With the recent conclusion of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic and Olympic Games, now is a pertinent time to reflect on inclusivity and accessibility programs within Australia.
First, let’s consider a broad truth: that the benefits of sport and physical activity don’t discriminate.
Recently, the World Health Organisation released the 2020 updated physical activity guidelines (accessible here). For the first time, thankfully, these include specific guidelines for adults and children living with a disability.
Where possible, the WHO recommends the very same level of physical activity for those living with a disability as for those without. This is because, for all of us, the benefits of physical activity are the same: better fitness, physical health and longevity, improved mental health (reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression), improved cognitive health, better sleep, and so forth.
CEO of Disability Sports Australia, Jenni Cole, recently initiated some exceptional research (which you can read here) of more than 10,000 Australian adults with a disability. Her team found that a core problem is that a far greater percentage of people with a disability (54%) self-report not meeting physical activity guidelines when compared with those without (38%).
Where the core reasons for not meeting the optimal levels of physical activity for those without a disability are largely (reported to be) due to a lack of time, the reasons for adults living with a disability being less physically active are reported to be due to poor health and injury. The research conducted by Cole concluded that ‘adults with a disability are less physically active than adults without a disability, and that this is a discrepancy that requires urgent action globally.’
Unfortunately, this is further exacerbated by structural barriers that exclude those with disabilities from participating in sports. A recent paper by Dr Andrew Hammond (Essex University) and Dr Ruth Jeanes (Monash University), ‘despite [Paralympic pathways and other] policy measures, people with disabilities still report being marginalised and excluded from ‘mainstream’ sporting programmes.’
Toward Greater Inclusivity and Accessibility
Direction is always more important than speed. And thankfully, despite the problems outlined above, we’re slowly heading in the right direction.
At the (at least partially) Federally-funded level, Disability Sports Australia (DSA) is helping. As Australia’s peak sporting body for people with a disability participating in sport and recreation, DSA is designing and delivering Activate Inclusion Sports Days with partners around the country.
Incredible local initiatives are also having an impact on the ground, such as Future Pros Tennis Academy, which is encouraging children with physical or intellectual disabilities to participate in tennis. This is bolstered by the support of Tennis Australia’s Wheelchair Development Loan Scheme, which is helping provide wheelchairs with increased mobility for sport. Admirably, Tennis Australia lists its aim to be ‘that tennis reflects Australia’s diverse communities and people.’
State Governments, of course, also have a role to play and increasing the accessibility of outdoor areas for recreation acts as a beneficial complement to sporting initiatives. NSW National Parks, for instance, now offer wheelchair-accessible walking tracks and are able to provide TrailRider and Hippocampe all-terrain mobility wheelchairs for visitors at several national parks.
Initiatives at amateur and club levels, private initiatives, and public initiatives at a State and Federal level are all required to adequately address the issue of ableism, and its resulting, unfortunate exclusion of those with disabilities. To quote Dr. Ruth Jeanes once more, ‘greater priority needs to be given to transformational inclusion objectives and challenging ableism if clubs are to structurally progress the development of participation opportunities for young people with disabilities.’ The operative word here being structural. As with all isms, ableism needs to be addressed at a structural level, and it will take effort, time, and more funding for accessible sports and activities to reach the level those living with disabilities deserve.
Over a billion people (15% of the global population) are estimated to live with some form of disability. Moreover, this rate is expected to increase (due to an ageing population and an increase in chronic health conditions that can lead to disability).
Increased inclusivity and accessibility within Australian sports is a responsibility of companies, like iAccess Consultants, who are invested in the provision of increased accessibility and inclusion for those with disabilities. But at a broader level, inclusivity within sports is a social issue that straddles public health and ethics. Addressing such large social issues requires time, but change is often the result of seemingly small, but tangible change.
By addressing access to and inclusion in sport, we make society as a whole more healthy, more inclusive, and fairer.