Opinion

The new Labour government must make changes so disabled people can enjoy sport

Chloe Schendel-Wilson, co-founder and director of the Disability Policy Centre, writes about why disabled people are feeling excluded from sport and what needs to be done to ensure change

disabled people sport

More than half of disabled people have been prevented from watching sport because of accessibility of venues. Image: Unsplash

Sport has the incredible power to unite society. Whether it’s an England win in the Euros, or a string of golds in the Olympics and Paralympics – it brings our communities together, gives us a common purpose as a nation and allows us to share joyful moments with complete strangers. 

With the Olympic Games starting this month, the Wimbledon final this weekend and the Euro semi-finals tonight, we are lucky to be basking in a ‘summer of sport’ this year (if not the sunshine).

But all too often disabled people are shut out from this shared endeavour and enjoyment.

As The Disability Policy Centre’s new report The Power of Sport illustrates: disabled people are facing a whole range of barriers to both watching and playing sport – before we even consider progressing as athletes or pursuing careers in sport. 

More than half (52%) of disabled people that we surveyed were prevented from watching sport due to a lack of accessibility in their venue of choice – from pubs to clubhouses and larger stadiums. 

So while most will have been able to enjoy the Netherlands vs England Euros semi-final with friends in the pub, many disabled people will have been forced to stay at home. And we wonder why we are facing such high levels of social isolation?

The reasons range from the logistical, like the extra cost of getting to stadiums and ticket prices, to cultural, where the lack of understanding of disability from fans and venues makes enjoyment a real struggle.

Take Matt, who features in our report. He is 30 years old, lives in Brighton and has fibromyalgia. He loves going to football matches but mostly watches from his computer now because of barriers with travel and fan culture. 

His nearest stadium is three miles away and is expensive to travel to, with most buses not accommodating his mobility scooter. And when he’s at the stadium, fans often block his view by standing. 

Or take Dave, who also features in our report. He is chief executive of a disability charity and also a big football fan. Not only has Dave once experienced ableist and derogatory language being used at a football stadium during one of his visits, but nothing was initially done about it when he complained to the staff. 

They even threatened to take away his season ticket if he kept complaining publicly about their lack of action. 

Being disabled is certainly no barrier to enjoying sport, but facing cultures like this which can feel outright hostile certainly is.

The situation when it comes to participation is often no better. 

Our report also found almost (49%) of those surveyed said there was a lack of suitable options to play sport or take part in physical activity near where they lived. 

More than a quarter (26%) of those who weren’t able to participate cited a lack of social care support and nearly a quarter (23%) blamed inaccessible transport. 

mary on a climbing wall
Mary says that she would go to climbing centres and not even be able to get through the door, let alone up the wall. Image: Supplied

Mary is 26 and lives in Wiltshire. She’s an enthusiastic climber but has been to climbing centres where she’s not even able to get through the front door in her wheelchair, let alone up a climbing wall. 

She said the impact on her emotionally was that she didn’t feel like she belonged in the climbing community any more. 

She thinks these barriers emerge out of ignorance, instead of people deliberately putting up barriers.

People often just don’t know enough, but when they do, things change.

This is why the solutions to ableism in sport are cultural as well as political.

As our report spells out, we do need policy reform to fix this, including: stronger enforcement of the Equality Act on bars, pubs and clubhouses, making it easier for the public to report failures of accessibility and real progress to be made on accessible transport.

But we also need a nationwide wake-up call to the injustices facing disabled people. 

We’ve seen a very welcome push to kick racism, sexism and homophobia out of sport recently, but progress has stalled on ableism. 

With improved awareness and cultural understanding of disability, we will start to see improved accessibility for disabled people in both playing and watching the sport they love. 

We’re hopeful that with a new government and the sense of renewal that brings, we can start to see this shift in mindset, as well as the supporting reforms to make sure that everyone can truly benefit from the power of sport.

Chloe Schendel-Wilson is co-founder and director of The Disability Policy Centre.

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