Some Barriers to Involvement in Sport for People with Disabilities

The impact of the perceptions of people with disabilities on their lives in general and on their participation in sport in particular can be split into three broad areas – psychological, material and financial (Brittain, 2002). What follows is a brief introduction into some of the issues that can arise for people with disabilities in each of these areas. These factors are equally relevant for elite and grass roots participation in sport for people with disabilities. However, by the very fact that some individuals have reached the elite level it is clear that some or all of these barriers can be sufficiently overcome or mitigated against to allow some individuals to progress to the highest levels.

Psychological Factors.

Negative societal perceptions of disability can have a devastating impact upon the self-confidence and self-image of people with disabilities. The idea, perpetuated through the perceptions of disability embedded in the medical model discourse, that people with disabilities are incapable of doing things for themselves clashes with the need of human beings to feel a sense of independence within their own lives. Therefore, those individuals with disabilities who do require help to perform certain tasks within their daily lives can be made to feel a burden by the actions (conscious or unconscious) of those they interact with. This, combined with the loss of any feeling of independency or control over their lives, can lead many of these individuals to feel that they have become a burden upon society and this feeling is probably compounded by the idea of people with disabilities as non-productive members of society as reported by Middleton (1999) and Priestley (1998). This perception of being a burden and feeling of guilt for being unable to do the same things as everyone else are what can cause many people with disabilities to stop asking for help altogether. That people with disabilities do perceive themselves to be a burden may have its origins in the fact that many societies, particularly western industrialised societies, are constructed on the Darwinian premise of ‘survival of the fittest’ (Barnes, 1991, p.19), where any request for help or assistance is perceived as a sign of weakness. Any requests for help, or ‘acts of charity’ as they may be perceived by some, can lead to a major lowering of self-esteem or even depression. Given the confidence and self-belief necessary to reach the very top in modern day elite sport this can have a major impact on how successful a prospective disabled athlete may become. However, the more disabled athletes within a country who reach the very top and become role models for potential disabled athletes of the future the greater the possibility for mitigating issues such as this.

Material Factors.

For those people with disabilities who are encouraged to take part in sport or who decide, despite the factors mentioned above, to take part of their own volition the problems that they may encounter along the way are potentially many and varied. The following are just a selection.

Transport: Barnes (1991; p. 186) cites a succession of studies (e.g. Barnes, 1990, GLAD, 1988), which indicate that a major factor in the opportunities for a person with a disability to take part in activities outside their own homes is access to a car belonging to their family or a friend. This dependency upon the goodwill and availability of family and friends for transportation or even on local specialised transport systems has several repercussions for people with disabilities. These include a decrease in independence such that any leisure activities often have to be arranged around those times when transport is available. If transport availability does not happen to coincide with the times when coaching is available, or when team mates train, then the chances of an individual, however keen or talented, achieving their optimal performance level will be severely restricted. Cavet (1998, p.98) claims that ‘there is substantial evidence that disabled young people have more limited opportunities for leisure activities outside their own homes than non-disabled people of the same age’. The GLAD report (1988, p. 3) claims that those people with disabilities who are dependent on specialised transport systems such as local authority provision ‘participated in the fewest leisure activities outside the home’. This may, therefore, kill off some elite careers in sport for people with disabilities before they have even begun.

Physical Accessibility: Even if problems of time and transport can be overcome, or are not an issue, further problems of accessibility can arise once an athlete with a disability has arrived at their destination. Much has been written about problems of accessibility for people with disabilities (e.g. French and Hainsworth, 2001) and many buildings were designed and built with a conception of non-disabled users in mind. Therefore, if people with disabilities have difficulty entering a facility it may put them off taking part in sport at all. Not only does it make access awkward, but it makes people with disabilities feel unwanted and unwelcome at the venue.

Time/ Pace: Just getting dressed or changing, can take a lot longer than for non-disabled individuals. Lack of time, the time of day and the time it takes to do things can all play a part in arranging a training regime for a sportsperson with a disability. Wendell (1996, p. 38) claims ‘pace is a major aspect of expectations of performance; non-disabled people often take pace so much for granted that they feel and express impatience with the slower pace at which some people with disabilities need to operate’.

Disability Specific Implications: One example of a disability specific implication is access to guide runners for blind athletes, for both racing and training. Finding and retaining a guide runner for a blind athlete who might be training eight or nine times a week, especially one committed enough and fast enough can be a mammoth and time consuming task in itself.

