Episode 35:

Beyond the Paralympics: Where to for disability sport in Australia?

Date released: November 2012 Updated September 2017

Partners: Dr Simon Darcy

Dr. Simon Darcy from the University of Technology in Sydney is a long time advocate, academic and researcher—pioneering many invaluable projects and research in the sport, tourism and human rights for people with disability. In this episode we ask Simon ‘what now’ for Paralympic sport, following the huge success of the London Games.

It’s a great pleasure in this episode to introduce you to Dr Simon Darcy, Associate Professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. Simon is one of the (if not THE) leading advocates, academics and researchers in Australia. Has been for a number of years. Now, The Inclusion Club loves to bridge the gap between research and practice and Simon knows all about this. He has a grasp on the real life practical issues of inclusion whilst at the same time understanding the importance of evidence based research. Subsequent to the 2012 Paralympic Games in London Simon wrote an article for The Conversation about the legacy of the Paralympic Games in Australia. Here, we reproduce that article and add a personal interview with Simon where we discuss some of the issues raised. It’s interesting stuff. Although it refers to Australia, we think the ideas and thoughts here apply globally and, hence, are worth sharing. We recommend that you read the article then take a look at the interview underneath and download the reports for more background information. Enjoy 🙂

As the bright lights of the London 2012 Paralympic Games begin to dim, and as the media focus diverts back to everyday life, we’re left with a pertinent question: where to now for disability sport in Australia? The Australian team performed brilliantly, coming fifth internationally, with a total of 85 medals on the official medal count, behind the world sporting powerhouses of China (231), Great Britain (120), the Russian Federation (102) and the Ukraine (84, but with one more silver than Australia). Individually there were a number of standout performances, with Jacqueline Freney bringing her eight gold medals in the S7 swimming.

The Inclusion Club—Episode35: Evan O'Hanlon at the BRITAIN LONDON 2012 PARALYMPIC GAMES

Evan O’Hanlon of Australia celebrates winning gold following the men’s 200m – T38 final at the Olympic Stadium during the London 2012 Paralympic Games, London, Britain, 08 September 2012. EPA/TAL COHEN

Who would have thought somebody would have equalled or outshone Matthew Cowdrey’s five gold medals and two silver medals, that gave him a total of 22 Paralympic medals for three Paralympic games. The men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams (two silver) together with the wheelchair rugby team (one gold) received well-deserved medals. Yet, how does this elite performance translate to grassroots participation of people with disability in sport in Australia?

The Inclusion Club—Episode35: Madison De Rozario at the BRITAIN LONDON 2012 PARALYMPIC GAMES

Madison De Rozario of Australia prepares to compete in Women’s 400m -T53 final at Olympic Stadium during the London 2012 Paralympic Games, London, Britain, 08 September 2012. EPA/KERIM OKTEN

Representatives from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) will tell you that elite sporting success acts as inspiration for ordinary people to get motivated to participate in sport, in what is known as the “trickle-down effect”.


Research carried out by the Australian Centre for Olympic Studies at UTS by Tony Veal (UTS), Kristine Toohey (Griffith University) and Stephen Frawley (UTS), including an examination of participation rates of Australians in sport, refutes this assertion—at least for Olympic sports. The research took data from the Exercise Recreation and Sport Survey (the study was a joint initiative of the Australian Sports Commission and State and Territory Departments of Sport and Recreation) on the frequency, duration, nature and type of recreation and sports activities participated in by persons 15 years and older annually between 2001 and 2010, and tracked participation rates. No increase of participation in Olympic sports was found. Similar work cannot be carried out for Paralympic sports—simply because the data does not exist, as the research funded by the Commonwealth and State departments of sport never included a disability module. The Australian Bureau of Statistics general social survey identifies that people with disability participate in sport significantly less than other Australians. These participation rates are even lower depending on the type of disability and the higher the level of support needs an individual requires. On a closer examination, two recent research reports critically examine the participation of people with disability in sport. The first, released on the day of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Disability Rights Now evaluates Australia’s performance against the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It documents the marginalised position of people with disability within Australian society and in reference to other nations in the OECD and reports by the United Nations. That includes those living in poverty, with relatively low levels of employment and a high degree of unmet needs to address basic living conditions.

