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Disability in development: Where can sport make most difference?

Copyrights: Bem Agbatar

Disability in development: Where can sport make most difference?

Steve Harknett highlights that though sport for disability development programmes have usually focused on building elite para-sport and para athletes, the focus should instead move to a broader audience, to cater to the many and most marginalised.

Sport for development is distinguished from ‘sport for sport’s sake’ by its focus on broad, social impacts rather than having a narrow focus on the elite, talented few. This applies equally to sport for disability development.

It is unfortunate that disability sport programmes in developing countries with an elite para-sport focus are sometimes held up as sport for development, despite their relatively limited social benefits. Sport for development, like wider development programming, should strive to deliver outcomes (health, personal development, social inclusion, etc.) to the many, including those most left behind, in a sustainable, cost-effective way.

With this in mind this article highlights two areas which I consider to be priorities for sport for disability development: where disability sport can have great social impact in developing countries, but which have been relatively neglected to date, perhaps due to them falling outside of the para-sport focus.

Inclusive physical education in schools

School enrolment in primary schools in the Global South has risen dramatically in recent years (at least prior to COVID-19), due to decades of investment in this area. This includes a large percentage of children with disabilities, increasingly through inclusive education rather than special education provisions.

Improving PE in primary schools is, therefore, a cost-effective way of bringing the benefits of sport to a large percentage of children, including many of those with disabilities. Inclusive PE does not mean importing competitive para-sport into schools, which is frequently specialised and costly; instead, it involves improving PE methodology and PE teacher training, taking an individualised and adapted approach to help children reach their own personal development goals (skill mastery, self-confidence, physical and cognitive development, etc), rather than competitive sporting goals.

As well as helping children with disabilities, improved, child-centred and inclusive PE may succeed in including non-disabled children in sport perhaps for the first time, for example, by being a supportive space for those who are not good at sport, don’t like sport, children who are shy, obese, etc.

This is not to deny that there are and probably always will be children with disabilities who are not in school, for whom home-based and school-based sport and physical activity programmes will continue to be needed.

Sport and older people

Health problems such as obesity and hypertension, and associated disabilities, are becoming more prevalent across the global South. In many countries of the South, sport is seen as the preserve of children and youth, despite the popularity of so-called ‘sport for all’ campaigns.

Sport and physical activity can delay or prevent the onset of disability among middle-aged and older people, and can help mitigate the impact of disabling conditions. This can prolong working lives, reduce household expenditure on healthcare and the burden on households of caring for elderly members, and ease the strain on healthcare systems.

Sport, fitness and physical activity programmes for the middle-aged and older people are well-established in the Global North and it is now time for countries of the South to embrace this more seriously. This involves more provision for ‘Masters’ sports (for example, football and athletics leagues and events for the over 40s), promotion of adapted sports for older people (like walking football and football golf) and expansion of fitness programmes (like aerobics and chair exercises).

Sport can be used more effectively in the field of disability development by tackling such areas, rather than simply taking its lead from para-sport programmes.

Steve Harknett worked in disability in development in Uganda and Cambodia for 10 years, before moving into the sport for development space with international NGOs in Sri Lanka and sub-Saharan Africa. He currently works in community-building in deprived communities in a UK city.


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Wednesday, November 25, 2020 - 18:17

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