The 7 Pillars of Inclusion

Sep 10, 2016

Episode 65: The 7 Pillars of Inclusion

Released: June 2016

What are the commonalities of inclusion for disadvantaged populations? The 7 Pillars of Inclusion presents a helicopter view of inclusion as a framework for greater levels of participation.

Partners: Play by the Rules

In mid 2013 I was contacted by the then Manager of Play by the Rules and asked to look at developing a national framework for the greater inclusion of disadvantaged populations into sport. This was not specific to people with disability but would be an overall framework that could be applied across the board – for Indigenous inclusion, for the inclusion of women or the inclusion of people from different cultural backgrounds.

Little was I to know at the time that I was to become the Manager of Play by the Rules myself and, hence, would be in a position to drive the national framework for the next few years. It’s been quite a journey!

Before we look at what the framework entails it’s necessary to step back a little and consider the context in which the framework evolved in Australia. Generally, in Australia for the best part of two decades, there has been a strong focus on targeted programs to address disadvantage. In particular there have been national, state and local programs to tackle the inclusion of people with disability, Indigenous Australians and women. These have been important and necessary and continue to make a difference today as they evolve and grow. Sure, some of these programs have ‘come and gone’ with varying degrees of impact and success, but what they have collectively done is raise the level of awareness and understanding of inclusion – from national level down.

It’s a good situation. In Australia now the question is more ‘how’ to be inclusive, rather than ‘why’.

What has been lacking though is a common language and understanding of what inclusion means – in a practical sense – for providers of sport and recreation. That’s not to ignore the differences between targeted populations, rather, to recognise that there are similarities AND differences. The rationale behind the development of the framework was based on the assumption that a common language and framework would help alleviate duplication and provide a ‘starting point’ for strategy development.

Conversations and common words

To develop the framework a Delphi method of semi-structured conversations was used with a range of practitioners and policy makers across different targeted population groups. Essentially, we were looking for the common words that were used rather than the detail of targeted population strategy. Questions were deliberately broad and open-ended, such as ‘what does inclusion mean to you?’ or ‘what does inclusion look like for you?’ Gradually, common themes emerged and the ‘words of inclusion’ arose.

As the project leader it was fascinating to listen to the conversations as it was clear that, regardless of what the focus was, there were commonalities. People were talking broadly about the same things. The details of implementation were different – the strategies to address Indigenous disadvantage differed markedly to those for people with disability. And the complexities of gender inequality are different to cultural disadvantage. But, the helicopter view of inclusion – the ‘big picture’ issues – were very similar.

The 7 Pillars of Inclusion were born…

Although the 7 Pillars outlined in the video apply to all disadvantaged populations we’ll run through here how they apply only for people with disability.

Before doing that it’s important to consider the approach and language used throughout the framework. We were concerned at the start that the language and approaches used at a professional national level would be very different to the language and approaches at the local voluntary community level. And we wanted the framework to relate to anyone involved in sport, regardless of where they were or if they were a local volunteer or a full-time professional. This was a challenge!

Fortunately, when we looked carefully at the conversations there were important clues that lead us down a particular path. The majority of the conversations focused around simple actions that, over time, lead to cultural change.

Pillar 1: Access

Graeme Innes was, at the time of interview, the federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner – a very senior policy position. Graeme talked about access and creating a welcoming environment at the local level. He talked about the simple things that help make people with disability not just ‘welcome’ but accepted as part of the sporting community. Things like how people are greeted when they first turn up at a sporting facility. Things like regularly talking to people with disability about their needs and making reasonable adjustments to redress disadvantage. Essentially, Graeme talked about changing routines and habits.


The fact that ‘access’ became one of the 7 Pillars is hardly surprising. Physical access issues continue to be one of the primary barriers facing people with disability today despite advancements in building codes, numerous physical access programs and increased awareness and understanding of access issues. These challenges were comprehensively outlined in the SHUT OUT report (2009).

It is more difficult in many ways to discuss ‘access’ in terms of creating welcoming environments. What is a welcoming environment for people with disability? Is it the same for all people with disability? What actions might help facilitate a welcoming environment? How to do find out about these? To make matters more complicated, there is no generally accepted definition of welcoming environments in sport.  That doesn’t stop us having a crack:

A welcoming environment in sport and recreation occurs where there is an atmosphere and culture of respect for all people, where there are opportunities to participate, to have a ‘voice’ and to influence how sport and recreation is delivered.

