If you followed sport over the summer of 2021, you may have been feeling inspired by the success of Team GB at the Paralympics. From Kadeena Cox’s phenomenal wins in para-cycling to Chris Skelley’s judo victory, there were some truly impressive, world-class performances throughout the competition.

However, disability sport means more than just the Paralympics and Invictus Games – there is also the Special Olympics for elite athletes with a learning disability.

And, better yet, there are a whole range of ways that any disabled person can get involved in sport – whether they want to progress to a competitive level or just enjoy the experience.

What’s in this article:

  1. The benefits of sport for disabled people
  2. How to get involved in disability sports
  3. How to increase participation in sport for disabled people
  4. Adaptive and inclusive sports for disabled people

The benefits of sport for disabled people

As with anyone, participating in sport can offer huge benefits for disabled people.

In addition to the universal products of exercise, such as physical fitness, flexibility, bone health, there can also be impacts that can be of particular benefit to disabled people – whether that’s managing a chronic physical condition or building confidence among individuals with learning disabilities.

Research has found that disabled people are four times as likely to feel chronically lonely, and sport can provide a fantastic opportunity to reduce social isolation and get involved in the local community.

Being active can also boost serotonin (the ‘happy’ chemical), help individuals to make friends and develop skills such as leadership, which can be vital particularly for young people entering the workplace.

How to get involved in disability sports

If you identify as disabled and would like to get more involved in sport, now is a great time to start your journey.

There are now more opportunities for disabled people of all ages and impairments to be active than ever before – you just need to know where to start.

So, here are a few pointers to get you started…

1. Find a local inclusive sport club

One of the best ways to get involved in disability sport is to look for a local community group that offers sports sessions for disabled people – or that is inclusive of all requirements.

You are bound to be welcomed with open arms: did you know that according to research by the Activity Alliance, 73 percent of non-disabled people say they are open to taking part in sport with disabled people?

Contact your local council to enquire about relevant opportunities, or visit the Parasport website, where you can simply enter your postcode and find a directory of clubs, sessions and facilities near you.

2. Look for inclusive versions of your favourite sport

Did you once play a sport, but had to stop due to a health condition? Or is there one particular sport that you’ve always wanted to try?

If so, the best place to start is to look up inclusive or adaptive provisions in your chosen sport.

For example, if you know you love netball, a good first port of call could be to contact the National Governing Body for the sport (in this case, England Netball if you are in England).

With a simple enquiry, any NGB will be able to direct you towards a group or session that will be able to cater to your requirements, and where you can experience the joys of your favourite sport.

3. Go online!

If you can’t find a sports session in your area that you would like to get involved with, fear not!

The Internet is an endless resource of activities, and you are guaranteed to find something you fancy trying, whether it’s an inclusive Zumba video on YouTube or a live adaptive sport Zoom session.

Disability Sports Coach, an inclusive sport charity based in London, runs several online inclusive sport sessions each week, from dance to boxing. They have also created a PDF resource called Active At Home, which provides fun, accessible exercises that you can try any time at home, with a range of adaptations for different impairments and needs.

How to increase participation in sport for disabled people

Unfortunately, whilst playing sport can reap significant benefits for disabled people, many face difficulties in participating in physical activity.

In fact, Sport England’s Active Lives Adult Survey found that disabled people in the UK are almost twice as likely to be physically inactive (43%), than non-disabled people (23%)

The good news, however, is that there is a real desire amongst disabled people to engage in sport more often.

According to the Activity Alliance’s Annual Disability and Activity Survey 2019-20, 81% of disabled people would like to be more active.

So, what’s the solution?

Well, the answer is varied. In the aforementioned survey, only two in five disabled respondents said they feel they are given the opportunity to be as active as they would like to be.

Catalysts of opportunity could be venues with accessible features such as wheelchair ramps, seated alternatives to activities, or affordable inclusive lessons in the local area.

Understanding barriers to participation

Whilst there are various approaches to increasing participation in sport among disabled people, at the foundation of every attempt to promote inclusion needs to be an understanding of the barriers that prevent disabled people from participating in the first place.

It isn’t just an individual’s impairment or condition that is a barrier to their involvement in sport – in fact, if we follow the social model of disability, we can see that it is actually society’s lack of provision for the full spectrum of needs that is the ‘disabling’ factor.

A wide range of deep-seated structural inequalities are at play in preventing equal access to sport, ranging from lack of social provisions and education to transport issues and economic barriers.

Did you know, for example, that a disabled person faces on average an additional £583 every month just for their cost of living?

Being aware of these barriers will allow us to appropriately focus our efforts on areas of need and tackle inequalities from the root.

Acknowledging diverse experiences

Another key factor in increasing participation for disabled people in sport is understanding the diversity of experiences among the community.

The term ‘disabled’ covers a very broad range of conditions, from physical impairments to learning disabilities and more.

In addition, there are a range of intersecting aspects of lived experience that can compound or influence how each person will interact with sport.

