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Removing barriers and bringing back the enjoyment factor in disability sport

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Removing barriers and bringing back the enjoyment factor in disability sport

A research study across three universities in UK found that one of the major barriers to sport and physical activity for persons with disability is the lack of the enjoyment factor, which can cause persons with disabilities to fixate on the difficulties of engaging, such as the cost and hassle of getting there.

Despite an increase in sport for development programs for persons with disabilities, participation rates remain low in Western nations. Research was conducted with three UK-based disability support organizations and their members to analyze the barriers to sport and physical activity for persons with disabilities. The findings highlighted that participation was hampered by a number of internal and external barriers, but many of these barriers acted as a pretext for a lack of enjoyment.

Research has repeatedly shown a number of physical, mental, and social wellbeing benefits of sport and physical activity for persons with disabilities, including maintaining a healthy weight, improved cardiorespiratory fitness, increased muscle-mass and bone density, reduced risk of chronic diseases, increased independence, and the creation and development of friendships and communities. 

Recognizing this, state agencies in many Western nations have placed emphasis on the improved participation of persons with disabilities in sport and physical activity. In the UK, for example, national government heavily invested public monies into a plethora of initiatives designed to promote an active lifestyle for this population group. 

Despite being more than halfway through the implementation period of this UK-wide strategy, only 47% of persons with disabilities, and 39% of persons with three or more impairments, are classed as being active, compared to 67% of persons with no disability. Further, 4-in-5 (81%) persons with disabilities say they would like to be more active, and only 2-in-5 (40%) feel they are given the opportunity to be as active as they would like to be. 

This situation is representative of many Western nations, with Australia reporting a 14.8% gap in sport and physical activity participation between persons with and without a disability and a difference of 27% in the Netherlands.  It is therefore important to understand what prevents or stimulates persons with disabilities to participate in sport and physical activity.

The research

In partnership with a UK-based local government and Active Partnership, semi-structured interviews with eight facilitators and focus groups with 24 persons with disabilities across three disability support organizations were conducted.  The aim was to a) provide rich and informative insights into the experience of and attitudes to sport and physical activity for persons with disabilities and b) offer practical suggestions for a more proactive and sustainable approach to sport and physical activity provision.  Further details about the research process and procedures can be found here

Barriers and challenges for persons with disabilities to sport and physical activity

The findings identified several reported barriers to sport and physical activity participation for persons with disabilities. This includes cost of transport and activities, ineffective communication and advertisement, preconceived images of sport as competitive and judgmental, and anxieties about sporting abilities. 

While none of these barriers should be underplayed, especially those caused by anxieties, perhaps the most significant barrier, and the main challenge for future provision, is that many persons with disabilities have not enjoyed, or perceive that they will not enjoy, partaking in sport and physical activity. 

This lack of enjoyment can cause persons with disabilities to fixate on the difficulties of engaging, such as the cost and hassle of getting there. Indeed, while persons with disabilities often raise these as barriers to sport and physical activity participation, they do not seem to prevent them from engaging in other leisure activities that they enjoy, such as frequenting cinemas and bars and restaurants.  Attempting to remove these reported barriers is fruitless unless sport and physical activity is first made more enjoyable.


The findings of this study have allowed for the generation of a number of suggestions for future practice. They include decentering ‘sport’ in favor of ‘activity’, within a multi-activity approach, which places emphasis on fun and enjoyment, and socializing through blended physical and non-physical provision. 

Providers should ensure they employ a knowledgeable and empathetic workforce, who also work more closely with non-sporting disability support organizations vis-a-vis communication, time and place, and the gradual integration of physical activities into the mainstream provision of these organizations. This latter point is especially important, because by delivering sport and physical activity in a familiar setting, where persons with disabilities already attend, many of the reported external barriers and anxieties are avoided.  While sport for development practitioners are encouraged to embrace the broad philosophy of these recommendations, they should be considered and implemented in light of the particular cultural context within which they reside.   

