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DISABILITY AND SPORT

Dr. Savvas Millios

Sport for athletes with impairment has existed for more than 100 years. There is evidence of people with a disability participating in sport as early as the 18th and 19th centuries and sport activities were instrumental in the rehabilitation of people with impairment. World War II had a significant impact on the development of disability sport and during the rehabilitation of injured war veterans, the Paralympic Games were born. In 1944, Sir Ludwig Guttmann organized a sports competition for World War II veterans with spinal cord injury in Stoke Mandeville, England. By 1948 this had quickly developed into the first Stoke Mandeville Games, which were the precursor to the Paralympic Games.

As a result the sport movement for individuals with disabilities has changed dramatically over the last 50 years with even more changes ahead. Beyond sport for rehabilitation or therapeutic reasons more and more individuals with disabilities of all ages (especially youth) find interest in participating in physical activity, recreational or competitive sport. Sport programs and opportunities worldwide have increased in scope and number as well. In many countries, opportunities for people with a disability exist at the grassroots level through to elite competition to showcase their abilities in the domain of sport and physical activity. Public awareness has increased. In short, sport has become a viable option for individuals with disabilities.

It’s now up to professionals to assist in the further development of sport for and including individuals with disabilities. Thus, it is important that professionals be knowledgeable about sport and disability and its complexity.

Introduction to Sport and Individuals with disabilities: Individuals with disabilities have always been present in society, although they are more prevalent in the 20th century than in previous centuries. The World Health Organization estimates that six hundred and fifty million people live with disabilities of various types, and the number is increasing due to the rise of chronic diseases, injuries, car crashes, falls, violence and other causes such as ageing. Of this total, 80% live in low-income countries; most are poor and have limited or no access to basic services, including rehabilitation facilities.

As it is mentioned before, for at least 100 years, individuals with selected disabilities have participated in the sporting world. However these athletes are just now beginning to receive the recognition they deserve and, more importantly, acceptance as athletes.

The 20th century saw the confluence of sport and disability into disability sport; disability sport is a term that refers to sport designed for, or specifically practiced, by people with disabilities. It is now a movement whose time has come. As athletic opportunities have expanded and disability sport has matured, so have the individual accomplishments of athletes with disabilities. Over the years they have demonstrated their athletic ability in the sporting arena.

Outstanding performances by elite athletes with disabilities are merely seconds or tenths of seconds behind those of elite able-bodied athletes in many sports.

Definitions: before proceeding, some terms to describe this population should be clarified. Various terms have been used to describe individuals with disabilities over the years. Currently, the preferred terminology is one in which the person is first, such as person with a disability or individual with physical impairment  or  athlete with disability or  athlete with visual impairment.

Impairment is a limiting condition that exists with a person e.g. less than 20/20 vision, amputated limb, spinal cord injury etc. When impairment adversely affects one’s performance, the appropriate term is disability. The World Health Organization states that  “disability (resulting from impairment) is a restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being”.

The United Nations defines persons with disabilities as persons who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which, in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

Other terms that have been used tend to imply devaluation or stigmas associated with impairment and thus are not preferable.

Attitudes towards persons with disabilities in sport:  sport is a cultural phenomenon that is often viewed as a product and reflection of Society (Giddens 1977; Sage 1987). Sport is a microcosm of the larger society; it is defined and described within the sociocultural and sociohistorical framework of the values, mores, norms and standards of a specific society or culture.

Sport can play a key role in the lives and communities of people with disabilities, the same as it can for people without a disability. Sport encompasses all forms of physical activity and includes play, exercise, recreation, organized, casual or competitive sport and indigenous sport or games that contribute to physical fitness, mental well-being and social interaction.

Scientific research that has been conducted across disability groups reveals that participation in sport and physical activity leads to improved levels of physical health and well-being. Additionally, sport and physical activity has been linked to improvements in self-confidence, social awareness and self-esteem and can contribute to empowerment of people with disabilities.

Historically, sport has tended to be an exclusive club for the white, middle and upper class, heterosexual, able-bodied male “majority”. Thus, not all persons who desired access were allowed into the sporting arena.

As a minority (or even marginalized in many countries) group, individuals with disabilities had limitations placed upon their partecipation in society. As sport is an integral part of society, similar sanctions and limitations have been imposed for inclusion within the sporting world.

Throughout the history of sport, individuals with disabilities have experienced exclusion and disenfranchisement. Disability sport has not been viewed as legitimate sport but rather as something less. Concomitantly, opportunities, rewards, public recognition and the like have not been afforded athletes with disabilities. Segregated events and competitions have been somewhat acceptable but are still viewed as being of less value than sport competitions for the able-bodied individuals.

Sport is a significant part of this world – a social construction. Not only is highly visible but it touches almost everyone as a participant, spectator or a consumer. Sport permeates the very fabric of society. Because sport is so pervasive in society and it has been perceived by society as an equalizer and as a means of gaining acceptance, individuals with impairment have sought access to sport. Although the progress is slow, it has been positive. Progress, both past and future, is related directly to the attitudes held by society about sports and disability. Attitudes are changing and perhaps so is the definition of sport.

