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A focus on the inclusion of disabled youth in sport.

When we think of sport, we nearly always think of the sportsmanship, competitiveness, teamwork, and shared spirit of a community that has come together for a common purpose. However, we tend to inadvertently neglect the thought of those who do not, or cannot, share these feelings of togetherness and high-morale. Often, it is the disabled community that are disconnected from many aspects of society with sport being no exception.

This lack of inclusivity shatters the common perception of sport being an all-inclusive activity that offers something for everyone. Within this article, the not-so-pretty side to sport will be explored, as well as the ways in which we can turn sport into a past-time and form of exercise for everyone to take part in and enjoy.

So, what does it mean for sport to be inclusive? Sport inclusivity typically focuses on the participation of people with disabilities in sport once their access has been secured.

Achieving inclusivity in sport, however, is not as simple as it seems. Especially associated with a lack of inclusion in sport is the disabled community, of which a two-part problem seems to exist. The first issue revolves around just how accessible the sport is, especially for disabled individuals. Ways in which we can improve access to sport for all people include upping efforts to secure wheel-chair friendly settings and creating sports teams that are targeted or mixed-ability.

The second issue is one of inspiration. It is not uncommon for disabled communities to feel uninspired and unwilling to enter a sport because of stigmas and prejudices that certain members of the more-abled community may place on them. Ash Wise, second-year university student from London, has provided some though-provoking insights on this matter based on his own experiences surrounding sport.

Ash suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as CFS or ME, which is a condition that causes extreme tiredness amongst other symptoms.

Ash identified an “able-bodied stigma” existing towards sport, meaning he feels that if an individual does not ‘look the part’, others [able-bodied individuals], will assume that they are not able to join, or, simply do not want to join in. Ash also described sport as being a “social glue that binds people together”, but also stated how members of sport can be quick to repel those they do not see as desirable to their team.

From this point alone, we can start to understand just how perplex sport inclusivity can be to tackle. Inclusivity should not be so hard to achieve, and sport does have the potential to bring people together, but as Ash so importantly highlighted, problems tend to arise when negative perceptions from outside of the disabled community come into play, which can actively deter the disabled community from joining in on sport.

Summing up his discussion on the inclusivity of sport, Ash raised the important argument that we need “more invisible disability inclusion”. An invisible disability is one that is not immediately apparent and can include individuals struggling with their mental health or with non-obvious physical difficulties. The root of this problem may stem from the wider community, including government bodies and even schools, which are not doing enough to understand and encourage members of the disabled community to join in on sport. Contributing to this issue may be the able-bodied stereotype many of us have, which is normally unintentional. Ash is just one example of a younger and disabled member of the public who feels this way.

Providing startling statistics on the matter, disabled equality charity ‘Scope UK’ found that in a 2018 poll, nearly half of the 2,000 disabled individuals they questioned on societal inclusion felt excluded from society. Furthermore, these individuals generally felt both undervalued and disconnected from society. We can assume that these feelings cross over into various sections of life and society, including sport.

This is where the vital work of charities, volunteer groups and non-profit organisations come into action. Taking time to understand individual needs and the feelings associated with sport expressed by the disabled community will ultimately increase how inclusive sport is and maximise the number of people who can access the benefits of it. That is why I am proud to volunteer for organisations such as KickOff@3, whose hard work and multi-collaboration efforts have created a truly inclusive sporting environment, ensuring no one is left out and that everyone can not only join in on sport, but excel in it, also.

KickOff@3 does its very best to create a warm, welcoming and fun atmosphere surrounding sport, removing the competitive edge that normally dominates it. Inclusivity stands at the core of KickOff@3’s ethos, with both co-founders Michael Wallace and Ashley Levien working hard to ensure that everyone, regardless of age, gender, religion, race and ability, are included. An example of just one KickOff@3 success story comes from the KickOff@3 National Daniel De Gale 13-14 year-old champions, who played under their team name ‘Soccer Shop Window’ (see below).

Amongst this fantastic team of teens was a young autistic boy, who was also voted player of the tournament. This fantastic triumph was achieved through the use of noise-cancelling headphones, which helped make handling the high-sensory environment easier to handle. In charge of this decision was not only the KickOff@3 team, but scouts from various football clubs who attended the tournament, including Crystal Palace, Manchester United and Brighton Football Club. Thanks to the hard work of KickOff@3 building relationships with Premier league football scouts and the London Football Association, boys and girls who took part in the 2019 National Finale were included in opportunities that would not have normally existed for them. Crucially, these efforts have been recognised by the Football Black List and various other awards:

· 2017 National Kids Count Award – Winners

· 2018 National Black Police Association Community Champion Award – Winners

· 2018 & 2019 Premier League Black Writers Award – Winners

· 2019 Middlesex FA Grassroots Project of the Year Award – Winners

· 2019 St Albans Chambers of Commence Community Champion – Nominees

Uplifting stories such as Soccer Shop Window’s success do not need to be unique. We CAN make them the norm. Inclusion IS possible, and sport DOES break down barriers. It is evident that sport can promote inclusion of children, and adults alike, who are often left on the side-lines. According to UNICEF, full participation in sports activities can benefit people who are excluded in two ways as:

1. Sport changes community perceptions of the capability of different groups;

2. Sport changes children’s perceptions of themselves.

This article has highlighted just how true the points raised above by UNICEF are. Ultimately, it is these outcomes of sport that make it, and the total inclusion of it, so important to the lives of both young and young disabled people.

It is the work of organisations like KickOff@3 which help children recognise their own potential and ensure they never feel the way individuals such as Ash have felt in the past. It is also the work of organisations like KickOff@3 that make sure more success stories, such as that of the Soccer Shop Window champions, become a reality. It is all of our responsibility to help build a future community of strong, confident, valued and connected young people of all backgrounds and abilities. Sport is vital, but only when it is inclusive.

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