a CGI impression of the Olympic Stadium

A Sporting Chance

29th April 2011

London 2012 really is about sport for all, discovers Heather Harris

An astonishing 93 per cent of disabled people don’t take part in any regular physical activity. With less than five hundred days to the Paralympics 2012, that’s an incredible figure, especially considering all the coverage that the Paralympics now receive.

It may be that participation is low because of lack of confidence, or lack of knowledge about the opportunities available, but the problem, according to Sarah Marl of the English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS), is likely to start with the first experience of sport at school.

“I’m in a wheelchair,” Sarah explains to me, “and in PE lessons, I was told I was disrupting the other children’s ‘serious learning’ of sport so had to go and do homework instead. That was in the late 80s, but I’m sure it still happens to many disabled children in mainstream school.”

As more and more effort is placed on encouraging children with disabilities into mainstream education, there is a risk that emphasis may fall on their academic needs, with their physical well-being often forgotten. As Adan Freeman, Sports Disability Officer for Hertfordshire, explains, “With sport, if a child gets a negative experience at a young age, it can put them off for life. And this is particularly true for children with any impairment. They already assume they’re not good enough, so need extra encouragement.”

Luckily, outside school something is being done. The EFDS was established by the Government in 1998, as the umbrella organisation for disabled people in sport across England. It represents all the National Disability Sports organisations and has a target audience of six years of age upwards.

“Other people’s perception of disability sport is about adults in wheelchairs doing the London Marathon or playing basketball. In fact, at grass roots level, there are thousands of children taking part in a huge range of sports, and not necessarily at competitive or elite level but just for fun…”, adds Sarah.

A quick ‘Google’ of the subject bears this out… There’s everything from Blind Football (played with a bell in the ball), Dwarf Athletics (covering the 200 different growth-restricted conditions and focusing on shot putt, discus and javelin) and Disabled Water Skiing (including paraplegic, amputee and blind competitors), to Mencap Sport (for people who have learning difficulties) and Transplant Sport (for the recipients of organ donations). The list just goes on.

In fact, the recent Active People Survey by Sports England has shown a significant increase in the range of sports which, since the Equality Act of 2010, are now formally recognising participants with any impairment. Angling and Bowls, for example, now actually have more disabled than non-disabled participants, and are closely followed in popularity by swimming, cycling, football and golf.

“The opportunities are out there and our aim is to make more parents aware that even if their disabled child isn’t spotted as a future potential Paralympian, there’s still a way they can be active,” says Sarah.

For Londoner Izabel Grindal it was Cerebral Palsy Sport which suggested that she take her son, Thomas, then aged 12, along to a ‘Sports Taster Day’ run by Newham Council for children with any ‘impairment’. “And amazingly,” she recalls, “the swimming coach suggested Thomas join her regional training sessions. Here he trains with other disabled children from across London, but, as his speeds improved we approached our local club…”

…and so Thomas became Kingston Swimming Club’s first disabled member and now goes five times a week. “He’s with the younger non-disabled age group as, with little use of his left arm and leg, he’s too slow for the older ones, but he doesn’t mind. He just loves being able to take part.”

And while the physical benefits have now taken him to the sixth fastest in the country at his disability level, there are other less obvious advantages, as Thomas tells me. “I've made lots of friends at my club and at competitions. You make new friends all the time.”

It’s been a huge bonus, as his mother adds. “He used to struggle socially but now he goes all over the country with the team and it gives him that independence that was previously lacking.”

Natalie Williams long-jumping

Chris Williams agrees. His dyspraxic daughter, Natalie, started in disability sport when she joined secondary school. Despite a hatred of PE lessons and a dread of school Sports Day, she was also persuaded to try out a taster. “And the next thing she was off to Blackpool for the weekend for the national junior athletics championships staying in the Hilton Hotel with her newly found friends!”

Her coach was Ros Cramp, “a fantastic women who really knows how to motivate all the children to feel good about themselves – even if they’ve come last,” Chris says, with clear admiration in his voice.

As a newly qualified teacher at a mainstream school some 13 years ago, Ros was given the task of integrating a disabled boy into PE classes, as the existing teachers had ‘no idea’. Her passion developed from there, and in her current role with the North Herts School Sport Partnership she has helped make this county the best in the UK for equality in sport.

“In my experience independence is easy for the children to grasp but harder for parents and coaches. We have to build trust with parents who have previously done everything with their child. The same is true for coaches. They often shy away from working with disabled people because it’s the ‘unknown’…”.

When she’s not driving children over the country for events, Ros organises three hour workshops helping coaches, from any sports, to adapt their training sessions to include children of all abilities.

One such coach is Gareth Jones from the Community Sports & Education Trust at Watford Football Club. He now has 24 boys, with a range of impairments, all regularly training together on a Wednesday night in Berkhamsted, for the Hertfordshire Centre of Excellence squad. Many parents make a two and a half hour round trip just so their sons can attend.

“The FA is really working hard in this area and it’s clearly paying off, as we’re getting more and more boys coming along. Just like their non-disabled friends, they have to go through a trial to be selected and for many of them it’s the first thing they have ever exceeded at,” he says.

My own son, Sam, has recently been selected. Born at 24 weeks with hemiplegia, he is a perfect example of a football-mad boy who presumed he’d always be a spectator.

“I always go along and watch my brother’s team but never thought anyone would ever be watching me. No-one really notices what your problem is, whether you’re an amputee, have difficulties seeing or hearing, running or with balance, you just get on and play football...” Sam explains.

And the atmosphere is very different too. As Izabel says, “The fun and pleasure the children get from taking part is infectious. There’s no pushy parents screaming from the side line or arguing with officials.” It’s evidence of a spirit which hopefully will be felt in 2012, not only in the Paralympics but in the Olympic events too (and maybe even in the Premier League!).

“2012 is a real opportunity for us,” says Sarah. “Every time the Paralympics is on, the EFDS gets a huge influx of calls. With Channel 4 having the rights to screen the event next year, it really will give a big shift in attitude to sport for all in this country.

Hopefully, school sports days will, as a result, no longer strike terror in the minds of disabled children and their parents. “ I still cringe at the memory of Thomas being given such a huge head start in the running race that he actually won it, much to the disgust of his classmates and their over-competitive parents!” recalls Izabel.

Ironically, in the long run, maybe we’ll see fewer organisations fighting for equality in sport. “There’ll be no need for all our dedicated organisations and official bodies for disabled sport as all schools, coaches and sports at all levels will automatically include everyone – able-bodied or not,” says Ros.

Now that would be a fantastic legacy for London 2012…

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