There are many questions here, the answers to which are often context specific and dependent on local variables. The actions that a local football club in a rural area might take to create such an environment would be different to a metropolitan netball club due to a range of factors, such as gender, locality, size of the club, facilities … the list goes on.  So, answers are not that useful. But questions are! With this in mind a series of checklists were developed for each of the Pillars. These are simply the relevant ‘starter’ questions to help address each Pillar.

Pillar 2: Attitudes

No surprises here either. There has been a mountain of research around the issue of attitudes toward inclusion over the past three decades or more. Many have focused on the physical education setting¹, others on the impact of specific events on attitudes² or attitudes toward disability type³. We know a fair amount from all this. We know, generally, that negative attitudes toward inclusion are characterised by fear, misconception and ignorance (to the extent that people do not understand what is possible). We know that attitudes are influenced by culture, religion, gender and age. So, it’s fair to say that attitudes are important.

What we do not know is how attitudes, positive or negative, are manifest as behaviour. Do people who say they have a positive attitude, back that up with positive actions? Or are people satisfied in themselves that being positive is enough. Do people understand what positive behaviour is?

In Australia, if you ask the question ‘are you positive toward the inclusion of people with disability in your sport program?’ you can pretty much guarantee that 99% of people will say that they are. But but 99% people people back that up with action? There’s a big difference between positive intention and actual behaviour.

Then came the challenge of developing an ‘attitudes’ checklist. Attitudes are complex and checklists are best when they are simple. This was particularly the case when you are considering generic attitudes across targeted population groups. Nevertheless, an emphasis was placed on practical manifestations of common attitudinal traits.

All the checklists were divided up into three focus areas – ‘about the club’, ‘about people’ and ‘about you’. This was done to help address practical issues from an organisational, personal and third person perspective. See the attitudes checklist below.

Pillar 3: Choice

All participants in this project, if they were from a sports club or association, talked about the different choices they offered for people to participate. There are competitions and opportunities for people to play based on gender, based on age, based on ability, based on weight, based on geographic location, etc etc. Sports have a myriad of ways they offer sport choices, all legitimate and all increasing the diversity of participation. This is good.

But, when it comes to exploring choices specific for people with disability there was less clarity. Generally, people talked about the inclusion of people with disability in regular provision, with no modification. Some talked about disability specific versions of their sport, such as wheelchair basketball. A few talked about aspects of their sport that had major modifications to allow for participation, such as specific equipment adaptations to allow people to participate in tenpin bowling.

There was little discussion beyond these quite narrow range of choices. Certainly there was little understanding or drive toward creating choices based on the much larger spectrum of choices.

In Australia and the UK in particular, the Inclusion Spectrum has been a framework used to articulate a broader range of choices for people with disability. The Australian version takes a practical sport focus and has been used in Australia for over a decade.


The Inclusion Spectrum is a simple yet effective framework to help distinguish the range of possible choices in sport for people with disability. Importantly, it depicts inclusion as a ‘circle’ rather than a hierarchical straight line. In the circle all choices are equally valid and appropriate, depending on individual preferences. Watch out for an episode on the Inclusion Spectrum coming soon.

Hamish Macdonald, six time Paralympian, has been one of the leading advocates and practitioners of inclusive sport for people with disability in Australia. Hamish emphasises in this short video the importance of asking people with disability directly how they wish to participate.

The ‘Choices’ checklist was more straightforward. They are essentially a series of questions designed to help sports clubs identify the current choices they offer, including the subsequent gaps in provision, and think about the possible range of choices they could offer in the future. Critical to this is consultation with community groups representing the different targeted population groups.

Pillar 4: Partnerships

There is no question that those organisations that had made good progress in ensuring inclusion was part of core business were those that had created effective partnerships. Creating an inclusive environment, an inclusive culture and inclusive practice meant working with partners. This was particularly the case for sports organisations that formed new partnerships with disability sector organisations. Familiarity breeds acceptance.

The inter-section of supply and demand – when sports organisations that supply inclusive sport join forces with organisations that can generate demand for inclusive sport – is critical to successful inclusion.

What constitutes an effective partnership is not clear. Nevertheless, characteristics of what people considered to be working partnerships included:

  • longevity – good partnerships stand the test of time, are ongoing and ride through the peaks and troughs;
  • a joint commitment to a strong common outcome. Sometimes, this would mean formal agreements, such as the Charters created between sport and disability groups in Queensland;
  • good and regular communication, and
  • the ability to be flexible and adaptable. Inevitably, there will not be agreement on all issues so compromise is important.

