Including persons with disability in sport
Ailis Malone's story underlines the power of inclusivity
Ailis has Down Syndrome but has never been treated any differently than anyone else by her team-mates and coaches at St. Rynagh’s Camogie club in Offaly. Given the same opportunities as everyone else, she has thrived.
These times of forced seclusion have only served to further underline the power of inclusion.
The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) has always been at the heart of communities in Ireland, but in recent years has endeavoured to be an even more inclusive organisation.
When a small bit of extra effort is made it can mean the world of difference to those who benefit from it, just ask the parents of Ailis Malone.
Ailis has Down Syndrome but has never been treated any differently than anyone else by her team-mates and coaches at St. Rynagh’s Camogie club in Offaly.
Given the same opportunities as everyone else, she has thrived.
“She loves camogie and has been well-supported by her club, St. Rynagh's,” says Ailis’ mother Petria.
“It's been a win-win for her. She's 12 now and has been playing for St. Rynagh's since she was four. She just loves to be with the team.
“One has to really measure it in terms of social inclusion. She's doing what all her peers are doing and all of them are from her school. She's just another girl on the team, she doesn't see herself any differently.
“Thankfully the coaching she has benefited from has been very good from day one in terms of keeping her included. The vital element is that she's doing what her peers are doing. She's building friendships, they know her, she knows them.”
Ailis and her St Rynagh’s team-mates recently got to experience what it is like to perform on the biggest stage of all when they played an exhibition match in Croke Park at half-time of the recent All-Ireland Club Finals.
“I think initially it was a bit overwhelming for her in terms of trying to understand why people around her were so excited about the whole day,” says Malone.
“Certainly, over the course of the day, she was delighted with the whole event and the opportunity to play on the big field.
“I was afraid she was going to become a little shy, but, no, she just jumped out there and was very courageous.”
On the back of her Croke Park debut, Offaly senior hurling team manager, Michael Fennelly, got in touch and invited Ailis to come to an Offaly training session to meet him and the players.
“I got a phone-call from Michael Fennelly the Offaly coach and I asked him why he even thought of doing something like this, and he just said he was really taken with the fact that she played in Croke Park and he thought it was important to bring her in and introduce her to the team as a means of really pushing inclusion and diversity,” says Malone.
“She was thrilled. She has a little photo-album from the day with the Offaly hurlers that she's been sharing with people as they come.
“She thought she was a superstar because everyone was so gracious. She said afterwards everyone was really nice to her and it was fun to 'meet the boys', as she put it.
“She got some good time pucking the ball around with them and really enjoyed herself.”
Many GAA clubs around the country are working hard to become more inclusive and encourage the participation of children with additional needs.
There’s still a lot more than can be done in that space, though, and Malone hopes an even greater ethos of inclusivity will enable more children like her daughter Ailis to experience the benefits of being able to play Gaelic games with their peers.
“I work for inclusion Ireland and I hear the other end from parents of children who are not included in, not just GAA, but in other areas and activities,” says Malone.
“I think it's important to offer the invitation. Oftentimes the doors are closed and barriers are put before parents frequently in terms of trying to get their children involved and when that happens they eventually get tired of always asking.
“I know it can be challenging to find coaches who are well enough trained yet, at the same time, even if it's one or two kids who get the opportunity to get to be involved within the context of a camp for all kids, then that's very valuable.
“There's learnings to be had on both sides and I think that can only happen when we include everyone.”
- This article was originally published on the Gaelic Atheltic Association website
Ellie Sheehy's 'pure passion' for wheelchair hurling
Ellie Sheehy has been playing wheelchair hurling for eight years now and loved it from the very first day - this is her story.
The photograph above this article is about as vivid an illustration of the power of sport that you can get.
Ellie Sheehy and Caroline O’Hanlon have just helped Munster to victory over Leinster after a nail-biting 2019 All-Ireland Wheelchair Hurling Final, and the emotion of the moment is just pouring out of them.
They’ve given huge commitment to a sport that has enriched their lives, so the feeling of satisfaction when the final whistle blew was immense.
“Yeah, there was a lot of emotion that day,” recalls Sheehy. “We play three seven-minute periods and we were down by two goals coming into the final third of the match.
“But we kept focused and kept our heads and kept reaching for our goals. Coming into the last two minutes we scored a penalty and there was high tension in the building.
“When the final whistle blew, myself and Caroline absolutely let our emotions out. We both have huge passion for it, so it meant so much to us both. We were all in tears after it, and that's because we have such a pure passion for the game.
“I had won All-Irelands in 2013 and 2014 but there was a big gap to my third All-Ireland so that made it all the more special. And for a lot of the team, it was their first All-Ireland.”
Sheehy and O’Hanlon were together again in Croke Park yesterday along with fellow wheelchair hurling players Edel Morrissey and Sarah Cregg to celebrate International Women’s Day 2020 with Conradh na Gaeilge as part of Seachtain na Gaeilge le Energia.
