Last summer’s “legacy Games” promised much for disability sport. How is reality matching up to the hype?
“It has made people realise that athletes are athletes and people are people. It doesn’t matter if you’re Usain Bolt or in a wheelchair, we’re all people and everyone just wants to talk about the sport now”.
This was how Charles Walker of Great Britain’s sitting volleyball team, described the levelling effect of the 2012 Paralympics. Throughout the summer of 2012, people began to re-asses what they felt were achievable and desirable aspirations for young people with a disability in the UK.
The London-based games created some impressive new disabled sports icons, like British cyclist, Sarah Storey, whose multiple gold medals made her the most decorated Paralympian of all time, surpassing even the great Tanni Grey-Thompson. It was also the first time in 12 years that athletes with a learning disability were able to take part in the games, making them truly the most inclusive sports event the country has ever seen.
This new zest for competitive disabled sport had a transformative effect at a grass roots education level too, with students inspired to try new sports and activities at schools and colleges across the UK. There was plenty of home-grown talent to inspire them, as colleges and their facilities played their part in nurturing Paralympic talent. The GB blind football squad, for example, was based at the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC), where they prepared to take on the best in the world at the Paralympics.
But, six months on, it is easy to wonder whether the impact on young disabled people, who simply want to play more sport but are never going to be the next Sarah Storey, is sustainable. The Paralympians obviously fall into the elite bracket and their talents undoubtedly benefitted from being hot-housed in facilities that gained targeted Government funding at a time when the Games were in sight. It is probably unrealistic to imagine investment in disabled sport facilities will continue at such intensive levels, post Paralympics, especially at a time when public money is so scarce. So have the games left their legacy at an educational level?
The next generation
It could be argued that the promotion of inclusive sports like blind football and boccia, through the Paralympics, went some way to democratising sport by demystifying some of these games and elevating their status. Some independent and mainstream colleges with good facilities for disabled students have been playing these games to very high competitive levels for years, both nationally and internationally. But it was only with the advent of the 2012 Paralympics that the sports gained such a high mainstream profile. This, in itself, means that they are reaching a broader audience and will have a greater appeal, which should help to inspire the next generation of Paralympians and disabled sporting heroes. FE colleges must have a role to play in this as they feature in a young person’s life at a time when they are most likely to be learning what drives them on and what they will choose to be passionate about for the rest of their lives.
One such talent, nurtured through a college with good sports facilities, is Zac Day. Zac began studying at Portland College, an independent specialist college in Nottingham, aged 16. An acquired brain injury made it difficult for him to attend mainstream college due to short-term memory problems and complex cognitive difficulties. However, once at college, Zac soon found he excelled at football and also began playing wheelchair basketball, boccia and cricket, sports that he hadn’t had the opportunity or support to play before.
His football abilities were quickly spotted by Notts County and he was selected to be part of their pan-disability squad, competing throughout the East Midlands. He has since moved on to Loughborough College to further his qualifications in sport, and is perfectly placed to begin a successful career in sport.
Zac is part of a wave of young people taking advantage of a fuller range of sports options for disabled people at both specialist and mainstream colleges. This is good news because, as recently as 2001, a study by Sport England claimed that 62 per cent of disabled young people surveyed felt that they were left out of sport because of their disability.
Making it count
Capitalising on the increased profile of, and appetite for, disability sports, post Paralympics, is an important part of making the most of the Paralympic legacy for young people. With this in mind, many colleges have been working together on some inspirational inclusive sports projects that are relevant to both disabled and able-bodied students.
A project funded by Sports England – and piloted through Portland College, Royal National College for the Blind, Derwen College in Shropshire and Doncaster Communication College – involved collaboration between specialist colleges and ten mainstream colleges. The colleges worked closely together to draw up strategies and deliver workshops on how to make their sports facilities fully inclusive by adapting existing games and learning to play new ones. The process helped to demystify sports traditionally associated with disabled athletes, as well as promoting inclusion. The project showed how games played at the Paralympics can be adapted to be played fairly with mixed disabled and able-bodied teams. It gave many non-disabled and disabled students the chance to play together competitively for the first time.
For many young people with disabilities and SEN, the quality and diversity of the education and support they receive as part of their education can make the difference between simply learning the basic skills they need for daily life or enriching their curriculum by developing hobbies, talents and passions they will cherish throughout their lives. For young people with complex needs, the prerequisites of support and safe, specialised education that meets their needs must be in place before their talents can grow and flourish.
The recently published Children and Families Bill sets out some aspirational aims for young people with learning difficulties or disabilities and ratifies the need to make a full range of educational choice available to young people, their families and carers. In the absence of sufficient public funding to ensure that every disabled child has high quality inclusive sports facilities in their local community, it may often fall to schools and the FE sector, and those colleges that have achieved excellence and quality in their sports provision, to help identify, encourage and sustain the growing wealth of talent that we have amongst young disabled people in the UK.
Alison Boulton is the Chief Executive of the National Association of Specialist Colleges (Natspec):