Barriers to inclusion in sport: on an individual level, people with a disability may face a number of additional barriers to participation in sport compared with people without a disability. Some common barriers include:

  • Lack of organized sports programs,
  • Lack of early experiences in sport,
  • Lack of understanding and awareness of how to include people with a disability in sport
  • Lack of role models,
  • Lack of access to coaches and training programs,
  • Economics,
  • Lack of accessible sport facilities,
  • Limiting psychological and sociological factors, including attitudes towards disability of parents, coaches, teachers and even people with disabilities

Sport opportunities within school physical education or after school sport programs, community based recreation and sport programs, are inadequate to fulfill the needs of the existing, let alone the potential, population. Greater numbers of trained sport and recreation professionals, physical educators, trained coaches, are needed.

Economic, psychological and sociological factors often remain as barriers. Because of the numerous barriers to sport partecipation, individuals with impairments can face enormous psychological problems.

The cost of necessary equipment (sport specific wheelchairs, specially designed prosthesis etc) can be prohibitive.

Visible role models are valuable to the encouragement of sport partecipation. In the 80’s and 90’s athletes with disabilities have been featured in commercials. These, along with the television coverage of selected events have helped the disability sport movement become increasingly more visible.

Opportunities for Participation: since the 1970’s, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of international organizations and associations serving athletes with disabilities. At the local level, in many countries there are increased opportunities for people with a disability to participate in school-based physical education, clubs and community associations and casual recreation.

In terms of competitive sport, opportunities for athletes with a disability range from sport and disability specific world championships, regional multi-sport tournaments, selected events for athletes with a disability.

The three largest international disability sport competitions are the Paralympic Games, Special Olympics and Deaflympics. The Paralympic Games provide International competition for six different disability groups including amputee, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, spinal cord injuries, intellectual disability and “les autres” (those that do not fit into the other groups). Special Olympics provide year-round training and competition opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities at all levels. The Deaflympics provide competition for athletes who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The Paralympic Games cater for elite athletes with physical disabilities while Special Olympics offer sporting opportunities to all persons with intellectual disabilities from elite to those with severe and profound challenges.

Recent research conducted in 2007 highlights the lack of participation from developing countries in International disability sport competition. In total, 23% of developing countries have not participated in Deaflympic, Paralympic or Special Olympics World Games competition.  Participation in winter games from developing countries is very low, whilst the participation of women in winter sport is even lower and declining with time.

Eligibility and Classification: at the grassroots level, people with a disability can participate together with limited emphasis on rules and regulations. As elements of competition are introduced, it becomes more important to group people together according to their abilities in order to ensure fair competition.

Eligibility: for an athlete with a disability to participate in international disability sport competitions such as the Paralympic Games, they must first meet minimum eligibility criteria and be a member of an affiliated national association.

In the Paralympic Games, the eligibility criteria differ across sports and disability groups. The Paralympic Games also have qualification criteria that athletes need to meet in order to compete at a Paralympic Games.

To be eligible to compete in the Deaflympics, athletes must have a hearing loss of at least 55 decibels in the better ear.

In Special Olympics, an athlete must be identified by an agency or professional as having an intellectual disability to be eligible to participate.

Classification: once eligible for a sport or event, an athlete is then classified according to their level of functional ability. The concept of classification is similar to the way athletes compete in different weight categories in wrestling, boxing and weightlifting. The classification system varies for each sport but is simply a system of grouping athletes of similar abilities for sport competition.

Concluding comments: sport as a social institution and a microcosm of society cannot remain unaffected by political, social and cultural changes. In the 1990’s and beyond, sport will be redefined by and in the new order of the world.

Disability sport has made its mark upon the society. Individuals with disability have fought for inclusion in sport. Although not complete, the trend is toward progressive inclusion and acceptance. Well into the 21st century, sport opportunities for and including individuals with disabilities will continue to increase. The potential of these persons, in the absence of medical and psychological complications but even in the presence of multiple physical impairments, is unmeasurable.

Rusk avers: You don’t get fine china by putting clay in the sun. You have to put the clay through the white heat if of the kiln if you want to make porcelain. Heat breaks some pieces. Disability breaks some people. But once the clay goes through the white-hot fire and comes out whole, it can never be clay again; once a person overcomes a disability through his own courage, determination and hard work, he has a depth of spirit you and I know little about.

REFERENCES:
Sport and Disability Thematic Profile
Sport and Disability, Karen P. DePauw – Susan J. Gavron
Giddens A. (1977), Studies in Social and political Theory
Sage G.H. (1987), Pursuit of knowledge in sociology of sport: Issues and prospects
Krusen’s Handbook of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Rusk H.A. , A world to care for