Youth with disabilities and sport in post-conflict zones

There is a steadily growing body of work regarding the significance of non-disabled sport within society and the potential impacts it can have, particularly in terms of developing ‘better’ citizens in terms of health, behaviour and productivity (cf. Coalter, 2007). There is also a growing body of work regarding the use of sport for the non-disabled in conflict zones as a means of development and brokering peace. However, there appears to be little work which addresses these issues with regard to the use of sport for the disabled and the role it might play both in the re-integration into society of people with disabilities nor the impact it can have upon changing perceptions of people with disabilities within the wider community and thus aiding the re-integration process. There appears to be some attempts to use sports for the rehabilitation of youth with disabilities in places such as Sierra Leone through amputee football, but what is lacking is a comprehensive understanding of the potential of sport in responding to the challenges faced by youth with physical disabilities.

One of the main impacts of armed conflicts is that there is a high level of disabilities caused by small arms and light weapons (SALW), including anti-personnel landmines.  Youth, both as civilians and combatants, appear to be one of the most affected groups with this problem, and it is often the case that there are no adequate socio-economic services and opportunities in post-conflict environments to help deal with the many issues raised by these conflict-induced disabilities. However, research relating to the impact of conflict induced disability, particularly with regard to children, is scarce, although this may be partly due to the difficulties of carrying out research in the often challenging situation of a post-conflict society.

However, it is equally important not to overlook the issues for those who received their disabilities as a result of accidents or birth defects otherwise there would be a  risk of marginalising further an already marginalised group. People, and particularly children, with disabilities do not have equal opportunities and equal access regarding most parts of life. Handicap International claim this lack of access includes basic services (especially education and health), because of physical inaccessibility to the buildings, lack of information in adapted formats (e.g. Braille) and discriminatory behaviour within society. In addition, people with disabilities tend to suffer disproportionately during and after conflict situations. They are often the most exposed to protection risks, including physical and sexual violence, exploitation, harassment and discrimination (Reilly, 2010). This is particularly true for females. Research by the United Nations indicates that violence against children with disabilities occurs at annual rates at least 1.7 times greater than for their non-disabled peers. Finally, they also lack options for making a living and, therefore, the opportunity to transcend out of poverty, which often means they either remain as a burden on their families or are forced to beg to make a living.

Disability and poverty are also closely linked with insecure living conditions, lack of access to basic services, malnutrition and other dimensions of poverty not only leading directly to disabilities, but also making life much harder for those who are born with or acquire disabilities through accidents or as a result of conflict. Add to these facts the issue of the perceived stigma attached not only to the person with a disability, but also their families, which can cause  parents to try and conceal their disabled children, and it is clear that life for a person with a disability in former conflict zones is very difficult indeed. The rehabilitation of children with conflict-induced disabilities needs to bear in mind a set of additional issues such as the context of poverty, social stigma, cultural values and traditions prevalent within the society under investigation. Moreover, as there are always many priorities for reconstruction in post-conflict affected environments, and people with disabilities and particularly children are far less likely to have access to decision making processes, means of production and financial capital, they tend to be further marginalized within society.

One further issue for people with disabilities in conflict zones is that they often become displaced from their villages and local communities, either forcibly or out of fear for their own safety and often end up in internal displacement camps, where conditions are often far from ideal to meet their needs. However, once the resettlement process is underway the devastation caused by the conflict in terms of the destruction of villages and infrastructure, often mean that people with disabilities are one of the hardest groups to re-settle. They also often meet other people with disabilities in the camps that enable them to achieve some sort of camaraderie, which is often preferable to the isolation they can feel in their own villages where they may be shunned or stigmatized by their acquired disability (Duerden, 2010).

Estimating accurate numbers for the disabled population in a given country in a post-conflict situation is often almost impossible. A lack of consistency in terminology and methodologies for data collection, cultural differences in definitions and concepts of disability, and lack of training or disability awareness amongst data collection staff will all affect the accuracy of the data. This is also compounded by some of the issues highlighted above regarding stigma and the hiding away of the people with disabilities, difficulties of researching in isolated (and sometimes dangerous) rural areas and the general administrative and bureaucratic chaos that follows a prolonged conflict situation. In short, life for children and youth with disabilities in a post-conflict environment often means marginalisation, exclusion, disparity, poverty and ostracisation. It is, therefore, very important for them to have opportunities to address these challenges. There is a growing body of evidence that sport may have an effective role to play as part of this process.  However, as pointed out above, there is a paucity of research in this area and it is, therefore, critical to explore possible approaches and methods for the potential use of sport in effectively helping to transform the lives of this marginalised group.


Coalter, F (2007) A wider social role for sport: who’s keeping the score? Routledge, UK.

Duerden, S (2010) Displacement limbo in Sierra Leone

( accessed 25-2-2013

Reilly, R (2010) Disabilities among refugees and conflict-affected populations ( accessed 25-2-2013

United Nations (undated) Factsheet on Persons with Disabilities.

( accessed 25-2-2013

The World Bank Group (2006) Govment bizness na wi bizness: Building demand for good governance and enhancing conditions for social accountability in Sierra Leone ( accessed 25-2-2013



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