The Inclusion Club—Episode35: Team Australia at the BRITAIN LONDON 2012 PARALYMPIC GAMES

Team Australia celebrate the silver medal in the Women’s Wheelchair Basketball competition at the London 2012 Paralympic Games at the North Greenwich Arena, Great Britain, 7 September 2012. Germany won gold. EPA/DANIEL KARMANN

With regards to sport, the assessment of Article 30 of the Disability Rights Now report on sport and recreation participation of people with disability states: “Support for grassroots participation and pathways to elite level competition are lacking …” Instead, there is a reliance on the Australian Paralympic Committee to use its very successful Paralympic Talent Search program to identify potential Paralympians ahead of implementing a broader process of grassroots participation in disability sport. The emphasis on elite development ahead of grassroots participation is compounded as it was estimated in 2008 that 85% of disability sport funding at the Commonwealth level went to the Australian Paralympic Committee and Paralympic sport. Of course, sport funding goes beyond the Commonwealth but the 2009 Crawford Report called The Future of Australian Sport identified a series of deficiencies in the current system and called for more funding for “sporting and other organisations that provide services and support to athletes with disabilities at both the elite and community level”. The reasons for lower levels of participation are complex. A report by myself and UTS researchers Tracy Taylor, Aron Murphy (now University of New England) and Daniel Lock (now Griffith University) documents the complex set of intrapersonal, interpersonal and structural constraints people with disabilities face in trying to participate.

The Right Fit

Unlike previous studies, our report examined the constraints through looking at ten separate disability groups and five levels of support needs. It showed for the matrix of each disability type and support need there were a significantly different mix of constraints that needed to be negotiated in order to participate in sport. For one of the most marginalised groups—people with intellectual disabilities with high support needs—parents with children who enjoyed sporting activities could see the benefits that sport and physical activity brought their children. But those same parents were continually frustrated in their attempts to find their children appropriate support and activities in their local areas. Opportunities to participate are great for the individual and also for the family as one sibling stated, when the desire to participate and the means to do so come together:

“It’s incredible […]. He [the brother] is like a flower that has opened up since he started. He is toned, more coordinated, starting to do the routines more clearly […] He runs into the class on Saturday morning. The other members of the class say they like having him there. A few of them are on his Facebook, others want to be, but he is picky!!”

At the Federal and State government levels, hope is on the horizon. The National Disability Insurance Scheme is being piloted. This includes individualised funding packages providing opportunities for people with disabilities and their families to not only get the care that they need but also broker their own sporting futures. And that, is has to be said, is a goal worth cheering for.

We had the opportunity to catch up with Simon for a quick interview—delving a bit deeper into the some of the issues raised here. Take a look at the Skype conversation below.

PDF Icon Click to download the transcript from this interview

Simon mentioned a report published by the Australian Sports Commission with the University of Technology called Participation and non-participation of people with disability in sport and active recreation and an article published in Disability and Society, In search of a level playing field—the constraints and benefits of sport participation by people with an intellectual disability. You can download both of these below.

What’s Your Opinion?

What do you think? What do you think the legacy of the Paralympic Games are? If you have an opinion on this please let us know below.

Thanks again to Simon for his cooperation with this episode. Until next time.


About the author: Dr Simon Darcy

About the author: Dr Simon Darcy

Professor & Co-Director Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre - UTS Business School, University of Technology Sydney

Simon Darcy specialises in developing inclusive organisational approaches for diversity groups. His research has spanned a variety of contexts including sport, tourism, events, volunteers, transport, the built environment and disability services. His research and industry collaboration on accessible tourism, volunteer management and the social impact of inclusion has been internationally recognised.