Disabled Sport in Sheffield: What I’ve learnt and what needs to be done now

In the several months I have had to let graduating sink in, I have also been able to reflect on all the hard work that went into that 16,477 word dissertation, that at times felt like a never-ending battle, but also the knowledge and information gained from the experience. Disability and sport, I have to be honest, were not what I was intending to explore when coming to university – race and ethnicity were more my area of interest. However, during a year two seminar, in an attempt to come to an agreement about a group project, disability and sport came together in my head, and an idea for a great research project developed.

I had already decided by this point that I wanted to apply for the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) – which is a paid opportunity for students to develop their own research idea, and then carry out that research over the summer period.  At the time there was a huge amount of media coverage supporting a ‘legacy’ of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, so it just seemed appropriate to apply with an idea that related to current policy and media coverage. As a result I decided I wanted to explore how the Paralympics had affected disabled people at a grass-roots level in Sheffield and whether a legacy had been created.

The SURE project was only for six weeks, and afterwards I felt that there was so much more to explore, and that I had only scratched the surface of the issues facing disabled people. Despite submitting my preliminary findings to a House of Lords Select Committee which was aimed at evaluating the Olympic and Paralympic legacy, I decided to extend my SURE project, and develop my dissertation based on my initial findings. Yet even after I had finished my dissertation, although I had a greater understanding of disability related issues surrounding sport, the world of disability was still closed-off for a non-disable person. I came away feeling unable to truly understand the issues that the participants in my study were facing, because I had not experienced a lack of sports funding, or facilities for example. As a non-disabled person, I have so many more opportunities to get involved in sport, and to some extent I have taken that for granted.

What I found difficult about the whole research and data collection process, and this may be down to the fact that my research experience is in its infancy, was not being able to identify early on that there are a whole range of different disabilities out that that cannot solely be categorised as learning and physical. The spectrum is huge, and looking back on the experience I know have a better understanding of the various different disabilities. What I have taken from the dissertation process is that nothing is always as it seems – although I went into the research with a pre-conceived idea of how far a legacy had developed in Sheffield for disabled people, and it was in most cases affirmed by my data collection, so many more issues and information came to light that I was not expecting.

I think that the Channel 4 advertising of the ‘Superhumans’ was a great way to advertise the Paralympics. Having had the opportunity to play wheelchair basketball during the data collection process, it was an extremely strenuous sport. I think that there is a presumption that being disabled means that you have to have a toned down version of a mainstream sport, and to this may be the case for some sports, but I strongly contest the idea that disabled sport is any less strenuous than non-disabled sports. Yet in my mind I also have reservations about the image they were portraying of disabled people. The image of course is a positive one, but there are many disabled people who do not fit that image and suffer with pain caused by their disability every day that prevents them from being involved in disabled sport. In addition, the ‘Superhuman’ image neglected to represent those with learning disabilities. This is something that also shocked me during the dissertation process, that there is a huge gap between how those with physical disabilities and learning disabilities are perceived. I got the feeling that those with learning disabilities were at the bottom of the pile when it came to funding for sports related costs. Clubs had to fight harder, for less money and less publicity – namely of the Special Olympics (the equivalent of the Paralympics for those with learning disabilities).

One other thing that struck me and that will always stay with me is how normal disability was to each and every individual that I interviewed. This may sound condescending, or quite bizarre to anyone who is disabled themselves or in regular contact with disabled individuals, but that is not my intention. One of the questions I asked was whether the participants in my study felt a part of a wider community in Sheffield rather than just the disabled sports club they attend. What surprised me was that most individuals felt that the sports club was one of the only places that they really felt part of a community. Coming from non-disabled individual, and having little contact with disabled individuals until the SURE project, this seemed odd, because disabled people had always been a part of MY community. So why was this feeling not reciprocated with disabled people? This is something I can only speculate over, and suggest that it is about the ‘us’ and ‘them’, and disabled people feel excluded from mainstream that is overwhelmingly centred around non-disabled people.

Based on my findings I want to suggest to anyone that reads this, that disabled people may be different, but WE are all the same – human beings. It is unfair that there is a lack of media coverage, funding and facilities for disabled people in grass-roots sports, and this cannot be justified in any sense. The fact that the disabled people I spoke to only felt a sense of community within their sports club when I can list where I feel a part of community on at least two hands. Since completing my dissertation I have made a conscious effort to make others aware of the issues disable people face, and try to pass on the knowledge I have learnt. I also want to challenge the view that non-disabled people should shy away from conducting research with disabled people, because they cannot truly relate to the issues being discussed. Although, as I mentioned above this may be the case, I believe more non-disabled people should make an effort to acknowledge and study disability issues to gain a better, first hand understanding of them. If I had not decided that I was going to write my dissertation on disability, I would be in the dark about such issues. As a society we should be doing more to make an equal world for disabled people, not just in the realm of sport but across all aspects of society.

Bryony Harrison-Croft is undertaking an MA in Social Research in the Department for Sociological Studies at The University of Sheffield, where she recently won the 2014 Eric Sainsbury Undergraduate Dissertation Prize.

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