Less ‘sport’, more ‘activity’

Persons with disabilities are often worried about their own capabilities and sometimes perceive sport to be competitive and unforgiving. This image of sport may prevent some from engaging in physical activity. Therefore, sport for development providers might seek to promote ‘activity’ rather than ‘sport’ and aim to create a welcoming and non-judgmental environment

Multi-activity approach

Some persons with disabilities have never engaged in physical activity, or have limited, distant, and sometimes unpleasant memories of sport.  Because of this, they may not always know what physical activities they might enjoy or have a talent for. Therefore, providers and sport coaches might look to adopt a multi-activity approach to their programs to prevent boredom, increase engagement, and improve the likelihood that persons with disabilities maintain an active lifestyle.

It must be fun!

Persons with disabilities often feel that they will not enjoy sport or physical activity, and will look for any excuse not to do it. This means that sport for development providers may only have one chance to engage them and change their attitudes toward physical activity. Therefore, they must ensure that enjoyment is prioritized above all other agendas.  Fun must be at the heart of all provision!

Blended physical and non-physical activities

While persons with disabilities recognize the physical health benefits of exercise, many place greater emphasis on its qualities as an abettor to friendship-building and meaningful interactions. Therefore, providers and sport coaches might aim to more clearly acknowledge and cater for disabled people’s need for social wellbeing by including non-physical activities, such as coffee-drinking, lunches, and simply shared time with others in their physical activity provision

Knowledgeable workforce

Persons with disabilities sometimes worry that sport practitioners will not acknowledge their anxieties or be able to accommodate their needs. Therefore, providers might aim to ensure that sport coaches have received at least basic training in how to deliver sport and physical activity for persons with disabilities. Going forward, sport for development providers might also give training opportunities to (non-sport) facilitators to learn how to integrate sport and physical activity into their provision so they themselves might take on sustainable delivery in the future.

Gradual integration of disability sport and physical activity into mainstream disability support

For some persons with disabilities, their impairments and preconceptions about sport and physical activity often create anxieties. As a result, they simultaneously desire and fear the idea of engaging in disability sport and physical activity via established disability sport clubs or mixed non-disabled/disabled recreation clubs and activities.

Therefore, disability support organizations should endeavor to work more closely with sport for development providers in the first instance to include more opportunities and then to allow for gradual integration of sport and physical activity into their own provision.

Simplified advertising, better communication

Persons with disabilities are often unaware of the sport and physical activity opportunities available to them in their local area. This is in part because of a lack of communication between sport for development providers, government, and disability organizations about future and current provision.

It also seems to stem from the mode of advertisement adopted by providers, which may assume that everyone has embraced the digital age. However, persons with disabilities may lack the skills or confidence to use computers and access the internet, or simply do not know where to look online. 

Therefore, sport for development providers may need to better promote their activities using a variety of approaches, including communicating directly with disability organizations, producing ‘Easy Read’ flyers and posters, encouraging word-of-mouth, and ensuring that online information is easy to access.

Carefully considered time and place

Persons with disabilities may be anxious about going to new places, especially after dark. Many also find a lack of transport options and the cost of transport as a barrier to participation in sport and physical activity.

Therefore, sport for development providers might aim to take sport and physical activity out into the disabled community where possible, using spaces familiar to disabled groups (and, as suggested above, seek to incorporate provision into mainstream disability support going forward).

Alternatively, but perhaps less sustainably, providers may look to offer transport or subsidize transport costs, or if this is not feasible they should ensure that sport and physical activity is provided in a well-lit, well-known, safe location that is on a public transport route.

Dr Ben Ives is a Senior Lecturer in Community Sport and Community Sport Coaching in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. Ben uses qualitative research methods to analyze the impact and enactment of sport for development programs aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of targeted populations.

Dr Ben Clayton teaches sociocultural issues in sport and physical activity for the Centre for Human Performance, Exercise and Wellbeing at Buckinghamshire New University, UK. He has published widely on various topics related to the sociology of sport, sport development, sport policy, and interpretative methodologies for the study of sport and physical activity.

Dr Chris Mackintosh is a researcher with over 100 research and evaluation projects in his career to date.  Chris completed his PhD in English mass participation sport policy in 2016 and he has worked with policy stakeholders including Sport Scotland, Sport Wales, Sport England, The Equality and Human Rights Commission, FA, RFU, Rugby Football League and a number of local authorities on national strategies, and bespoke academic research projects.


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Ben Ives, Ben Clayton & Chris Mackintosh


Wednesday, November 25, 2020 - 18:57