Equality is part of what makes wheelchair hurling such a great sport as far as Sheehy is concerned.
It’s not divided by gender – men and women play together on the same wheelchair hurling teams.
“It's a good part of the sport that you're not looked at as a girl, you're a team-mate,” says Sheehy.
“It's not a 16-year-old girl versus a 35-year-old man, it's two players fighting for a ball and looking for the next opportunity to win.
“You need to be willing to put yourself out there and be willing to play against fellas that are twice your size. You need to be willing to view everybody as a player rather than the person they are.
“You wouldn't want to be afraid of it! When you see a man who's twice your size coming head on for you then you've no choice but to give as good as you get.
“It's the love of the sport. There's always a small fear of getting injured but we're all probably immune to it really. We already know the worst that could happen and it can't get much worse!”
Sheehy, 16, was born with Spina Bifida so has been a wheelchair user all her life.
She’s playing wheelchair hurling for eight years now and loved it from the very first day.
“I was in primary school and my resource teacher had saw an ad for it in the local paper. My father and me decided to take a spin in one night and I've been in there ever since.
“I wouldn't have had very high expectations the first day I went to try it. I was an eight-year-old at the time so I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into either.
“But it was a great experience and for me and everybody else who has been there since Day One has really gotten hooked on the sport.
“Everybody who loves sport has a passion to go and achieve the highest that they can. I was an eight-year-old girl at the time, I was a smallie inside in a small chair who was tapping the ball around.
“But I just had a drive and want to keep going and that made me stick at it. Now I'm playing with older lads who are ten years my senior but I've no fears of going up against them.
“I always had the passion though. Even when I was too small to really get after the ball sometimes, I was still always going for it.
“The players who I started with I'm still playing with eight years on. You develop great bonds with people over time like that. We're always texting each other after matches and stuff like that.
“We've developed great friendships. That happens in every sport and wheelchair hurling is no exception.”
Sheehy describes her family as ‘very GAA-oriented’ so her achievements as a wheelchair hurler are a huge source of pride for them all.
It hasn’t just given her the opportunity to excel in sport, it’s enriched her life in all sorts of ways away from the game too and helped make her the person she is today.
“It's been huge in my life,” she says. “I've done interviews for different radio shows and I've won different awards and offered different opportunities that otherwise wouldn't have been available to me.
“I presented the sliotar at the All-Ireland Final replay in 2014 in Croke Park. It's just given me so many opportunities to achieve and set goals for myself.
“It really has improved my general life between school and home and everything and has just really brought me out of my shell.
“I’m the sort of person who'll salute you in the corridor or chat away to you for 20 minutes about whatever is on your mind.
“But being able to say that you play this sport and you've achieved this or that brings a whole new layer to the conversations you can have with people.
“Sport is such a huge part of everyone's life so it just opens up all sorts of doors to conversations you can have and brings something new to your life.
“There's opportunities for everyone out there. You just have to be willing to take that first step to achieve it.”
- This article was originally published on the Gaelic Atheltic Association website
Inclusivity as pro-body diversity in capoeira and youth sports
Santos Flores applies critical disability theory to the sport of capoeira, to understand what bodies are popularized in the sport and how to change these narratives of an ableist body.
The capoeira community has evolved as a complex Black expression, intertwining game, play, and martial arts. It has evolved as a unique approach to critical pedagogy, intentionally addressing race through critical consciousness, and pushing the boundaries of gender mindfulness. However, if you were to examine social media images and videos of capoeira, those that dominate our access, it would be common to assume that one must have a certain type of body to play or participate in capoeira.
These assumptions are not unique to Capoeira. In Capoeira, disabled youth capoeiristas have to follow the path of the master to be accepted, which gives disabled capoeiristas a position for increasing their social participation, as opposed to sports like youth boxing. Yet, these images persist, and are problematic in youth sports. However popular these assumptions are in the sporting society and in popular media, they must also be addressed for what they are: the social construction of the “ableist body.”
Critical disability theory (CDT) is a framework for the analysis of disability which centers disability and challenges the ableist assumptions which shape society, including sports. CDT's central theme is that disability is a social construct, not the inevitable result of the impairment. This suggest that disability in sports is a complex inter-relationship between impairment, an individual's response to that impairment and the physical, sporting institution and sporting attitude (together, the 'social') environment. The social disadvantage experienced by disabled people in sports is the result of the failure of the social environment to respond adequately to the diversity presented by disability.
The image of the “ableist body,” both within capoeira and generally in youth sports, illustrates the deep structural inequalities of our society, leading to a development of a popular “ableist body” image, which likely amplifies hegemonic expressions of power through idealized or idolized notions of gender, race, and ability. By extension, “ableist body” images in both capoeira and youth sports inadvertently prevent the broadest diversity of bodies from exploring capoeira and youth sports, preventing many from gaining the benefits of a lifelong pursuit of these.
