Can we level the playing field?

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Elizabeth Morgan and Carina Taylor discuss ways of improving participation in sport for young people with disabilities

When the UK hosted the 2012 Paralympic Games it was seen as a turning point. There were record crowds, more athletes and countries taking part than ever before, and media coverage that spanned the globe.

Research by the Games’ organisers found that eight out of ten British adults believed that the Paralympics had a positive impact on the way people with an impairment were viewed by the public. A common view was that the Paralympic Games were about ability, not disability.

Five years on and we discovered that half of all disabled children do not feel comfortable taking part in sport. Last summer saw the publication of Sporting opportunities for children with disabilities: Is there a Level Playing Field? The report, commissioned by children’s charity Variety, identified two major barriers to participation in sport: social stigma and costs.

Sport doesn’t just have an impact on our bodies, it also impacts on mood and mental health, as Dr Miriam Stoppard’s comments on the Level Playing Field report stress: “The participation of children with disabilities in any physical activity can minimise the complications of immobility. Not only does it keep them physically and mentally fit, it also fosters independence, coping abilities and working with other team members.”

New challenges

Every year, more premature babies and more children with disabilities and complex conditions will survive. Many will have physical disabilities and we must provide appropriate challenges and the best sports coaching to help them become the respected athletes of tomorrow. We need to:

  • adapt the challenges; while long jump may be impossible for some, we can see how far a student can go in three seconds or with three pushes of their wheelchair
  • adapt the activities; sliding, weaving in and out of obstacles, and scrambling under and over equipment can all build body strength
  • think about different sports, such as new age curling, boccia, power chair football, archery and wheelchair basketball
  • look for alternative equipment; using a softball, a smaller or larger ball or having smaller teams can mean that students with limited mobility can be on the same team as their classmates
  • train as many staff as possible so they are confident in what they are doing and so that including young people with physical disabilities becomes the norm
  • make sure to reassess regularly because the capabilities of young people with spina bifida, muscular dystrophy and degenerative conditions can decline quite suddenly
  • develop an ethos that every child should try every sport.

Children with physical disabilities require more, not less, access to sport and physical exercise to build muscles and physical resilience and to maintain and improve core stability, which can be weakened by long spells in a wheelchair or bed. Many will benefit from physiotherapy to counteract a tendency to obesity and health problems.

If schools don’t encourage children to take up sport, many will be confined to a life of inactivity. Specialist staff, therapists, sports teachers and coaches, mainstream and special schools, parents and students all need to work together to prove that no activity is impossible.

Further information

Chadsgrove School is a specialist sports college in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. It has an outreach team that shares expertise with 110 other schools and three colleges: 
www.chadsgroveschool.org.uk


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