Too often in our society, people who experience disabilities face societal barriers and are excluded from everyday life. Disability often evokes negative perceptions and discrimination in many societies. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the result of the stigma associated with disability is that persons with disabilities are generally excluded from education, employment and community life, which deprives them of opportunities essential to their social development, health and well-being. Simply stated, people with disabilities are left sitting on the sidelines rather than being part of the action. To change this, we need to focus on inclusion; the acceptance of all people—regardless of their differences.
Sport and recreation provide a powerful platform to reshape attitudes and opportunities for all people because they transcend linguistic, cultural and social barriers. By focusing on ability and adaptation, these types of activities bring people together to foster greater inclusion. Participation in sport can help reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with disability because it can transform community attitudes about disability by highlighting skills and reducing the tendency to see the disability instead of the person.
Through sport and recreation, persons without disabilities interact with persons with disabilities in a positive context, forcing them to reshape assumptions about what persons with disabilities can and cannot do. Such interactions will also bolster the self-confidence of persons with disabilities who discover that they can perform as well and, in some cases, better in their sport of choice than persons without disabilities.
The benefits of sport and recreation remain consistent for all individuals, regardless of ability. Sports empower individuals to reach their full potential and provide a means for people to connect with others in their community. Involvement in sport and recreation activities have a direct correlation to overall wellness and physical health. People who participate in physical activity have lower rates of obesity and chronic illnesses, and improved quality of mental health. Sport and recreation activities provide individuals with a means of self-expression, social connection and skill development that have direct correlation to improved quality-of-life. Participation in sports and recreation give people the opportunity to learn to communicate with each other. Additionally, sport teaches the strategies for teamwork, cooperation and respect for others. Through sport and recreation, individuals have the opportunity to set goals, develop action plans to reach those goals and experience positive outcomes, or, in the case of failure, learn to cope with disappointment.
It is easy to list the myriad of benefits that come from involvement in sport and recreation. Although the gains affect everyone, the rewards are potentially greater for people with disabilities due to the stigma and marginalisation that they normally experience. Through sport, persons with disabilities develop important social skills, gain independence and become empowered to act as agents of change in their own self-development. It is often the case that the skills learned through sport can be transferred into other areas such as employment and independent living. This fact makes sport programmes particularly well-suited to reduce dependency and develop greater independence by helping persons with disabilities become physically and mentally stronger.
As noted by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the power of sport as a transformative tool is of particular importance for women with disabilities who often experience double discrimination on the basis of their gender and disability. Women with disabilities are grossly under-represented in the international sporting competitions. By providing women with disabilities the opportunity to compete and demonstrate their physical ability, sport can help to reduce gender stereotypes and negative perceptions associated with women with disabilities.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is the first legally binding international instrument to address the rights of persons with disabilities and sport. Article 30 of the Convention addresses both disability-specific and inclusive sport and requires that “States Parties shall take appropriate measures to encourage and promote the participation, to the fullest extent possible, of persons with disabilities in mainstream sporting activities at all levels”. This requires that people with disabilities enjoy equal access to “play, recreation and leisure and sporting activities”.
In an effort to bring about transformative change through sport and recreation, coaches, mentors, recreation providers and sports organisers need to develop the tools necessary to create positive inclusive opportunities for our citizens with disabilities. The development of inclusive leaders should focus on several critical components. Leaders need to understand the benefits of inclusion and how to use the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, specifically Article 30 – Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport to facilitate change. Leaders must also have the ability to identify and remove barriers to sport and recreation while developing strategies to individualised and adapted coaching.
Dr Jayne McGuire is a professor at Humboldt State University, USA. She can be reached at email@example.com. Major David R Benjamin was the Director of Sport and Physical Education at the UWI Sport and Physical Education Centre (SPEC) from 2013-2016. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org