The Study of Disability Sport in Higher Education

Depending on what definition is used for “disability” at least 10% of the world’s population is disabled in some way. For many of the non-disabled population the prefix “dis” brings with it connotations of less able, less important and less worthy (Brittain, 2004). This is equally true of nearly all academic disciplines when it comes to both teaching and research, which at best make a token effort to include people with disabilities and the impact of those disabilities within a particular subject area, and often simply make no attempt at all. Sport and Leisure appear to be no exception to this.

According to Torkildsen (1986) a positive, proactive and friendly attitude from management and staff towards disabled individuals can often overcome many of the problems posed by access to a particular programme or facility. However, this can only really occur if the staff have an understanding of the issues that surround participation in, and the development of, sport for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the training that current and future workers in the area of sport currently receive is almost wholly based around the provision of sport for the non-disabled population. A review of the key texts currently used at some of the key institutions involved in the provision of degrees in the area of sport in the UK shows that they make little or no mention of disability sport whatsoever. Tomlinson (Ed.) (2007), Jarvie (2006) and Green and Houlihan (2005) all make no mention whatsoever of disability sport. Hylton and Bramham (2008) simply mentions the Disability Rights Commission amongst a list of organisations. Numerous other texts appear to show the same apparent disregard for this growing area of sport. The lack of any substantive content in courses and textbooks designed to train the sports practitioners of the future is, for disabled people, simply a further affirmation of their exclusion from the rest of society based upon non-disabled perceptions of their abilities, which for the most part are unfounded. However, the fact that they do go unrecognised within this training process simply feeds back into their feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth, and reinforces the belief that sport and leisure activities are not for them. It also means that lecturers and teachers in sport have little or no reference material and so lack the knowledge, training and confidence to try and change the current status quo.

Brittain (2010) cites possible reasons why disability sport is overlooked in terms of academic and vocational training. According to Coakley (1998), sport is a form of cultural practice created by groups of people in order to help find ways to live with each other and at the same time make their lives more fulfilling and meaningful. Sage (1993) claims “Sports and physical education are practices, which are socially constructed within the culture in which they exist, and any adequate account of them must be grounded in an understanding of power, privilege, and dominance within society” (Sage, 1993 cited in DePauw, 2000; p. 358). However, as sport is a social construction of dominant groups within society it is, therefore, a creation of and for non-disabled people, which gives priority to certain types of human movement (Barton, 1993). Therefore, disabled individuals wishing to take part in some kind of sporting activity at any level have first to overcome a complex inter-connection of a variety of socially constructed concepts (e.g. the way they are positioned within society in terms of sport, normality, body image), the effects of which can be lessened or increased by other social constructions such as their gender, age, race, sexual orientation and material factors.

Ferguson (2006, cited in Shapiro et al (2012: 105)) cites eight reasons for infusing information about disabilities in the general curriculum including the fact that ignorance feeds discrimination and stereotypes. The idea of infusing disability material into the sports curriculum is not new. As early as 1994 DePauw and Goc Karp (1994a, 1994b) introduced the idea and several authors since have re-iterated the idea (Brittain (2010, 2008); Hums et al (2007, 2003); DePauw and Doll-Tepper (2000); Rizzo et al (1997)). However, despite these articles it is apparent that only limited practical progress has been made on this issue.

In the UK the Peter Harrison Centre for Disability Sport at Loughborough University has been carrying out research for a number of years, but there is little evidence that this has spread to their curriculum. However, over the last year or so with all the publicity given to the London 2012 Paralympic Games a number of new initiatives have arisen that indicate maybe things are changing, albeit slowly. At the University of Worcester they have introduced a BSc (Hons) Sports Coaching Science with Disability Sport degree and have recently advertised for a Professor of Disability Sport to move the initiative forward. At the University of Lincoln they are running a Disability Sport Project whereby a group of students will complete research investigating disability sport provision and demands at the University of Lincoln. The group have agreed a number of targets and key performance indicators which include;
– Creating a working partnership between stakeholders at the University
– Completing research into disabled students’ experiences of sport at the University, and to ascertain demand for further services
– Producing a report making recommendations for the direction of future disability sport at the University, with a view to producing an agreed mission-statement for disability sport provision in the University.

At the University of Bath The Centre of Excellence for DisAbility Sport & Health (DASH) has been set up and will host research into disability sport and exercise for disabled athletes and military amputees and is part of the legacy of the Olympic and Paralympic Games inspired by the University’s role in helping to train elite Paralympic athletes at its Sports Training Village. And finally the English Federation of Disability Sport has set up a Research for Disabled People in Sport Working Group consisting of academics interested in the study of disability sport in the UK in an attempt to bring practitioners and academics in the field together for the benefit of all athletes with a disability. Hopefully these examples are just the tip of the iceberg and are an indication that the study of sport for people with disabilities is growing in importance and stature.


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