The right to sports for persons with disabilities
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In their annual debate on the rights of persons with disabilities UN Human Rights Council highlighted the importance of ensuring that persons with disabilities have equal access to sport.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) recognises the right of persons with disabilities (PWD) to engage in sport, play and recreation. However, this right is not always realised and PWD remain marginalised in terms of access to sport – and this is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, this year’s annual debate focused on the theme: “Participation in sport under article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”.

As noted by Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her opening statement, sport is a powerful tool, not just for individual health, wellbeing and leisure, but also as an avenue for inclusion. She noted that there is a need for athletes with disabilities to receive the same level of support as able-bodied athletes, in order for them to excel. Further, she noted that persons with disabilities should not only be athletes, but should be involved in other roles in the sporting world, including as organisers, referees, athletes, community leaders and even spectators.

Bachelet emphasized the need for including measurable and tangible targets of progress in achieving disability rights, and to ensure that appropriate efforts and resources are put towards this.

Panellists and debate

Panellists included Gerard Quinn, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities; Rita van Driel, Governing Board Member of the International Paralympic Committee; Jamie Cruz Juscamaita, a disabled athlete who is part of Inclusion International; and Bodour Almeer, Sustainability Director of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.

Quinn emphasized the personhood aspect that is enshrined in the CRPD, which recognizes that a person does not exist in isolation, but within a particular social context. In this regard, he noted that sport bridges interactions with other people, but also was an avenue of self-expression. He also noted that there are intersectional dimensions to disability that must not be ignored – for example, there is an under-representation of women and girls with disabilities in sport. Hence, efforts to make sport more inclusive for persons with disabilities must also consider the other barriers to access.

Juscamaita, a swimmer who has Down syndrome, gave the perspective of a disabled athlete, stating that it was important to ensure that able-bodied and disabled children were given opportunities to participate in sport and train together. He emphasised that training and playing sport separately only reinforced segregation between able-bodied people and people with disabilities. Only by breaking down these barriers can people dispel myths and challenge stereotypes.

Speaking on behalf of an organising committee for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, Almeer described the various ways in which the organisation was ensuring that its events were more inclusive. This includes dedicated tickets for fans with disabilities and limited mobility at major FIFA events, and that every volunteer and staff member supporting major football events in Qatar was receiving accessibility etiquette training. By taking such concrete steps, the committee is working with FIFA to ensure that the world’s largest sporting event is inclusive for all in 2022.

The floor was then opened up to other speakers for an interactive debate. Some of the points brought up included: gender-based structural exclusion of persons with disabilities; lack of reasonable accommodation and assistive devices; lack of funding and support for the participation of PWD in sport; the impact of COVID-19 on the rights of PWD; the exclusion of children with disabilities (especially girls) from sport, leading to adverse health outcomes, and violence against children with disabilities and the lack of statistics in this regard.

Speakers and panellists emphasized that states should raise awareness and take tangible actions to ensure that PWD can assert their rights and live life with dignity. They also noted that there is a need for a global cultural shift in policies and thinking to focus on ensuring that persons with disabilities are able to fully enjoy their human rights.

Want to know what action is being taken at ground level to ensure that grassroots and elite sport are inclusive of people with disabilities? Check out our 2020 call for articles on including persons with disabilities in sport.