Though practicing sport is a human right, the common practices in youth sports and Capoeira are both unconsciously discriminating against a diverse range of bodies. While a pro-body diversity sporting policy inherently requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play, many disabled people experience oppression by the failure of the sporting society and culture to live up to more inclusive social norms which can provide an experience of equality and justice.
To this point, principled and practical ways should be found to strengthen the diversity of bodies in sport, centering their voice for meaningful engagement. While human rights discourse itself is a powerful political tool for the advancement of the interests of disabled people, it may be better for sporting institutions to advance those interests beyond the application of policies into critical pedagogies.
A critical inclusivity of disability or of a pro-body diversity therefore should begin to:
(1) identify the sources of disability oppression within the sporting institutions, youth sports culture, and “ableist body” imagery, and by means of that exposure, seeks to relieve disabled people from that oppression
(2) identify the potential positive role of sports and seek to create policy and critical pedagogy to enlist sporting institutions in the struggle for the emancipation of disabled people.
The pedagogical implications should be that sporting culture, from youth sport coaches and Capoeira Masters, take the opportunity to dialogue about body differences, utilize adaptive sport activities within youth sports to educate youth on the diversity of able-bodiness, as well as expose students to amateur and professional athletes who disrupt conceptions of “able bodies.”
Santos Flores is doctoral student at UNC Greensboro’s Department of Kinesiology, concentrating on Community and Youth Sports Development (CYSD). He holds a Master’s in Peace and Conflict Studies, and a certificate in Cultural Foundations and Social Justice Education. He is currently a research assistant at UNCG’s Department of Peace and Conflict Studies and a student scholar at UNCG’s Institute for Community and Economic Engagement.
[This article has been edited by the Operating Team.]
Developing wheelchair tennis programs: Lessons from India
In 2008, Astha was set up, aimed at revolutionizing local communities to include PwD as both participating and contributing members. In 2016, they formed the Indian Wheelchair Tennis Tour. Learn about this journey.
I thank you for your efforts to conduct regular tournaments in India. These tournaments are helping me train to go play internationally.
-Mariyappan D, Wheelchair Tennis Player, India
Historically, persons with disabilities (PwD) in India have been a neglected majority within the country’s planning and development initiatives. While the country’s geographical and cultural diversity make implementation of policy an arduous task, a closer scrutiny of the ground realities reveal an array of gaps within the system that disallow PwD to be truly included within the very communities where they live.
When Astha was set up in 2008, our objectives were clear. We wanted to revolutionize local communities to include PwD as both participating and contributing members. Beyond creating programs themed around arts, sports and skill development, we designed projects that repeatedly brought everyone with and without disabilities together. Sports, education programs and efforts enabling Indians with disabilities to secure their voting rights form the bedrock of Astha’s work.
In 2015, when Astha wanted to improve wheelchair tennis opportunities for PwD in India, we discovered that no formalized structure existed for the sport in the country, despite the world governing body for sport, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) placing wheelchair tennis development under India’s national tennis body, the All India Tennis Association (AITA).
What started as an effort to create competition opportunities has today evolved into a powerful advocacy initiative that has finally pushed wheelchair tennis into the national tennis body’s development program plan. In October 2020, AITA announced a wheelchair tennis development committee for the first time in the history of tennis in India. This was a direct result of our relentless advocacy efforts that were, in the past, met with resistance from the national governing body.
The Indian Wheelchair Tennis Tour (IWTT) is an Astha initiative that began in 2016 and, since then, has increased wheelchair tennis programming in multiple states of India. In 2016, 27 players competed in the inaugural open that was hosted in Bengaluru, Karnataka state. In 2019, the tour hosted 83 players at its three open tournaments that were held in Hyderabad, Chennai and Bengaluru.
Through its advocacy efforts, IWTT has, since its inception, successfully retained an approved tour status from AITA. While not a federation, IWTT practically is the only initiative in India that binds all the country’s wheelchair tennis players together as a community. Today, 21 women players compete in the IWTT circuit and the numbers are growing with each passing day. 12 junior players train in a junior’s training program in Anantapur’s Rural Development Trust (RDT) that is run in collaboration, with IWTT serving as a knowledge partner for the program.
Over the last four years, with the help of corporate sponsors and community led efforts, IWTT has raised and effectively utilized USD 125,000 directly for wheelchair tennis programming in India. For a new sport being developed, funding of this magnitude was not readily available in India. Four years later, today, there is still reduced knowledge about disability sport initiatives in India. However, as we grow, we observe that more Indians are learning about the sport through our social media conversations and awareness campaigns, and this is aiding to increase participation from the communities in form of volunteerism and financial support.
