Disability Sports Deserve More Exposure

While participation levels continue to increase year on year and the success of the Paralympics grows from one cycle to another, disability sport is still lacking in exposure.

With more than 20 million UK viewers watching the coverage of the delayed 2020 Paralympics last year, equating to roughly a third of the population, it may seem crazy to suggest that there is a lack of exposure for disability sports. Away from Channel 4’s extensive coverage of the Paralympic games, what other disability sports can you think of that have been broadcast to the masses?

Events such as the London Marathon and Great North Run, both of which are broadcast live through the BBC, do a fantastic job of providing a platform for wheelchair athletes. Away from these large events, there is little opportunity to watch disabled athletes doing what they do best.  

Inclusivity in Sport

Sport, especially at grassroots level, should be inclusive regardless of ability. Sports clubs and coaches are given guidance on how to include players in sessions and games, rather than simply turning them away.

One of the main reasons why children want to play any sport is because they have seen it on television or had the fortune of attending an event. Children living with a disability have little opportunity to see athletes they can relate to, in terms of having a disability, competing. The risk is having children (and adults) feel as though they are shut out from playing sport.

The lack of exposure is still a major cause for concern. In 2016, 1.6 million disabled adults played sport weekly in England, with Sport England finding that disabled people are nearly two times as likely to be inactive.

Fantastic initiatives, such as the Scottish Disability Golf & Curling (SDGC), go a long way to bridging the gap and making sports truly inclusive. The SDGC chair Jim Gales MBE, himself a registered blind golfer, recently told Fen Regis Trophies: “People don’t necessarily have one disability – they might have more – they might have something that you can’t categorise.

“They might have a health problem like severe arthritis, or something like that, and that doesn’t qualify as a disability as such even though it is debilitating.”

The SDGC has enjoyed great success in the 20 years since the original idea, having taken inspiration from the organisation of disability sports in Canada and other countries. More than 1,100 members participate in golf and curling events around the world.

In 2021, history was made as the FA Disability Cup was broadcast live for the first time. BT Sport showed five cup finals across a weekend and, not only that, ensure that their coverage was accessible. The finals were broadcast with British Sign Language and enhanced audio description, as well as offering a free standard feed via Facebook to non-BT Sport subscribers. The channel will be doing the same in 2022.

Visible and Invisible Disabilities

Not all disabilities are visible. While aids such as wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs are telling signs of a disability, those living with a hidden disability are not immediately apparent.

Some of these disabilities can include, but are not limited to:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Epilepsy
  • Diabetes
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Psychiatric disabilities – such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety etc…

The understanding of invisible disabilities has improved greatly in recent years and there are cases of elite athletes competing in the mainstream, typically able-bodied events, that live with such a disability. Not all disabilities mean that athletes cannot compete alongside able-bodied athletes. Some examples include Marla Runyan, a legally blind middle-distance runner who competed at both the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and England World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks, who returned to playing football in the United States despite losing sight in his right eye following a car crash in 1972.

Looking Ahead

The overwhelming success and growth of the Paralympics show that there is a demand for disability sports. While not every event will garner as much interest as the grand stage of the Paralympics, offering more opportunities to viewers to watch disability sports can only be a good thing.

For most, the summer and Winter Paralympics are the only opportunity to watch disability sports. That’s once every two years and there simply must be more. With competitions such as the FA Disability Cup being picked for live broadcast and enjoying success, there is real hope that there will be more to come.

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