Paul Oliver is a man who knows about partnerships. A communications expert with a PhD in Indigenous community development and former Manager of Play by the Rules – one of the best examples of effective partnerships in Australian Sport. Paul explains…

Effective partnerships can be equally important within an organisation as they are outside an organisation. This is particularly so within larger organisations that have different governance layers. In Australia most sports operate within a federated structure of governance. This means that most national bodies have affiliate organisations in the states and territories. Each state and territory organisation, in turn, would have affiliate associations and clubs.

Developing effective partnerships within this type of structure, where affiliate organisations would have different regulatory requirements, is a challenge. This is where clear agreement on basic policy can be important. National inclusion policy that has sign off and endorsement from affiliates helps bind a single organisation toward a common direction.

Partnerships can be formal or informal. Formal partnerships involve some form of documented agreement such as a contract, or a service agreement or a memorandum of understanding. Informal partnerships are more based on mutual understanding and long standing relationships. These are more common locally where partnerships are based on a hand-shake or a barter system. The partnerships checklist tries to reflect these different forms of partnerships.

Pillar 5: Communication

Inclusion cannot happen alone. People must know about intentions and actions that make inclusion a reality. It is common that people who regard themselves as inclusive also have an assumed knowledge and understanding attributed to others. This can be a false assumption. Communicating your commitment, intentions and actions is critical to embedding an inclusive approach within an organisation. Otherwise, good actions can become the ‘best kept secret’ of a handful of people.

The good news is that these days it is easier than ever to communicate, internally and externally, your intentions and actions about inclusion. Generally, the larger the organisation is, the more challenging it is to communicate effectively. Conversations with representatives from national sporting organisations highlighted the challenge of communicating through different national, state and local affiliate organisations. Smaller state and even local organisations have fewer challenges because of less complex structures. There were differences here too. Some organisations have successfully streamlined and modernised member databases, making communication to broad memberships simple and quick. Others still rely on outdated spreadsheets that are difficult to work with.

The organisations that appeared to have more effective communication channels also embraced social media as an important communication tool. Social media allows for quick, focused and widespread messages about inclusion to members and non-members alike. Some organisations also use technology to educate, inform and engage members on inclusive initiatives, for example, Cricket Australia webinar series on A Sport for All.

Debbie Simms is an experienced and expert communicator, having managed the Australian Sports Commissions Women in Sport Unit for many years. In the video below Debbie offers some very practical communication tips for sporting organisations.

Communication can be mandated too. The requirement to have a public commitment to inclusion was built into the Sports CONNECT framework in 2002. This public commitment was tied to funding criteria and needed to have the backing and endorsement of senior management. How this was done from sport to sport differed. Football Federation Australia made a public commitment to inclusion during an international football match at the Sydney Football Stadium in front of 70,000 people. Cricket Australia made their commitment with the Prime Minister at an international cricket game in Canberra. Others simply posted a commitment on websites and/or newsletters.

This type of public commitment toward inclusion is very powerful and often acts to bind organisations to plans and policies even when the going gets tough. ‘Policy’ was also seen as critical to inclusion and emerged as the sixth Pillar.

The communication checklist reflects many of the practical points discussed by Debbie Simms above. These are universal tips going across many areas of inclusion.

Pillar 6: Policy

The development of Policy was discussed in some format by all interviewees. ‘Policy’ can mean different things to different people. It can encompass codes, rules and regulations, by-laws, policy documents, guidelines and even contracts and memorandum of understandings. The Business Directory defines policy as:

A set of policies are principles, rules, and guidelines formulated or adopted by an organization to reach its long-term goals and typically published in a booklet or other form that is widely accessible.

The words ‘widely accessible’ here is critical to successful policy. If people do not know that a policy exists and what it stands for then it is unlikely to be effective or, at best, be a retroactive document that’s only pulled off the shelf when a need arises.

To reinforce the importance of policy and the need to communicate and make widely accessible any documentation, another requirement of Sports CONNECT was to register draft Disability Action Plans with the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Commission keeps a national register of Action Plans in many different sectors. As a result of Sports CONNECT the ‘sport sector’ went from one registered Plan to 25 nationally registered Disability Action Plans in a few years. Attached to these Plan were active Policy documents that clearly articulated the intentions and commitments of each respective sporting body.

Play by the Rules has a Disability Policy template that can be adapted by sports clubs and associations.

Carl Currey was manager of the Indigenous Sports Unit for seven years and has done a huge amount of work on the development of inclusive sport policy at a national level, particularly within government. See what Carl has to say about the importance of policy below.

As Carl point out here, the impact of a policy commitment is that it sets the agenda for action. It becomes a reference point and an accountability mechanism for an organisation.