Over the years, working to create wheelchair tennis opportunities in India has taught us many new aspects of program development for PwD in India. We have learnt that:
- Indians with disabilities are excited to explore new sport opportunities
- Creating social projects involving disability sport does not always need domain specific experts
- Local community support is critical to develop sustainable programming
Inaccessible tennis facilities, tennis professionals with little to no knowledge about wheelchair tennis training, and sport sponsorship opportunities that look for immediate results in the form of improved brand visibility for their product or service have been our major hurdles to cross as we inch forward.
Use of ‘active chairs’ as a mobility aid is a relatively new concept within India’s physically disabled communities. With this, acceptance of wheelchair tennis as a sport for recreation or competition goals is impacted. For Indians with physical disabilities, like polio survivors whose movement is restricted because of inaccessible environments, using an active chair for daily activities is an impractical choice.
Even today, floor walking using upper arms and extensive usage of shoulder crutches are dominant choices for movement among many Indians. Thanks to social media, the past decade has ushered into India, media content that shows the usage of active chairs as a beneficial choice for movement for PwD.
While more Indians who take up this sport desire for a dignified means of movement, like using active chairs, architectural barriers make it harder for them to pursue the idea within the communities where they live. Like any other wheelchair sports, mastering wheelchair tennis is also dependent on acquiring superior agility skills in a sport wheelchair. For many Indians who don’t use active chairs daily, this is a challenge that needs to be addressed first.
To address this challenge, IWTT continues to raise awareness for improved accessibility within India. We also engage in active dialogue with Indian companies that can manufacture affordable active and sport chairs in India which can be easily transported on two wheelers and in public transport also.
Beyond the tennis courts, IWTT focuses its efforts on creating learning opportunities for players to train in English and other job ready skills. While being sensitive to the linguistic diversity of the players, we also recognize that learning English as an additional language will empower them to seek gainful employment in today’s India.
Beyond that, we also observed improved communications among the player community beyond their own state. Rooted in Astha’s mission to empower every person with disability to lead a life of complete participation and contribution, off-court projects of IWTT are centred around ensuring our players are able to pursue competition and recreational opportunities within the sport independently.
As we set our eyes on Paris 2024, where we want to see Indian players at the Paralympics, we are aware of the battles we must win on the home front to make India’s tennis ecosystem truly inclusive.
Sunil Jain is a Chartered Accountant and Founder of the Indian Wheelchair Tennis Tour (IWTT). He is also a polio survivor from the age of two years. He is a resident of Bengaluru.
SriPadmini Chennapragada is a disability sport researcher from Hyderabad, India. She works as a Program Director for IWTT.
A match point for inclusion
Balakrishna and Shankar are not just student and coach - they have a friendship built on trust and humour. Learn about their stories.
“Balakrishna has always been eager to learn and during the training, he has always listened attentively to all the advice I gave. But when he is on court playing a match, it’s like the world around him disappears and his eyes are glued only to the shuttle. He won’t listen to a word the coach says and just trusts his instincts – this could be the quality that has helped Balakrishna be the exceptional sportsperson he is,” says Shankar, a coach at the Rural Development Trust (RDT) Special Olympics Centre – the only centre affiliated with Special Olympics Bharat in Andhra Pradesh, India.
At the age of 13, Balakrishna started living at the RDT Centre for Children with Intellectual Disabilities, where he was provided with therapy and rehabilitation. Having gained interest in sports there, he was identified for further training for the Special Olympics. He started training professionally in various sports like badminton, basketball, volleyball and handball, with the help of his coaches.
Within a year, he was selected to represent India in the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Australia (2013) where he bagged two medals each in singles and doubles badminton. From there on, he was unstoppable, and has earned numerous accolades in state and national-level tournaments in all four sports. He won medals for India again in badminton at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in the USA (2015). Recently, he was invited to a tournament in Spain.
According to his coach, Shankar, Balakrishna’s journey has been transformative. Shankar remembers his initial time at the Special Olympics centre: “His parents were not willing to admit him to the centre. Being daily wage labourers, they lacked the resources as well as awareness about his disabilities. They were apprehensive about whether he would manage living alone, if he would be treated well, etc. But his elder sister did her own research into his condition and the centre, and convinced their parents. From being a shy and nervous kid who couldn’t walk straight or stop drooling, Balakrishna has grown to be a confident man who speaks courageously to anyone and everyone,” states Shankar with a wide smile.
Interestingly, like his student, Shankar’s own journey has been profound. Being the son of agricultural labourers from a small village in Ananthapuramu district, his parents could not support his higher education, because of which he had to drop-out after grade 12, so that he could contribute to the family income.
All throughout, his desire to study further was strong. “I approached Moncho sir, the Programme Director of RDT and with the support of the organisation, I completed my bachelor’s and later my Master’s in Physical Education,” says Shankar. He was appointed as a physical educator in a government school and joined RDT as a Special Olympics trainer in 2011.
Cricket was one thing that the young and old in his village were obsessed with. The sport opened his avenues to numerous opportunities, including playing in different leagues, a chance to tour in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as a part of the Indian B cricket team, improving the financial stability of his family. He also travelled to every state in India for further training. He has also been to 10 countries, and climbed Mount Kilimajaro in Tanzania.
