Episode 2:

Real Lives (Part 2)

Date released: April 2011. Updated: June 2013; January 2015; September 2017

In this second part we hear from three practitioners working in coaching and physical education settings with young people with disability.

In this second and concluding part, we hear from three practitioners working in coaching and physical education settings with young disabled people. It’s quite a long part – so grab a coffee or whatever tickles your fancy – and settle in!

Physical education

The physical education experience in schools is often seen as providing the basis for later attitudes towards physical activity and sport in all young people.

These attitudes can be both positive and negative; most people will have their own stories about participation in physical education and sport at school. A lifelong love or abhorrence to sport can be based upon these experiences.

Chris Nunn is a former coach of disability athletics at the Australian Institute of Sport and responsible for the development of water-based training concept for disabled athletes. He feels that individual attitudes make a difference. A positive PE experience.

Chris Nunn

Chris Nunn

Depends on the quality and interest of the physical educators within the schools … my experience has been that if a teacher has an interest in a particular sport then they will encourage a great number of students to try the sport and will build a program into the physical education curriculum.

Additionally, the wider school attitude towards the importance of PE, and the limitations of the physical education curriculum, can also be a factor. Chris says:

Most of the opportunities for talented students are provided through afterschool sports programs or through alternative coaching options. During PE lessons the teachers are committed to teaching a range of skills and activities to a range of students and unless the school offers a ‘specialist sports program’ PE lessons do not cater for the emerging competitive athlete.

Aija Saari is a former PE teacher who has worked for the Finnish Sports Association for Disabled People since 1990, currently as development manager.

Aija Saari

Aija Saari

Mainstream PE teachers face far too many challenges today.

The main challenges she sees include:

  • more behavioural and neurological disorders among school kids;
  • obese and passive children, who struggle even with basic motor skills because to too little daily physical activity;
  • large group sizes in PE, and
  • lack of knowledge about disability sport.

Confronted with these issues, Aija feels that teachers are often tempted to take the easier options, for example:

  • allowing children not to participate in school PE at all;
  • replace PE with therapy (for example, substitute physiotherapy exercises), or
  • give disabled children a separate programme with their personal assistant while others are having PE.

Aija continues that although there are:

PE teachers who try their best to activate the child with physical and other disabilities they may not be aware “where and what sports in the field of disability sports are suitable” for particular children.

This lack of knowledge about the possibilities available to disabled children can lead them to the belief that:

Competitive sport is something that doesn’t belong to the life of children with disability.

Pathways in sport for disabled children

A lot of effort has taken place in some countries to establish ‘pathways in sport’ for people with disabilities in order to create a seamless transition from school /after-school sport into the competitive and elite arena. However, how effective are these programmes in enabling disabled children and adults to access opportunities in sport.

Scott Goodman

Scott Goodman

I know of a disability sport club based in Tasmania that links children and adults into existing sport systems. It’s designed to enable them to move on or remain within the club. Participation in open leagues enables better players to move on.

But pathways in competitive sport are not always the most important aspect. Scott continues:

The development of social and sports etiquette skills is just as important. Not all people go to clubs to achieve elite status.

Chris Nunn’s view is unequivocal:

Get a grip! The only athletes with disabilities who emerge through these systems are those with minimal disability and are easily integrated into regular sports programs. They do not require any specified pathway to enable them to compete. Often the sports that students are encouraged to participate in do not have an ongoing competition pathway for continued involvement once they leave the institution in which it was introduced. We talk of ‘pathways’ and provide ‘experiences’. More thought needs to be given to the activities and the potential pathways which can stem from ‘experiences’.

Young people who have more severe impairment face significant obstacles in accessing a genuine sporting career. Chris’s view is that young people with moderate to severe disabilities have:

much fewer options and significant barriers, including coach acceptance, facility access, appropriate equipment, financial implications, transport options and more!

Chris feels that the creation of pathways and opportunities is not sufficient. Two important factors are required to help young disabled people make the transition.

These are:

  • an experienced and trained facilitator, and
  • time

He says that a facilitator is essential to enable the relationship between the participant and the service provider to become effective. For those with moderate and severe disability it is not enough to provide details of a ‘pathway’ and a contact list.

Further, he feels a longitudinal and considered approach is needed because:

the transition takes time, education, a physical presence and follow-up to ensure longevity and continued engagement on both parts.

Chris’s view is that currently is that talent identification (talent ID) with regard to disabled athletes is ad hoc and dependent on chance and the motivation of committed individuals. His analysis of the Australian experience is:

Time and again in Australia we see ‘performance hubs’ established where athletes are aligned with a coach and end up reaching high levels within their sport. These ‘performance hubs’ are not the result of careful planning on behalf of sports, government or community organisations, they are simply the result of a coach who has an interest in a sport and provides ‘engaging’ experiences for the athletes he / she works with.

A number of countries have adopted ‘pathways in sport’ programmes – some based on the ‘long-term athlete development’ model promoted by Istvan Balyi. Take a look at a comprehensive description of the long term athlete development model from the Canadian Sport for Life website:

Canadian Sport for Life - Long Term Athlete Development Model

Go to the Canadian Sport for Life Long Term Athlete Development Model

In England, for example, the Youth Sport Trust (see www.youthsporttrust.org) coordinate an approach to Talent ID called Playground to Podium.

This ambitious project aims to form a pathway in sport for young disabled people taking them from physical education, community-based participation, to high level performance and competition.