The Policy checklist that was developed for the 7 Pillars project focused on a series of simple actions to ‘demystify’ policy development. Some interviewees expressed an ignorance and fear of policy development. There was also a notion that ‘policy’ was something that large organisations have but small local clubs have no need or capacity to develop. Hence, the checklist attempts to bridge this gap by creating simple actions that makes the process quick, accountable and reflecting local community contexts.


Pillar 7: Opportunity

The distinction between the pillar 7 opportunity and pillar 3 of choice was a difficult one initially. There was a distinction, however, between offering a choice of activity and actually providing for that choice. While it is positive to offer different choices, it is often the case that individuals encounter serious challenges when trying to fully utilise that choice.

For example, a football club might offer various choices for participation such as teams for different age groups or genders. They might offer indoor football, futsal or choices that are only a certain day and time of the week. These are all different options for participation and, generally, the more choices there are then the more opportunities exist to participate. This is the same for people with disability as it is for anyone interested in football.

However, in discussions for the 7 Pillars there were many examples of these type of choices that did not ‘fit’ with individuals with disability. There was often specific reasons why there needed to be flexibility or variations in the structure or rules. Or there needed to be some adaptation to how the choice was offered and delivered. Rather than ignore these reasons we decided to examine them more within the pillar of opportunity.

These are the details of inclusion that make inclusion work. It is not sufficient to simply offer a choice. The choice needs to be developed, thought through and often modified to cater for diversity of need.

Pino Migliorino is the CEO of an organisation called Cultural Perspectives – multicultural marketing and communication specialists and consultants focused on connecting people, communities and organisations through the lens of diversity. Pino understands the power of sport to connect people and promote diversity. In the video below he looks at cultural diversity and sport and some of the detail that connects people from culturally diverse backgrounds to sport.

The detail of creating opportunities for real participation for people with disability often involves adapting and modifying activities. There are tools to help do this of course. In Episode 12 we looked at the TREE model for adapting and modifying activities.

In that vein we developed the Opportunities checklist that took a broad practical perspective for a club or organisation, for the community and for individuals.

The self-assessment tool

The 7 Pillars of Inclusion is an ongoing project. Shortly after publishing the 7 Pillars of Inclusion a partnership arose with Swimming Australia. Swimming Australia is one of Australia’s leading national sports organisations, particularly in the inclusion space where they have done a huge amount of excellent work over many years. Swimming Australia had developed the Inclusive Swimming Framework – a blueprint to guide Swimming Australia, its stakeholders and aquatic partners toward achieving full inclusion of people from a diverse array of circumstances and backgrounds in swimming and aquatic activities. The ISF incorporates the direction, thoughts and opinions of the swimming and aquatic community and aims to establish a consistent approach to planning and policy development for the swimming and aquatics sector.

Central to the ISF is an online self-assessment tool based on the 7 Pillars of Inclusion. Play by the Rules and Swimming Australia developed a bespoke online tool that swimming and aquatic organisations can use to assess their individual status on each Pillar. The online tool uses a questionnaire for each pillar that is similar to the checklist and ‘rates’ responses as people progress through the 7 Pillars. On conclusion an organisation can see how they rate themselves against each pillar, giving them a starting point to address inclusion in the long term.

The tool will continue to develop and is a great example of how a broad framework, such the 7 Pillars of Inclusion, can also be developed as a practical tool to help further inclusion.



¹ Tant, M, & E. Watelain (2015). Forty years later: a systematic literature review on inclusion in physical education (1975 – 2015): A teacher perspective. Educational Research Review, v19, November 2016, pages 1-17.

² Papaioannou, C & C. Evaggelinou, (2014). The Effect of a Disability Camp Program on Attitudes towards the Inclusion of Children with Disabilities in a Summer Sport and Leisure Activity Camp, International Journal of Special Education, v29 n1 p121-129 2014.

³ Ferrara, K, Burns, J & H. Mills, (2015). Public Attitudes Toward People With Intellectual Disabilities After Viewing Olympic or Paralympic Performance, Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 2015, 32, 19-33.

Sports CONNECT Framework (2002-2010). Australian Sports Commission.



About the author: Peter Downs

About the author: Peter Downs

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

Peter is Founding Director of The Inclusion Club and Manager of Play by the Rules – a national initiative to promote safe, fair and inclusive sport. Peter has worked for over 25 years in the field of inclusive sport, disability sport and physical activity including 17 years managing the Australian Sports Commission’s Disability Sport Unit.  In 2013 Peter was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study models of best practice in inclusive sport and physical activity.