But it is coaching children with disabilities at the RDT Special Olympics Centre that gives him immense joy. “I believe in teaching with genuine care and empathy, as those are most helpful in building trust with the students. I am always in awe of their abilities, as they outdo themselves every time. They have won accolades at almost every tournament they have played in, so watching them on the podium receiving medals and applause fills me with pride,” shares Shankar.
More than just coach and student
Having joined the centre at its beginning, the journeys of Balakrishna and Shankar have moved parallelly in growth and change in their personal lives. Their relationship transcends the boundaries of a coach and student, to be one of a friendship built on trust and “lots of humour,” like Shankar says. This opinion is reflected in Balakrishna’s confidence in his coach: “He’s my friend and close confidante. We play, fight, argue, but nothing changes between us.”
Recently, Balakrishna was appointed as an Assistant Coach at the centre where he once trained at. He has dedicated himself to build the confidence and trust, that he and Shankar have achieved through sports, with the other children - children that, like him, join the centre shy and scared, but have a chance at honing their potential and build a better life for themselves. “Balakrishna is a role model to the other children. The patience, care and confidence with which he approaches them is admirable,” remarks Shankar. “He applies and follows the coaching techniques that he has learnt during his travels and competitions all around India and abroad. And that is what really makes a difference”.
RDT (Rural Development Trust) is an NGO committed to the progress of vulnerable and disadvantaged communities in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, in Southern India. Since its inception in 1969, the organisation has endeavoured to improve the quality of life of the rural poor, with a particular emphasis on women, children and people with disabilities. It has progressively implemented comprehensive development programmes involving all areas of development.
Felita Viegas is the Communications Officer at RDT.
Tahiya Tarannum S works in the communications office at RDT.
The Indian Blind Football Federation
In 2016, the Indian Blind Football Federation (IBFF) was formed, to provide a bedrock for the sport and spread it across the country.
The Gangetic dolphin is a species of dolphin that is indigenous to a portion of the river Ganga, India. The dolphins are blind, utilising sonar to navigate the water. These river dolphins are the national aquatic mammal of India. It is from them that the Indian blind football team gets its namesake, ‘Blue Dolphins’.
However, ironically, a primary challenge facing this endangered species is a problem that is hindering the growth of blind football as well – a complete lack of awareness of the matter at all levels. The very mention of words “blind football” in India is invariably met with the response: "but how can they even do it?". This was the same question that Sunil J. Mathew found himself asking years ago after witnessing a blind person running up to a football and kicking it.
With this in mind, he began researching and slowly getting involved in promoting blind football in the country. He formed the Indian Blind Football Federation (IBFF) in 2016. The goals of the IBFF are to provide a bedrock for the sport and spread it across the country.
IBFF is promoted by The Society for Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged (SRVC), a non-governmental organisation which works for the upliftment of the Visually Challenged (VC) community. SRVC was formed by M.C. Roy and Sunil J. Mathew in 2002.
IBFF is recognized by the Indian Blind Sports Association (IBSA), the Paralympic Committee of India (NPC of India) and All India Football Federation (National FA). The Indian National Men’s team is ranked 28th in the world and finished 5th in the last Asian Championship.
Tackling the issue of lack of awareness of the Blind Football across the country is a primary goal for the IBFF. However, IBFF goes a step further by addressing an often-neglected aspect of sport development in general. That is, the insufficient initiative to create avenues for players to be self-reliant, independent of what the sport in itself can provide. This is often seen as a barrier to so many aspirants of the sport. The team at IBFF hopes to tackle this at the outset. The IBFF subscribes to the idea that sport can and should be utilized as a tool for social development. They promote the idea that sport has the power to change lives and act as a social catalyst
The IBFF sets an example in the field of sports development by emphasizing player development on and off the field. In September 2017, IBFF started the Blind Football Academy (the only para sports academy in-state) in Kochi, India. Alongside the football aspect, the academy also offers vocational skill training to players to help support themselves beyond the sport. VC players are trained to be job-ready by taking advantage of current technological solutions. This allows them to be self-sufficient and seek employment in multiple fields. This training helps to level the playing ground for the VC community to enter the job market and showcase the sporting abilities of the differently abled.
Since its inception in 2016, IBFF has been constantly striving to make blind football accessible to the VC community. Today the game is played among more than 500 male footballers and around 30 female footballers across the country. We plan to develop a league system, a partially sighted futsal program and a women’s team for the 2021 World Championship as well.
IBFF has changed the norms for what sports development can be. IBFF does more than just try to create an environment for VC individuals to play football. It demonstrates how sports development can be a powerful way to facilitate an inclusive social atmosphere for the entire VC community.
Avram John Neroth is a volunteer with the IBFF.
Sunil J. Mathew is the Sporting Director and Head Coach at IBFF.