Adapted Equipment: The cost and availability of adapted equipment for use by athletes with a disability can have a major impact upon their participation. A single racing prosthetic for a below the knee amputee with fitting costs just under £5,000 (Dyer, 2007, personal communication) and a top of the range Invacare Top End Eliminator OSR Racing Chair costs just under $7,000 (Invacare website, 2007).

Competition at an Appropriate Level: The relatively low number of people with disabilities taking part in sport, especially competitive sport, can have an impact on opportunities for people with disabilities to get involved and progress within a particular sport. This is further compounded by the athletes having to be split up into functional classification groupings in order to try and ensure fair competition.

Access to Coaching: Just finding a coach willing to take on an athlete with a disability can be a task in itself. Finding one who has the knowledge, or the time and the inclination to gain an understanding, of the implications of a particular impairment on the coaching and training process can prove even harder.

Type of Schooling: Brittain (2004a) highlights the impact of schooling on the opportunities for children with disabilities to become involved in sport. In particular he highlights the impact of the move towards mainstreaming of children with disabilities and the implications this has both for children with disabilities and for teachers of physical education within mainstream institutions who are often unequipped to deal with them. This not only has an impact upon participation in sport for people with disabilities in general, but as Brittain (p. 90) highlights can also have a major impact upon elite level sport, particularly for those impairment groupings such as wheelchair users and visually impaired that are particularly difficult to fully integrate into a mainstream physical education class. In addition the dispersal of disabled children into mainstream schools has made new talent identification much harder than when they were all together in special schools.

Gender: Of the British Paralympic track and field team that participated in Sydney, 2000 female athletes with disabilities only made up 27.7% of the Paralympic track and field team, whereas non-disabled female athletes made up 40% of the Olympic track and field team in Sydney (Brittain, 2004a; p. 91). There is a large body of research already regarding the participation of non-disabled women in sport but relatively little has been written about the participation of women with disabilities within sport. However, it is likely that factors such as low self-confidence and self-esteem brought on partly by the body conscious nature of our society, especially with regard to women (See Hargreaves, 2000; p. 187), and transport problems (See Barnes, 1991; p.186) etc are likely to have a big effect on the decision of a woman with a disability to take up sport or not and then progress to the highest level.

Media Coverage: The media plays a crucial role in informing society about the very existence of sport for people with disabilities and in creating role models that can inspire future generations of disabled athletes. Although media coverage of elite sport for the disabled is improving it still has some way to go as pointed out by Brittain (2004b) when he compared the 500 hours of prime time Olympic coverage of the Sydney Games by the BBC with the less than one hour a day off peak coverage of the Sydney Paralympic Games on BBC2. Another important issue is the way the media cover sport for people with disabilities. The language they use, the framing of shots to hide obvious disability in newspapers and the portrayal of disabled athletes as valiant heroes rather than just athletes have all come under academic scrutiny (see Smith & Thomas (2005), Hardin & Hardin (2004), Schantz & Gilbert (2001))

Financial Constraints.

According to Southam (1994, p.13) only 31% of people with disabilities who were of working age were in employment in the mid eighties and in general these jobs tend to be poorly paid, low status positions. In addition to this Oliver (1996, p. 115) points out that 60% of people with disabilities in bothBritainand theUSAcurrently live below the poverty line. Oliver (1993) claims that work is central to industrial societies due to the fact that it not only produces the goods to support life, but also helps to create some of the social relationships necessary for a satisfactory life. French (1994) claims that it is generally presumed that people with disabilities will be unable to cope, may deter or upset clients and are more likely to have accidents. Oliver (1993) claims that people with disabilities are very likely to suffer exclusion from the work place due to perceived inabilities and, as a result, face a continued creation of dependency upon the state and those around them. All of these facts have an effect on the possibilities for people with disabilities to become involved in sport by restricting the financial means necessary to become involved in and sustain an interest in most sporting pastimes.


In conclusion, the rise in the success and popularity of the Paralympic Games has provided inspiration and role models for people with disabilities to become involved in sport at all levels, as well as helping to change the perceptions of many amongst the non-disabled population regarding what people with disabilities are capable of. What is clear is that although disabled athletes go through basically the same developmental stages in their sporting careers as non-disabled athletes and experience much the same problems, there are a large number of additional barriers that can, at worst, prevent disabled athletes from getting involved in sport or prevent them from reaching their full potential. These barriers can be tangible ones such as accessibility, transport or financial issues or they can be perceptual or psychological barriers that can prevent access to vital services such as top level coaching or, from a policy perspective, can act to strengthen the tangible barriers mentioned above.

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