A few months after the greatest sporting experience of my life i.e. the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, this article covers my thoughts regarding the Paralympic legacy and the challenges ahead.
A dream or a realistic prospect?
As someone who was integrally involved with the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games bid, and then as a Board Member of LOCOG for six years, I had real hopes that the games would lead to a significant change in the way sport for people with disability was perceived and provided. I also hoped that the biggest change would be a substantial increase in the number of people with disabilities taking up sport and active physical recreation. Eighteen months after the games, are there signs of success?
Before answering the question just posed, I think it would be useful to consider some of the historical and evolving issues affecting sport for people with a disability, and in particular for those with a vision impairment, in the UK.
A legacy for children
Starting with children, up until about 20 years ago, over 90 percent of children with a disability were educated in special schools. Whilst not wishing to enter into the debate as to the standard of educational provision in special verses mainstream schools, one thing is certainly clear, the provision and quality of sport and physical education in special schools was significantly better than that offered now to most children with disabilities in mainstream schools. As someone who went blind aged ten, in the early sixties, and who was sent off to a special boarding school for the blind, I remember that the opportunity to participate in an unexpectedly wide range of sports was a big ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak time in my life.
I recall, on my first day when being shown around by another child, being almost run over by 2 blind kids racing each other on home-made go-carts. Having just picked myself up from the side of the driveway and resuming my walk around, I was then flattened by 2 other blind children chasing the go-carts on roller skates! My first thought was, “wow if they can do it then so can I”!
After that I spent every moment I could, when not in the classroom, having a go at football, cricket, athletics, swimming and rowing. The PE lessons were my favourites with the rope climbing, vaulting and games of crab football, (don’t ask what that is), being the best. Swinging on a rope towards a gym box or vaulting horse that you couldn’t see, was scary but taught me a lot about spacial awareness, visualisation of objects and environments beyond my physical reach, etc.
Having spoken to dozens of V.I. children in mainstream schools over the past 20 years, the picture is sadly uniformly poor. Playtime is spent by most of them in a classroom playing computer games. PE is limited either by a lack of suitably qualified PE staff with any knowledge of adapted PE or the dreaded “health and safety regulations” being invoked.
As for team games there are virtually no opportunities to be included in teams with their non-disabled peers, and not enough children with a disability to form a team or teams. Some enterprising schools have developed sports programmes but these tend to be multi-disability based and in many cases do not lead to the teaching and developing of specific disability skills. In addition, many children with disabilities attending mainstream schools are prevented from attending after school activities by rigid school transport services that leave at a fixed time.
As someone who has also been involved in competitive sport, as a competitor, coach and sports provider/organiser, I have observed that the skill level of youngsters coming forward to participate either recreationally or at a higher level is abysmally low.
Another factor that needs to be taken into account that has changed significantly over the past 50 years is the nature and causes of sight loss in children. It is estimated that 2 in 1000 of the childhood population have some form of vision impairment. This, thank goodness, is a very low incidence disability when compared to say physical disability or learning disability. An estimated 60 percent of children with a vision impairment have one or more additional disabilities. This has inevitably meant that any development of active sports and physical recreation programmes for multi-disabled children has been virtually impossible to provide in a mainstream setting.
The situation for adults
There have, undoubtedly been some improvements over recent years. Many facilities now have improved access for people with a disability. The focus still tends to be on physical access with poor lighting and colour contrast abounding in many sports facilities and gyms. Much of the equipment is still not accessible to participants with a V.I., but some of these issues have been overcome or reduced by a change in the attitude of the staff or attendants running the facilities. This change in attitude is by no means universal and is still no answer for those who wish to be totally independent, but it is a major move forward which enables those of us that want to use and pay for a gym or go swimming, to do so with a minimum of fuss and denting of pride. I use my local gym for example, and they look after my guide dog in the sales office, guide me through the busy reception if I wish, and then the gym attendants set the machines with a minimum of fuss and readily link me from one piece of equipment to another. I also quite enjoy the interaction with them and think that I have helped develop their knowledge and skills in understanding not only how best to help a V.I. gym user, but also their skills in teaching physical activity and non-visual explanations of exercise tasks and activities.
Many sporting venues have developed better spectator facilities for those with a disability. Audio commentary for the V.I. is now available in many football and cricket grounds. Over the past 40 years I have attended 13 opening and closing ceremonies of the winter and summer Paralympic Games, but London were the first games where live audio commentary was available throughout both ceremonies. This is a real step forward and hopefully will lead to this “inclusion” being standard for all major sporting events.
Because of the difficulties mentioned above with regard to mainstreaming of sport for people with a disability, the growth of specific sports clubs and governing bodies for disability sport has been crucial. The first Paralympic Games (originally called the paraplegic games) took place in Britain in 1948. Blind and partially sighted competitors however were not included until 1976 and other disability groups such as those with cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, and amputees, have been included since then. Most sports now, for people with a disability, have an international and national sports body that is either specific to their disability or included in the non-disability sport’s governing body.
Over the past 40 years I have had the opportunity to try over 50 different sports and many of these are on offer to the members of the sports club that I set up in 1973 and which celebrated its 40th anniversary last April.
We offer opportunities to participate in everything from bowls, cricket, football, skiing and sailing, to sound tennis and archery!
So, what about the question I posed at the beginning of this article, concerning the legacy?
I think there have been 2 main legacy outcomes- one that was hoped for, and the other great, but not well planned for.
I think the Games undoubtedly raised the awareness of the general public that “disability” doesn’t mean “inability” and the stunning images of “ability in action” will stay in the public mind for decades to come. The 2012 Games were seen by many as the first worldwide international sporting event for people with a disability, as opposed to “a disability sporting event” - ie the sport, and the abilities of the athletes came first.
Big sponsors are coming forward to sponsor the games as “a sports event” and see advantages of being associated with the games as part of their core business instead of as part of their charitable programme. Channel Four's coverage was, in most peoples opinion, great, and the profile of many of the athletes from the Paralympics has soared.
The unforeseen consequences of the games relates however to the issues I raised earlier in this article. Because of the educational inclusion agenda, and the lack of sporting and recreational opportunities for those with a disability in mainstream sporting provision, many people with a disability saw for the first time what sports were possible “for people like them” and have come forward in their hundreds to have a go.
The British Paralympic Association arranged, in conjunction with some of the sporting bodies, to hold taster events and have been overwhelmed with the response.
My sports club in London for example, has seen a significant growth in its membership with people of all ages wanting to know more about, and do more sport. Given that most sports clubs are run by volunteers and are short of funds, this was an area not included in much of the “legacy” provision ie who would meet and provide for, any increase in demand?
In conclusion, I think the legacy of the Games in 2012 is potentially positive. More people now know that there is a massive range of sporting and physical activities out there for them. I know my non-sporty friends who have a disability say to me that they are sick and tired of being asked if they are “Paralympians” and that many people with a disability don’t want to do sport, but I think that their annoyance is a small price to pay if those of us that do want to try different things and have similar opportunities to our non-disabled counterparts, are enabled and included to have those choices.
A mum, who is blind and came to my club’s sound tennis classes said:
“I am not really sporty but I really enjoy having a go at the tennis and, more importantly, I have found a sport that I can play with my two sighted young children. I am not very good and they laugh at me, but it is fantastic to have something that I enjoy, that is active, and that we can all do together, if only I knew that things like tennis were possible years ago I might have been playing at Wimbledon!!”
MIKE BRACE CBE
(These are my thoughts and views and are not those of anybody that I have been, or am currently involved with. I would be interested to know your experiences or views.)