European policies to promote inclusion of persons with disabilities in sport: The Erasmus programme opportunity
The Erasmus+ Sport programme provides funding to sport for development policies, and is striving to ensure that the projects they fund are not only inclusive, but also focus on the rights of and opportunities for disabled women, who are doubly discriminated against.
There are around 80 million people with some form of disability in Europe, representing 15% of the European. People with these functional characteristics face different discriminatory barriers, mostly related to accessing education, employment and social protection, which are already widely identified but far from being solved.
Through an inclusive approach, the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (United Nations, 2006) highlights the need for people with disabilities to be able to participate in recreational or sporting activities on equal terms with the rest of the population.
In the same way, the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 encourages the planning and adoption of political and technical measures to enable the full and satisfactory participation of persons with disabilities across the different strata of the society, including the context of sports.
In line with these policies and following the integration of sport in the European Union’s areas of competence, the White Paper on Sport (European Commission, 2007) highlights different measures to be taken, by the Union and the member states, in order to use sport as a tool for the promotion of social inclusion and equal opportunities for different minorities, such as persons with disabilities. This position and these guidelines reinforce the “European dimension of sport” perspective, its values and possible pathways.
Following this umbrella policy, different initiatives have been taking place regarding the development of the social function of sport. Among these initiatives, the integration of sports within the Erasmus programme must be given particular importance.
This programme, started in 1987 to provide mobility between countries to higher education students, has broadly expanded its areas of intervention and target audiences, sport being included in the 2014-2020 period as a specific action (known as Erasmus+ Sport) and then equally distributed between the three key-actions - mobility, strategic partnership and support to policy reform - of the programme for the 2021-2027 period.
In line with the social function of sports area, as noted in the White Paper on Sport, Erasmus+ Sport for 2014-2020 aimed to:
- Tackle cross-border threats to the integrity of sport, such as doping, match fixing and violence, as well as all kinds of intolerance and discrimination
- Promote and support good governance in sport and dual careers of athletes
- Promote voluntary activities in sport, together with social inclusion, equal opportunities and awareness of the importance of health-enhancing physical activity, through increased participation in, and equal access to sport for all
Between 2014 and 2020 there were a total of 1200 Erasmus+ Sport projects approved for funding. Among these, 163 projects were/are fully or partially targeting persons with disabilities, which highlights the relevance of this topic within the Erasmus programme and the European policies.
Even considering the positive number of Erasmus+ Sport projects approved to promote the topic of inclusion of persons with disabilities in sport, only 3 of these focus on the issue of gender equality within this specific population, and none of these specifically looks at disabled women as their main project target-audience.
This so called “double discrimination” faced by disabled women is an issue also widely identified, but it is even more far from being solved than the discrimination faced by disabled men, which means that this issue can be considered a key topic to be addressed in future proposals.
The next Erasmus period of 2021-2027 is expected that a total funding of close to 550 million euros which will be allocated to sports projects (this amount represents more than the double of the 260 million euros budgeted for 2014-2020). This makes the programme a highly significant opportunity for different European organizations that work in sport and persons with disabilities, and with girls and women with disabilities, to secure funding for their programs. This opportunity becomes even more relevant due to the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on a global level.
Through the participation in European projects, beneficiary organizations would be able to implement programs that are aligned with the different European policies and guidelines regarding the persons with disabilities. This way, and through sport, they will have the resources to effectively contribute and work on the development towards a more equitable society and a more inclusive citizenship, thus contributing to the development of the intended European dimension of sport.
However, it is very important to remark that, despite being a European programme, organizations from countries outside the Union and outside European territories are also eligible to participate and to be involved in these Erasmus projects. Thus, the programme is not only an important opportunity for European organizations who work with persons with disabilities, but it is an interesting opportunity for organizations from all over the world.
This text is an adapted and shorter version of a text previously published in the “Invictus – Viseu” newsletter last May 2020, which was focused on the presentation of the Erasmus programme opportunity to the Portuguese sport organizations that work with persons with disabilities.
Bruno Avelar Rosa, Anna Macià and Jordi Pinillos are part of the Qantara Sports team
The Hellenic Paralympic Committee
The Hellenic Paralympic Committee has been working with disabled refugees, as a tool for their successful social inclusion into their host society.
Para sports and physical activity can be extremely valuable not only for participants’ physical and mental health, but also in the context of their social inclusion and integration.
In Greece, the Hellenic Paralympic Committee (HPC) has been using sports as an integration activity for refugees with disabilities. HPC started a pilot program in 2016, which, among others, led to the participation of one refugee athlete with disability in Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Since then, the Hellenic Paralympic Committee has organized several programs that have resulted in the inclusion of 25 refugees with disabilities in Paralympic sports.
