities like Activity Alliance work to create fairness for disabled people in sport and activity, and part of that is spreading the word about sporting activities in different communities. The charity’s most recent annual disability activity survey found that 47% of people with disabilities think that physical activity isn’t for “someone like them.”
For the 53% that do believe they can participate, severe access problems can limit the sports that they can compete in. To start, there is a shortage of trainers who are equipped to coach athletes with disabilities. Untrained coaches are unable to improve the athletes’ skills, with one of the interviewees saying that coaches who don’t understand disabilities are unable to relate to certain obstacles.
Adaptive athletes face many financial barriers. The study showed that people who are disabled often live on fixed incomes, leaving them unable to pay high program fees. And the cost of specialized equipment can be tens of thousands of dollars, according to Dr. Emma M. Smith, the editor-in-chief of the Assistive Technology Journal.
In many cases, people with disabilities can struggle to find government support for their conditions at all – and if they do, sport is classified as a non-essential life function.
“On a global scale, there’s very, very poor access to assistive technology for anything other than what’s considered basic and essential needs,” said Smith. “And the language changes depending on which country you’re in. But, ultimately, it comes down to some idea of basic and essential. In the vast majority of countries in the world, there is no funding for assistive technology for anything beyond that basic and essential – if there’s funding at all.
“Sport gets classed as a non-essential item, and those of us who work in the more rights-oriented fields would say that sport means participation in your society and your community and is a part of your well-being and therefore should be considered essential. But it’s not necessarily perceived that way by governments, and that means people don’t have access.”
In recent years, the cost of countries’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that the small funds that were dedicated toward sport have largely disappeared. The pandemic also reduced participation levels, with less than 30% of people with disabilities having felt encouraged to return to physical activity, according to the adaptive sport advocacy group Activity Alliance.
“It is quite a challenging period at the moment because of COVID,” said Kirsty Clarke, the director of innovation and business development at Activity Alliance. “Not everyone feels comfortable still to go in that environment. And, actually, a lot of disabled people don’t feel like they’ve been encouraged to really go back either. There is so little knowledge about the opportunities that are available.”
Another significant issue facing adaptive athletes is not having access to the proper healthcare they need to be physically active. Health professionals, whether they are physicians, pharmacists, nurses, health practitioners, or dentists, need to have an understanding and the proper training around how to accommodate somebody who is disabled and/or is using assistive technology. This is a rarity in first-world countries, but in medium- to low-income nations, there is more of a “participation of community health,” said Smith.
“In those places, we're actually starting to see better training because the World Health Organization has put an emphasis on it,” she added, referring to WHO’s online Training in Assistive Products (TAP) program, which was made to help educate health and other personnel to fulfill assistive technology roles in countries that don’t have access to specialized professionals. This can include knowing how to identify people who could benefit from AT, knowing how to use simple assistive products, and understanding when and who to refer to for more complex assistive technology.
“It's really important that we have people who are skilled, and that's what they're doing with their training.”
What Is the Solution?
The GSI study shows that there are so many barriers to those who want to participate in adaptive sport, and while the constraints don’t completely limit participation, we should strive for a society where there is no strain on resources or opportunities.
Clarke explained that Activity Alliance and similar charities globally focus on supporting big organizations like England Golf and London Sport as well as local athletic associations to embed inclusive practices with everything from education to marketing and policy development.
“Our inclusive communications product is almost like a support package where we can work with predominantly sports organizations,” Clarke said. “But what we have found is that we have started to work with more kinds of community-based organizations whose primary focus might not be sport, but they realize they need to just encourage people to be more active.”
Research is also important in preventing these barriers. When looking at assistive technology specifically, funding is crucial. Governments will respond with funding only if they are given proof that their investment is needed and beneficial. According to Smith, recent research has shown that there is a 9-to-1 return on investment for assistive technology – meaning that for each dollar a government spends on AT, there is a ninefold return on investment in areas including better educational outcomes among younger users of AT, better paid employment and productivity among adult users, and the lessening of issues that are caused by aging, which in turn helps users stay in the workforce longer.
These factors allow significant increases in income for users, accelerating national-level economic growth. One study found that providing assistive technology for those who require it could yield more than $10 trillion in economic benefits over the next 55 years.
“This research was compelling, because it was the first time we had something numerical, that we could then go to governments and say: ‘Hey, listen. This is not just the right thing to do, … but it's also economically sound,’” Smith said. “It's smart from an economic perspective.”
The Paralympic Games’ Role Within Adaptive Sport
Professional sports for athletes with disabilities has existed for over a century, with some of the first sport clubs for the deaf dating to Berlin in the late 19th century. The Paralympic movement itself, though, started in the 1940s, soon after the end of World War II, as a large number of injured soldiers and civilians were disabled during battle.
Despite a significant legacy of improving access to sport for people with disabilities, the Paralympic Games are often treated as second best compared to the Olympics. Countries are criticized for devoting fewer resources to their Paralympic teams than their Olympic teams, and the quadrennial broadcast is exclusively on cable in many countries, whereas the Olympics are on broadcast television. Even the fact that the two events are still separate is indication of how the Olympics are valued more highly than the Paralympics.