The Playground to Podium (P2P) framework, launched in 2006, has the ultimate target of discovering and preparing young disabled people for Paralympic representation, the initial target being the London Paralympics in 2012. However, it also hopes to broaden the participation base and provide opportunities at all levels.

Each component part of P2P is the responsibility of a different agency, linking school sport partnerships (community of primary, secondary and special schools clustered around a Specialist Sports College), County Sport Partnerships (networks of agencies promoting co-ordinating community sport at county level in England).

For more information on how these agencies link together you can visit their websites underneath –

English Federation of Disability Sport

Go to English Federation of Disability Sport website

Sports Coach UK

Go to Sports Coach UK website

Sport England

Go to Sport England website

In this way, the participating agencies are encouraged to provide leadership and organisation within their sector, liaise with internal and external partners, and deliver agreed local and national outcomes.

The innate weakness of the programme is its dependency on each participating agency to deliver its specific contribution. A change in Government in the UK in 2010 has also led to the partial removal funding from most of these agencies and networks.

There is some doubt over the future of the programme post-2012.

These issues highlight the fragility of pathway programmes of this nature, subject as they are to variables in policy and funding.

Aija Saari thinks that the increase in human rights legislation affecting disabled people means that responses have to be flexible and not “one size fits all”.

The funding supporting the P2P example links young people to Paralympic sport. However, as Aija points out, not every child is interested in, or capable of participating in, Paralympic sport.

These can include:

  • the child might be interested in non-Paralympic sports; “for example, a girl with cerebral palsy who wants to play soccer; little people who want to compete in floor ball”;
  • the child who does not fit into Paralympic sports classification; for example , “a child who has autism and likes track and field”
  • the sports organisations into which a child with autism might fit (for example, Special Olympics) may not be active in the neighbourhood;
  • some children who are active wheelchair users and healthy hands are invited to all possible Paralympic camps; but even if they ‘fit’ the desired profile, they may not be interested in competitive sports; “for example, they prefers to dance flamenco!”;
  • a child may be the only one with a specific kind of impairment in the area; therefore, there is no opportunity to play team sports like wheelchair basketball or goal ball;
  • if there is a sport club that is welcoming and accepting, its focus may be on non-Paralympic or Special Olympic-sports like orienteering or local traditional games.

So what solutions can be offered to address these ‘pathways problems’?

Chris Nunn thinks that investment in people is the key.

What we should be doing is working to identify more individuals who have a desire to engage with students before they leave the school system and thus enable a transition into sport. This would be a much better spend that the money currently being thrown at after-school sport which really provides additional opportunities for students who are already active.

Aija feels that the ‘seamless’ transition only works where children fit the specific programmes on offer and are classified according to a ‘medical’ model approach. Her preference is to:

keep on working with the grassroots in order to assist and support all the sport service providers to be open for all kinds of diversities – and thus try to keep a good circle working…

In other words, a more individualised and local model based on the interests and needs of young people and the opportunities available.

Applied research

Finally, I asked both Aija and Chris to suggest areas of future research or investigation around the area of PE and community sport for young disabled people.

Not surprisingly, Aija feels a community-based approach would be useful. She advocates action research around community based programs and schools. She suggests the following pilot study:

How to assist and facilitate the development of a physically active & inclusive environment from school to neighbourhood /community.

Within this study Aija would hope to identify:

  • how the school can benefit from community sport programs;
  • how sports clubs can assist schools; and
  • could this cooperation help sports clubs to find new innovations and participants?

Similar studies have indicated that the development of localised pathways and networks are more important to people than tenuous links to national programmes.

For example, a feedback exercise with disability sector organisations carried out on behalf of the Australian Sports Commission showed that:

  • There was a concerted call for more information about local opportunities in sport and physical recreation;
  • There was also a request for help in establishing local organisational and practitioner networks. This would enable organisations, and the practitioners working within them, to share expertise and pool resources.

Chris suggests a two-part targeted research programme:

What is the physical preparation of participants with severe and moderate disability who are asked to participate in sport?

He explains this as follows:

It is my belief that many participants with disabilities are asked to participate in sport without the physical background to ensure success and enjoyment. Whilst the initial introduction into sport is essential, potential athletes must be exposed early in their ‘pathway’ to the necessity for regular training and the life benefits which can be derived from such commitment to regular training. I am speaking of flexibility programs, physical conditioning programs based on physiotherapy knowledge and input, the things that generic children have as a foundation through general play.

The second part of his ideal research would be:

What tools do service providers need to enable physical development for children with disability?

Chris sums up the need for this by saying:

I believe there is a great deal of work to be done here to ensure parents and carers are equipped to provide a progressive learning and physical environment for potential sporting participants.

That’s it for this mini-series we called ‘Real Lives’. Hope you got something out of it.

About the author: Ken Black

About the author: Ken Black

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

I have worked as a practitioner in the area of inclusive physical activity and disability sport for over 35 years. This has included 10 years working in special education, 2 years for a disability sport organisation (UK Sports Association for People with Learning Disability), 6 years as a disability sports development officer for Leeds City Council sports development team, 6 years as the Inclusive Sport Officer with the Youth Sport Trust, 3 years as Sports Consultant with the Australian Sports Commission, (working in the Disability Sport Unit), and 2 years running a research and development centre on disability sport at Loughborough University.