The first program started with the support of the Agitos Foundation and the International Paralympic Committee back in 2016. This was then followed by the STEADY (Sport as a Tool of Empowerment of dis-Abled Displaced Youth) Project (2019-2021) funded by the Erasmus+ Sport program of the European Commission as well as the RePower (Refugee Power) Project, in partnership with Equal Society under the Active Citizens’ Fund.
The three projects share the vision of increasing sports participation of displaced youth with disabilities by promoting volunteering and equal access of refugees and asylum seekers to organized and grassroots sport. In doing so, they focus on raising para sport awareness in the refugee community, changing the paradigm and moving refuges with disabilities from the margins to become integral members of the sporting community.
Including individuals with disabilities in sports is a challenge which becomes even bigger when these individuals are refugees. Besides the disability itself, additional barriers detected in our projects include language difficulties, mental stress, discrimination and intolerance. Gender restrictions, mostly due to cultural or religious reasons, has also been identified as a major barrier for women.
Lack of existing synergies and networking between sport organizations/federations and refugee related NGOs is also a challenge. Over the past few years, the Hellenic Paralympic Committee and its partners have gathered useful experience regarding these challenges and the course of action required for the best possible outcome.
Some of these barriers were a challenge to overcome. Working closely with our European partners presented the opportunity to discover common ground and shape the methods and activities of the programs in a way that would be most beneficial for the inclusion of refugees with disabilities, including:
- Cooperation and network building with NGOs, government and sports federations
- Incentives for sports clubs and federations to include refugees with disabilities in their program
- Sports activities in refugee camps in order to avoid coordination issues, like providing transportation to and from sport venues
- Changes in the legal framework in order to encourage sport organizations to invite and include refugees with disabilities in sports
- Promotion of the participation of displaced youth with disabilities in team sports in order to enhance their opportunities for social inclusion
- Talks by refugee athletes with disabilities, Paralympians and members of the Paralympic Refugee Team in camps to inspire refugees to engage in sports
- Promotion of building networks between organizations that work with governmental departments and sports organizations
- Engaging female coaches and administrators to reach out to the women refugees
- Training of specialists working in the field, coaches, social scientists, journalists
Refugees and asylum seekers with disabilities represent an invisible group of individuals who are forced to leave their countries in disadvantaged situations; but this is a challenge that calls the European Union and its member states to take responsibility and action. Para sports offer the unique ability to transcend the linguistic, cultural and social barriers and are an excellent platform for strategies of inclusion and adaptation. The universal popularity of sport and its physical, social and economic development benefits make it an ideal tool for fostering the well-being of persons with disabilities.
Vassilis Kalyvas (PhD) is the Sport & Education Manager of the Hellenic Paralympic Committee. He has extensive experience in designing inclusive programs that use Paralympic Sports as a tool of empowerment and inclusion.
Making sport accessible for all: Perspectives from Guatemala
United Play International is striving to make the sporting world more accessible for all. Juan Diego and Natalia Mosquera report from their programs in Guatemala.
The world is already a challenging place for people – now imagine not having a leg, not being able to understand what someone is trying to teach you, or not being able to communicate your feelings and thoughts.
As stated by the WHO in 2019, 15% of the people in the world have some disability, and face daily challenges and difficulties in life. They also face discrimination, lack of motivation, an inaccessible world and limited opportunities to succeed.
At United Play International, we believe sport has the power to change this perception that people have about disability and can make people with disabilities believe in a better future for themselves. Currently, not many sporting organizations include sport for people with disabilities. The sport for development sector should strive to provide more inclusive programming and better opportunities, yet we do not see such changes being made.
Our story of success and motivation
My name is Juan Diego, and I was born with the congenital absence of my fibula; hence, I wear a prosthetic on my right leg. Thanks to the support of my parents and because they involved me in sport since I was little, I overcame my disability throughout sport. I have lived the power of sport, and I am sure I would not be the person I am today without sport playing such a pivotal role in my life.
I compete in Basque Pelota, a lesser known sport in the world. In fact, there is no category for people with disabilities in this sport, and so I compete against able-bodied participants. This motivates me, because I know that if people with disabilities, like me, want something, with effort and sacrifice we can achieve it. We can then also become role models, not only for people with disabilities, but for all people. We can then leverage this power that sport has on people with disabilities to create a larger impact in our communities, leading by example.
We can encourage sport for development organizations to become more inclusive, as United Play is doing. We are an organization that is committed to providing free and easily accessible resources to sport advocates (teachers, coaches and community activists) working to make sport more inclusive at the ground level.
Initially, our manuals and resources were not adapted to be inclusive for people with disabilities. Hence, we created our inclusion project, in which we are adapting all our games and activities in the manuals, adding modifications so that people with disabilities can also participate.
In this project, we will also train community leaders on disability and inclusion, so that they have the tools to improve their communities and manage the delivery of these adapted activities. To ensure that our work is relevant, we have created a monitoring tool that can collect data on the improvements made by the participants.
While significant change and impact might be far away, we know that by leading by example and motivating people, with the correct tools and education, we are changing the world, a little at a time.
