Dan Parton cutWhile last year’s Paralympic Games in London aimed to inspire a generation to get involved in sport and physical activity, the lack of support available means many people with learning disabilities may not get the chance to join in – and that reality has to be addressed.

Quiz question: what was the biggest disability sports event in the UK this year?

Answer: The Special Olympics Great Britain National Summer Games.

The event, which saw 1,700 people with learning disabilities compete over 3 days of competition in 12 disciplines, celebrated the best in sport, with thousands of people attending the events in Bath and Bristol.

It demonstrates how popular sport and competition is for people with learning disabilities and what they can achieve, given the chance. Yet half of people with learning disabilities who want to take part in more physical activity, feel that a lack of support prevents them from doing so, new research by the English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS) has found. Only 25% of people with physical disabilities say lack of support is a barrier.

As Barry Horne, chief executive of EFDS, said, there is still a big gap between ambition and reality when it comes to disabled people’s participation in physical activity. “There has been a huge focus on elite level participation and the Paralympics produced fantastic role models, but the real work and change is required at the grassroots level.”

He’s right, and his message should be a wake-up call to other, mainstream sporting organisations to step up and be more inclusive of people with disabilities – learning and physical.
While Special Olympics GB does great work with people with learning disabilities of all sporting ability – the charity has more than 130 voluntary-run clubs across the country – there is only so much it can do. There are other charities and organisations that do similar work, but they are also limited by their size, and available funds.

Mainstream sporting clubs still seem inaccessible to many. I have heard anecdotes of how people with learning disabilities have been turned away from sports clubs because the clubs say they don’t have the resources or expertise to accommodate their additional needs.

This has to change if the Paralympics is to have the legacy of increasing participation in sport that the organisers hoped for. Often, people with learning disabilities only need relatively minor support in order to be able to use facilities. There are also plenty of specialist training courses available for coaches.

But sometimes, all it takes to increase participation is a little bit of creative thinking. For instance, there is the Sports Buddy initiative, which was launched recently in Kirklees. This scheme looks to pair up people with a learning or physical disability over the age of 18 who would like to take part in sports activities but want help and support to do this, with a non-disabled volunteer who becomes their sports buddy. Once paired, they take part in sporting activities together.

Sports Buddy shows that initiatives don’t have to be complex or costly to make a difference. Getting people with learning disabilities involved in sport not only improves their health, fitness and confidence, it can also give them the chance to make new friends. They shouldn’t be denied these opportunities for the sake of some minor adjustments or the lack of specialist training.

A feature on Sports Buddy will appear in the forthcoming September/October issue of Learning Disability Today, which will be out later this month.