This was originally published on Quora on January 11 as Laura Hale’s answer to How do people get interested in disability sports?.
There are a few pathways for people to get into disability sport, and it really does depend on who you are, how old you are, what your disability type is, how you acquired your disability, your level of sportiness before you had a disability if you acquired it later, and your social support network.
There are stories, and a lot of stories, that I have heard from members of various national sports team about how they became interested in disability sport. Most of these stories come from people who acquired their disability as a result of a sudden onset disease or an accident, and most of them were just on the edge of but not quite making their country’s national team in some sport. They are laying in the hospital, feeling sorry for themselves when in rolls some one in a wheelchair. The person in a wheelchair is one of the country’s top sportspeople in their sport. The person then starts recruiting for the national team, right then and there. It isn’t, “Don’t worry. It will be okay.” It’s more like, “So you were a great gymnastics competitor huh? Well, we need really good people for the wheelchair basketball/wheelchair rugby/wheelchair tennis team. All that training you’ve done? It’s set you right up to step into this sport as you’ve clearly got what it takes. We look forward to seeing you make the national team in six months.” I’ve pretty much only heard this from wheelchair using athletes, and it is almost always a person in a chair. I can’t recall hearing a single story of an amputee or vision impaired person making that approach. I used to wonder some what jokingly if some sport organizations and teams hadn’t paid the hospital staff to call them if likely candidates for their team came in with permanent disabilities…
That’s probably not the normal pathway for most people. So what’s a bit more normal? For people who are born with a disability or who acquire one at a young age, a normal pathway is probably through school or social organizations for children. A lot of national disability sport organizations have relationships with the government or with national disability organizations. They work to serve their members, and increase physical activity among people with disabilities. This is seen as hugely important : People who participate in disability sports of any kind require less lifelong medical attention. It is so much cheaper to encourage them to play sports. Plus, as disability sport matures more and Paralympic medals are viewed as more valuable or as valuable Olympic medals, you want pathways to identify and develop elite athletes. Getting them started young is important.
What this means in practical terms is organizations like British Blind Sport
, Vision Australia
and other organizations do active outreach. They provide schools with information on sporting opportunities for young people and support them in running these programs. They get in touch with able-bodied sport organizations, clubs and facilities. They provide information on how to be more inclusive, and how they can easily run programs, train coaches to be sensitive to needs, and make facilities more usable. A person with a disability may not want to become an elite swimmer or join a swimming club, but they may want to be able to just use the pool. Lots of people become involved this way, because they have been given information either by the organization, by a school, by a club or by a facility who have all indicated that there are options. The national organizations, often supported by a lot of volunteers and some employees, often are also often supported by local groups. Disability Sport Wales
is one example. Blind Sports NSW welcomes all participants and volunteers
is another. They often do a lot of survey work to try to meet the needs of their community. For example, they might have done a survey after say Hunger Games
came out and discovered every kid in a wheelchair wanted to take up archery because they want to shoot like Katniss Everdeen
. They might respond by offering clinics, contacting archery clubs to show them how to be more inclusive, or getting top international blind, deaf or wheelchair using archers to go to schools to talk about what they do.
A lot of people don’t acquire their disabilities at birth or when they are young. An accident happens, they get an illness, they have broader health issues that result in disability, a disease like Multiple Sclerosis
has a later onset, or they have complications related to something else. The latter includes things like suicide attempts going horribly wrong, or complications from illegal drug use. A lot of people get involved in sports because of this. Part of their rehabilitation often includes playing sport. You’re a new wheelchair user and need to figure out how to use it? Doing wheelchair basketball is a good way to learn. In fact, a number of hospitals in the United States are sponsoring or running wheelchair basketball teams specifically as a result of this. You’re newly blind? Goalball
is being used to train people to get a better feel of their environment through listening. These sporting activities are good, not just for rehabilitation of the body, but also of the mind. They get you in touch with a community of similar people, and give social opportunities of people who really, really know what the hell you’re going through. Once out of the hospital, a number of people continue to participate in sports because they found out that they like it. Not only do they like it, but it turns out they are quite good at it. There are a lot of people who never considered themselves sporty before their disability, but find out they are afterwards.
Those are probably the three biggest pathways: Direct recruitment, from information provided through social organizations for people with disabilities or through schools and sports club, or during rehabilitation. There are a few other pathways worth mentioning.
Disability sport in the United States has some opportunities for sports scholarships to attend university, and we’re not talking tiny universities that no one has ever heard of designed for people with disabilities to be hidden away. We’re talking some pretty well known universities including University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
, The University of Texas at Arlington
, Auburn University
, University of Wisconsin – Whitewater
to name a few. Some of them offer Wheelchair Tennis
, Wheelchair Basketball
and a few other sports. There is talk about creating an NCAA
championship and blowing out the number of university teams offering programs. (The first collegiate competition occurred only last year or the year before. It wasn’t hugely formal.) There is talk of doing this for a number of sports. As this happens and as this becomes more accessible, there will be more parents pushing their kids to do sports to get a university sports scholarship. The programs that do offer these are already really impressive, with some athletes opting out of taking professional wheelchair basketball contracts in Europe to get a full ride sports scholarship in the United States. This includes players from Australia, Canada, the United States and elsewhere. Parents will learn about this because disability sports is becoming way more visible in the USA and, well, lots of parents dream of having their kids do this. Disability won’t be seen as much of an obstacle anymore.
Another pathway is this: People with disabilities see something on television or read about it on the Internet. They go, “That’s too fucking cool! I wanna do that!”. They then talk to their social network and do that. There is a Mexican Amputee Football
team I can think of where four amps at university saw a special on television, decided just that, and then created their own team. Three of the members of the new club then made the Mexican national team within a year, and represented their nation at the World Championships. Powerchair Football
in Spain has been similar. There is a team I believe in Alicante where two of the players saw a special on television, decided “Too cool!” and then set about setting up a team. They are now one of the national leaders in developing the sport in Spain.
If it hasn’t come across in this answer, there is a real desire to win at disability sports. Countries are investing a lot into disability sports. Paralympic and Deaflympic medals (and Cricket World Cup victories) matter. They want to support this, and increase their medal count. One of the ways they do this is by working with national sporting organizations like the Australian Institute of Sport
, a similar state body, an NOC, an NPC, or a government elite sport organization. They run, “Come and try it” events and talent identification events. They encourage anyone with a disability to attend, especially those who acquired their disability later who had sporting success. They run people through their paces, and then go, “You’d make a great para-rower. We’ll offer you a scholarship as an Elite Athlete With a Disability so you can take up para-rowing full-time.” The person might go, “Huh. I’d have thought wheelchair basketball…” but they then take up rowing, because, well, the experts say that’s what their body type and disability type is best at, and that’s where they can win medals either on the state level or the national level. They might never had an interest in rowing before that.
The last pathway involves disability culture, and is probably most specific to Deafhood
. The culture has a culture of playing sports. Sports are always offered on the side as an option for people to play. You’re in all these organizations as part of the broader specific disability culture and it is just relatively easy to know about these things, to know the options are available should you ever want them, and you can just get involved at any time. If you develop an interest, there it is.