For example, it is widely acknowledged in research that women are less likely to be active than men – meaning that disabled women may face additional challenges in becoming active.

These details are all important to acknowledge when developing interventions to support disabled people to be more active, because what might help one person get involved will be very different to another.

If we commit to learning about this diversity of experience, we can avoid creating a one-size-fits all solution that fails to adequately address unique needs.

Tackling challenges collaboratively

When we come to the stage of building solutions, collaboration is key.

All too often, individuals and organisations respond to issues they care about by immediately creating programmes or projects – which is fantastic, and comes from all the right places – but can sometimes replicate already-existing efforts, resulting in a disjointed array of services.

The key thing here is collaboration – the more that organisations can work together to pool expertise, insight and resources, the more coherent – and, often, effective – the result.

So, whether you’re an individual with a knowledge of sport who would like to help disabled people get involved, or an organisation in the disability space looking to expand your work into physical activity provision, seek existing services in your area to partner with.

This way you will be able to reach more people and create an impactful, integrated solution to support disabled people to engage in sport.

Listening to disabled people’s experiences

At the very centre of all of these considerations is one thing: lived experience.

If we are not building ways to get disabled people active based on their own experiences – their challenges, aims and desires, then we are never truly going to know which areas are most pressing to address – or how the participants themselves will best engage with the sports provided.

So, we need to reach out to community networks of disabled people and ask them to share their experiences – find out what prevents them personally from engaging with sport as much as they would like to; to ask them which sports they are interested in trying, and what would help them to do so.

This is the essential building block to put in place when attempting to increase participation in sport for disabled people.

Creating safe spaces for disabled people in sport

Of course, above all of this, the most important step in helping disabled people to participate in sport is simply ensuring individuals feel welcome, safe and supported.

Creating welcoming spaces is about more than just inviting disabled people to sport sessions, it’s also about allowing the space for individuals to express their unique and sometimes changing needs, enjoy sport without fear of judgement, and provide feedback.

We all want to feel seen, heard and accepted – and this is all the more important for disabled people who so often face exclusion.

Coaches should be trained to let participants take activities at their own pace and make alterations to allow for continued enjoyment should any hurdles become apparent.

The more dynamic sports leaders can be in responding to a wide range of requirements, the easier it will be to make disabled people feel included – and encourage them to keep engaging.

Ultimately, the most effective way to get as many disabled people involved in sport is to offer a range of both adaptive and inclusive activities at all levels of expertise, from beginners grassroots sessions to competitive tournaments. However, this requires…

Investment in disability sports

You guessed it. Creating accessible facilities, adaptive sports equipment, inclusive activity programmes and more requires funding, and so for any of this to happen, investment is paramount.

And, considering that research has found every £1 of investment in grassroots sport yields £3 of social and economic benefit, it makes sense to invest in sports opportunities for the 43% of the 14.1 million disabled people who are currently inactive.

This August, the Government released their new National Disability Strategy, which promised to be “the single greatest focus and collaboration across government” in disability equality the UK has ever seen.

The Strategy promises wide-reaching investment in inclusive sport for disabled people, but many organisations feel we need to do more.

In a statement responding to the Strategy’s publication, Disability Sports Coach CEO, Peter Ackred, said, “it is clear that wide-reaching changes are needed in order to achieve social justice for disabled people.

However, this will require increased funding and an integrated effort across Government departments to support the organisations best placed to identify and tackle the barriers disabled people face.”

Adaptive and inclusive sports for disabled people

Generally-speaking, disability sports fall into two categories: adaptive and inclusive. Adaptive sports are those that have been designed with a particular group of participants in mind, whether that is for a specific physical impairment or learning disability.

A sport could be made adaptive by modifications to equipment, rules, structure, support, environment and many other factors. Adaptive sports include wheelchair basketball, seated bowling, blade racing, modified cycling and many more.

Inclusive sports, on the other hand, are designed so that disabled and non-disabled participants can play together, meaning that everything from facilities to equipment and programme content need to be appropriate for the broadest spectrum of people. Inclusive sports include Boccia, new age kurling, handball and others.

According to the Activity Alliance’s Disabled People’s Lifestyle Survey 2013, two thirds (64 per cent) of disabled people would prefer to take part in inclusive sport – playing with both disabled and non-disabled people.

However, these preferences will depend on various factors, including which sport individuals want to play, to what level of skill and in what kind of environment.

For more information on helping to increase participation in sport for disabled people, Sport England have published a guide, Mapping Disability, which provides a range of support, from explaining appropriate terminology to how to structure sessions for inclusivity.

The Paralympics is always an exciting moment in the sporting calendar. But disabled sport should be celebrated – and accessible – all year round. The opportunity to enjoy movement is just as fundamental to our daily lives as the ability to bathe safely and comfortably, or go shopping independently.

So, let’s all spread the word about the importance of inclusive sport so more people can enjoy its benefits every day!

Resources: Sport England, Activity Alliance, Parasport, We Are Undefeatable, Disability Sports Coach