Juan Diego Blas is the Head of Sport for Social Development at the Guatemalan Olympic Committee and the Co-Founder of United Play International. He has a Master’s degree in Sport Organizations Management. He is also an athlete of Basque Pelota and a United Nations Youth Leader.
Natalia Mosquera is the Executive Director of United Play Guatemala, and a volunteer at Special Olympics Guatemala. She has a postgraduate in Social Development and Peacebuilding through Sports.
[This article has been edited by the Operating Team.]
Inclusive sports for development: Improving social participation and education of children with disabilities in Bangladesh
An organization in Bangladesh has implemented an inclusive sport for development project in Bangladesh, aimed at promoting the social participation and access to inclusive education for children with disabilities.
Handicap International - Humanity & Inclusion (HI), Bangladesh, started their inclusive sports programming in 2006, and continues this work in both development and humanitarian contexts.
From 2018 to 2020 HI Bangladesh implemented an inclusive sport for development project in Mymensing and Tangail districts of Bangladesh, funded by the UEFA Foundation. The main objective of this project was to promote social participation and access to inclusive education of children with disabilities through participation in inclusive sports activities.
Key elements of HI’s approach
In all its projects, HI uses the twin track approach, in line with the Disability Creation Process, which sees disability as a complex interaction between personal factors, environmental factors and life habits. The inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream sports requires cultivating and applying inclusive practices at all levels, rather than concentrating solely on a child’s impairment.
As such, inclusive sports work requires the twin track approach where the individual needs of children with disabilities are addressed at the same time as addressing societal, legal, and economic and health barriers to sports. The key elements of this approach are:
- An inclusive approach: ‘inclusive sports for development’ refers to activities where persons of different abilities, gender, age, ethnical backgrounds, etc. participate in the same activity, with the objective to increase social participation, social cohesion, other specific objectives depending on the project, and of course, to have fun
- A child-centered and participatory approach: centered on the needs and rights of individual children and young persons with disabilities and the communities in which they live, aimed at maximal participation of children throughout the project cycle (e.g. children’s clubs, child-led monitoring committees)
- A partnership approach: including both grassroots and institutional partners who should be actively engaged in the design and planning phase through to implementation and evaluation
- A multi-sector and multi-stakeholder approach: collaboration across government bodies, ministries, public bodies, informal groups, and private and specialized sectors
Lessons learned and recommendations
- Inclusive sports for increased awareness of disability and inclusion
This project confirmed the important role of inclusive sports for increased awareness of disability and inclusion. For example, parents involved in the project are now taking their children with disabilities to sports and other social events, and children with disabilities shared that they are bullied and teased less at school and in the community. It remains important, however, to create a solid understanding on the positive change inclusive sports for development can bring.
- Sustainability: the importance of working with local partners and investing in strengthening local organizations
During the project, many partnerships were established between local NGOs, the National Foundation for Development of the Disabled Persons (JPUF), the department of social services, the department of youth and sports, private eye and ear care centers, assistive device workshops, etc. There are better linkages with the national football and cricket players, and the government is providing spaces and free lands to set up sports clubs. However, for a next phase it is recommended to invest even more in strengthening of Organizations of Persons with Disabilities (OPD’s) and on the coordination between the different stakeholders.
- Linking inclusive sports and inclusive education
The inclusive sports activities were closely linked with the objective of increased participation in inclusive education. As a result of this:
- Classrooms are more accessible with adjusted seating arrangements, allowing adequate space for the children using wheelchairs, and encouraging children with visual and hearing impairments to sit in the front
- Interactive learning environment have been created by using locally-made accessible education materials
- Evaluation systems have been modified and made flexible for children with disabilities
- Interventions are customized, as identified through the individualized education plan (IEP)
- Child-centered vulnerability mapping is an effective tool for participatory risk mitigation including protection and safety in schools
- School teachers spend extra time for slow learners, and welcome children with disabilities in admissions
- Sport coaches, including teachers, are continuing the organization of activities
- The importance of comprehensive child and caregiver support
Some children and their families, especially children with intellectual, more severe, or multiple disabilities, might need social support. It is, therefore, important to invest in caregiver support in the form of training, with adequate social support services and well-coordinated case management and referral mechanisms.
It is also important to make the link with financial barriers to access these services (transports costs, medication, assistive devices, etc.), and to foresee this as part of the project, by giving referrals to existing social protection programmes or by including a social fund as part of the project.
- “Child to child” support system
During the inclusive sports activities and in the classroom, children with different abilities were encouraged to support each other. The children received training and were carefully matched with the support of sport coaches. This resulted in increased awareness of disability and the concept of inclusion, and contributed to greater social participation, not only during activities, but also outside of them.
Ripon Chakraborty is the Technical Advisor of Inclusion at HI Bangladesh.
Stacey Zevenbergen is the Social Development Global Specialist at HI.