The Role of Gender in Participation in Disability Sport

Gender appears to play a key role in participation rates amongst persons with disabilities. This can be partially accounted for by the fact that more men are permanently injured through accidents while more women have chronic disabling conditions that are not accident related (Grimes and French, 1987). Thierfeld and Gibbons (1986) showed that in competitive sports considerably fewer women are involved than men. They suggest that this is due to the fact that men do more dangerous things. They are more daring, have more accidents and become disabled. However, according to many authors, the problem goes much deeper than that. Huang (2005), Olenik (1999) and Guthrie (1999), to name but a few, all discuss the problems persons with disabilities, and women with disabilities in particular, face in any attempts to become involved in any kind of sporting activity. These include:

  1. Generally men grow up playing sport and are encouraged to do so by everyone around them. Women, however, generally do not and are not encouraged to do so. This is equally true of non-disabled girls and women and so if they are not encouraged, young women with disabilities are even less likely to be.
  2. It is rare for women who were not active in sports prior to becoming disabled to turn to them afterwards for fitness, especially as those who influence them are unlikely to encourage them in that direction.
  3. Disabled women and girls often face enormous emotional problems. Issues of low self esteem, inexperience with sports, fear of success and failure, which are already documented for non-disabled women are even greater problems for disabled females.
  4. A lack of role models to counteract rolelessness plays a major part as they provide tangible proof of what is attainable. This is compounded by a lack of media coverage of disability in general and disability sport in particular.
  5. There is a lack of adequate coaching within disability sport in general and what there is is often monopolised by the male athletes.
  6. There is a lack of opportunities to take part in disability sport and often a lack of    awareness of what little provision there is.
  7. Women, even more than men, with disabilities often struggle to find employment and so without the material resources to support themselves survival becomes the key concern, making it unlikely that they will have the time, energy or financial wherewithal to take part in recreational or sporting activities.

When constantly confronted with negative perceptions about their abilities to carry out tasks that most people take for granted, and also bombarded with images of ‘physical perfection’ that most of the general public could not live up to, it is little wonder that many people with disabilities suffer from low self-esteem (Hargreaves, 2000).Seymour(1989) sums this up when she states:

“the body in which I live is visible to others, it is the object of social attention. I learn about my body from the impressions I see my body make on other people. These interactions with others provide critical visual data for my self-knowledge.”

(Seymour, 1989 cited in Hargreaves, 2000; p. 185)

This socially imposed feeling of worthlessness and low self-esteem brought on by the reaction of others to obvious physical differences can have very strong and long-term effects on people with disabilities. One female Paralympian I interviewed stated that for the first two years following her accident she felt unable to leave the house, due to fear of ridicule, because she felt that everyone was staring at her and the way she walked. Although, in spinal injury terms, her accident resulted in a relatively low level of disability and she was still able to walk following the accident, her depression and lack of self-confidence may have been compounded by the fact that she was a young, 21 year-old woman, in a society where women are primarily judged in terms of their looks and appearance or, as Tiemann (1999) puts it:

“In a society where people are systematically taught to hate and fear old age and disability and equate them with “ugliness”, everybody strives for “prettiness” and youth. In this society it is especially difficult and stressful for women with physical disabilities to meet these demands. They are perceived in Western-European and North-American society as being inadequate, unable to totally fulfil culturally defined norms and role expectations, especially concerning physical attractiveness, physical activity, motherhood, employment and sexual partnership.”

(Tiemann, 1999; p.1-2)

In line with this, Hargreaves (2000) claims that the influence of dominant images of gender caused many disabled women to ‘choose not to participate in sport because, in common with many able-bodied women, they are influenced more by commodified anti-athletic stereotypes of femininity’ (Hargreaves, 2000; p. 186 – 187). This perceived fear of failure and low self-worth can act as strong deterrents for many people (and especially women) with disabilities, to become involved in sport.

Economics plays a major role in deciding the likelihood of a disabled individual becoming involved in sport. Numerous studies have shown that economics is a major barrier to participation in sport, especially for women with disabilities. Lonsdale (1990) found that women with disabilities are at a far greater economic disadvantage than their male counterparts in employment and in the distribution of state benefits or other financial support. According to Smith and Twomey (2002) 44 percent of disabled men compared with 52 percent of disabled women inBritainwere economically inactive in 2001 in contrast with 9 percent of non-disabled men and 21 percent of non-disabled women. Huang (2005) claims that in Taiwan in the same year 87 percent of disabled women and 77 percent of disabled men were economically inactive. Without the financial wherewithal to take care of the daily necessities of life it is unlikely that any individual will to take up a recreational or sporting pastime.

Interestingly, studies by both Brittain (2002) and Olenik (1999) came to the conclusion that once disabled athletes had reached the elite level the problems they encounter in maintaining their participation become much more about the structure of the sport they are involved in and those charged with running and administering it. The impacts of these factors, and a few additional ones, upon the participation of women at the Beijing Paralympic Games will be explored in my next post.

Brittain, I.S. (2002). Perspectives of Elite       Athletes with    Disabilities: Problems and Possibilities. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, High Wycombe, UK.

Grimes, P.S. & French, L. (1987) Barriers to Disabled Women’s Participation in Sports, in JOPERD, March, 58 (3), 24-27.

Guthrie, S.R. (1999). Managing Imperfection in a Perfectionist  Culture:  Physical Activity and Disability Management Among Women with Disabilities. Quest, 51, 369-381.

Hargreaves,  J.  (2000)  Heroines of  Sport:  the  Politics  of  Difference  and Identity. London: Routledge.

Huang, C-J. (2005) Discourses of Disability Sport: Experiences of Elite Male and Female Athletes in Britain and Taiwan. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK.

Olenik, L.M. (1998) Women in Elite Disability Sport: Multidimensional Perspectives, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.

Seymour, W. (1989) Body Alterations, London: Unwin Hyman.

Smith, A. & Twomey, B. (2002) Labour market experiences of people with disabilities. Labour Market Trends, August, 110(8), 415-427.

Thierfeld, J. & Gibbons, G. (1986) From Access to Equity: Opening Doors for Women Athletes, Sports n Spokes, May/June, 21-23.

Tiemann, H. (1999) Exploring the sporting lives of women with a physical disability, in Doll-Tepper, G., Kroener, M. & Sonnenschein, W. (Eds.) (2001) New Horizons in Sport for Athletes with a Disability: proceedings of the International Vista ’99 Conference (Vol 2), Oxford, UK: Meyer and Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd,  643-654.

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2 responses to “The Role of Gender in Participation in Disability Sport

  1. Pingback: Ian Brittain – The Role of Gender in Participation in Disability Sport | Kristen Worley

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