Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Sport for all

Dan Parton cutAs we head into another packed summer of sport, it is important to ensure that people with learning disabilities get the chance to take up activities.

For sports fans, this summer is a veritable smorgasbord of delights: from the football World Cup in Brazil to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow – along with the regular events such as Wimbledon tennis and Test Match cricket – there is something to cater for almost every taste.

Of course, one of the effects of such events is that it inspires people to get up and give the sports a go themselves. Except that some people don’t always get that chance – mainly those with disabilities.

This was borne out after the London 2012 Olympics. While one of its aims was to ‘inspire a generation’ – this didn’t necessarily extend to people with disabilities. Almost 9 in 10 sport clubs in the UK saw no change in the number of disabled people joining their club since the London 2012 Paralympic Games, according to the Olympic and Paralympic Games: Legacy Survey by Sport and Recreation Alliance in 2012.

In addition, research carried out in 2013 by the Sport and Recreation Alliance, in its Olympic legacy survey titled Topline results, has shown that people with learning disabilities often face significant barriers when it comes to participating in sport. More than half (51%) of sports clubs in the UK do not have facilities for disabled people to take part in sports, and 63% do not have suitably trained staff.

So it is likely that many people with learning disabilities have not even had the opportunity to try out the sports they have seen their heroes play on television. This is unacceptable. For instance, it denies people the chance to experience the health benefits of regular exercise, but also the opportunity to make friends and build confidence and self-esteem.

Of course, there are learning disability-specific initiatives out there doing great things. There is the long-established Special Olympics Great Britain, which runs 150 clubs in England, Scotland and Wales and provides training and competition programmes in 26 sports.

New schemes are also being piloted, such as the one run by Mencap, Special Olympics GB and England Athletics in Bexley, which aims to get more people with learning disabilities into athletics.

These are welcome and do much to increase opportunities for people with learning disabilities to try out sports – and train – among their peers. But more also needs to be done by mainstream sports clubs and gyms to ensure they are inclusive: it doesn’t necessarily take much – money, time or effect – to help people with learning disabilities to access sports. For instance, there is specialist training available for staff and adapted equipment, but simple things like ensuring all information is accessible or adapting the rules of some games can make a big difference.

What can be achieved when people are given the chance was demonstrated last weekend in Cardiff at the British Learning Disability Swimming Championships, where swimmers from across the country competed for titles. Jessica-Jane Applegate, who has a learning disability and won a gold medal at the 2012 Paralympics attended, and she started out at events like this.

In addition, the Special Olympics European Summer Games will take place in Belgium in September. There, the competition will be every bit as fierce as in the Commonwealth Games, which takes place between July 23 and August 3.

Everybody knows the value of playing and competing in sports, and it is the same regardless of whether someone has a disability or not. Their chance to try them out should also be regardless of disability.

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