While there are separate international organizing bodies for Olympic athletes and Paralympic athletes and an agreement in place to keep it that way through 2032, many have called for the events to be combined in order to put them on something closer to equal footing. Still, logistical challenges like athlete accommodations – not to mention cultural and economic differences – at a combined games lead others to believe keeping the two events separate is for the best.
The reality is that because the two organizations have separate governing bodies and separate ethos, they can never truly run parallel.
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is an independent entity and not a part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or any other organization. It has its separate goals and missions. The IOC’s motto for the Olympics is “Citius, Altius, Fortius - Communiter,” which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger - Together.” The “Together” was added last year, but it doesn’t change that the motto suggests that the goals of the Games is that athletes should push their bodies to the limit to achieve their athletic dreams.
On the other hand, the Paralympics motto of “Spirit in Motion” mirrors the IPC’s values of courage, determination, inspiration, and equality. The promotion of health and human rights for athletes with disabilities is much more at the forefront of the Paralympics.
With the Games under two different organizations, with two very separate missions, it is no wonder that, despite being initially created to be parallel, the Paralympics often “others” the disability community, which then causes a disparity in media attention and funding.
The little media visibility of professional para sports is often littered with stigmas and biases to the point of hindering any progress that the athletes are fighting for. This is important because, as with other issues from racialized police brutality to gendered pay disparities, sport can be a conduit for understanding social inequities. One interviewee in the study said the “organizing committee and marketing people really need to figure out how to make sure that the media pays equitable attention to both the Olympics and the Paralympics. Because the coverage of the Games are not the same, even though it’s NBC, they’re still not the same, ... and if that changes, we’ll see a real change in society. Because sports is a driver. It’s a driver of social change. It’s a really easy way to create social change because it’s super friendly.”
Still, the Paralympics being the only mainstream event representing parasports means that it’s one of the only ways those with disabilities can see athletes like them competing. Take soccer, for example – the world’s most popular sport. Those who are not disabled can see that the sport is played at a professional level, but several other skill levels are also available to those who want to compete. In the United Kingdom, English football is under a pyramid system, with a series of interconnected leagues that are run in a hierarchical system with promotion and relegation across all divisions. For men’s soccer, there are eight definitive levels, with over 140 individual leagues across the country. They vary from fully professional (such as The Premier League, the top level of the men's English football league system) to grassroots, meaning that a wide range of skill levels is on display. Women’s soccer in the country also has nine levels.
In recent years, there has been a push for more opportunities for people with disabilities to play the sport, with the country’s Football Association setting up soccer pan-disability leagues, cerebral palsy leagues, amputee leagues, blind leagues, and deaf leagues.
However, the accessibility to these leagues pales in comparison to the leagues for non-disabled athletes. No one expects a full-fledged pyramid league structure, but when cost, distance, and lack of leagues that accommodate certain disabilities are prevalent, there is an issue.
In Clarke’s view, the Paralympics “without a doubt play an important role,” and while it “is wonderful that the Games come around every four years, it is not enough for disabled people. If they want to play every week or twice a week, then they need more. They want to see more on television that isn't just a major event. There's still a huge number of impairments that are not covered by the Paralympics, and we cannot anchor everything on a major event every four years.”
The Paralympics being the sole major sporting event for people with disabilities also means that the possibilities and the uses for assistive technology are not fully explored. Smith said that it is a missed opportunity that the Paralympics are the only time people see people with disabilities using assistive technology, because it’ll mean that the perception will remain that such technology is only for elites, and only for high-performance sport, and that it's not actually meaningful for everyday sport.
“When people can see themselves represented from both perspectives, that's a much more powerful message than only seeing assistive technology in elite sport,” Smith said.
In casual sport, it is the accessibility shortcomings or the financial and healthcare barriers in adaptive sport that lead to a lack of participation. It can be the preconception and belief that people with disabilities cannot or should not be active as it is unproductive, a concept that is harmful to adaptive athletes or those who may become athletes in the future.
In professional sport, it can be how the Paralympics are portrayed, given that they are on display only every couple of years and that they do not cater their Games to certain disabilities. It is also the patronizing and ill-informed limited media portrayal that only shows the athletes as inspirational simply for a feel-good moment for viewers.
An interviewee in the GSI study laid out that there are standards on “what bodies are valuable and what bodies are not valuable, which is the essence of ableism.”
Ableist communities are created when they contain spaces that exclude or alienate people with disabilities. The issues that arose in the GSI study – the language we use, and the barriers to access and investment – all stem from ableism. To move beyond this, we must understand these problems in depth and champion change to help disprove the fallacies that are ingrained in disabled sport. Only then can we devise more inclusive sporting spaces.
The physical and social benefits of athletic competition are clear, but across the globe, many are still unable to enjoy them.
Can sport evolve to be more inclusive and adapt to the bodies, minds and circumstances of everyone who wants to play?