Sport has often been a unifying factor in the lives of individuals. Through participation in sport people make lifelong friendships, and some sportsmen and women who may struggle academically can demonstrate their abilities and prowess in ways that may be impossible in the classroom. As someone who has always been involved in playing sport, whether on the rugby or cricket pitch or the squash court in my younger days, of now whilst sitting astride a bicycle, I have learned to value the opportunity to meet fellow team mates and competitors from all walks of life. Thus have my horizons been broadened through participation and friendship with a wide range of other people.
In recent years, far greater attention has been given to participation in sport by those who have disabilities. Events such as the Paralympic Games and the London Marathon have enabled the general public to gain some appreciation of the dedication and competitive nature of many fine athletes who happen to be disabled. Here in UK names such as Tanni Grey-Thompson, David Weir and Jody Cundy became as familiar during the London Olympics in 2012 as those of many of the elite able bodied athletes. Such has become the level of professionalism associated with sports organisations for those with disabilities, that many of the finest competitors, such as the cyclist Sarah Storey, are now competing and winning against their able bodied peers.
The dedication required of any athlete to reach the top of their chosen sport is undeniable. I recall several years ago driving home from work in torrential rain when I noticed coming towards me along the lane on which I was travelling a wheelchair user moving with considerable pace. My first instinct was to stop and check whether this was someone caught in the storm who might need assistance, but then at the last minute I recognised the individual in the chair. David Holding is a former wheelchair athlete probably best known for being a four-time winner of the London Marathon. He also won a gold medal at the Paralympic games as well as holding world records and winning many other events. On seeing David on the road I immediately recognised that he would have scorned any offers of assistance, as training in all weathers is exactly what all top athletes do, and why would he wish to be different from any other?
David Holding and his many achievements came to mind yesterday as I read an article from Monday’s Independent newspaper under the headline “Wheelchair basketball: How ‘reverse integration’ is overcoming the discrimination surrounding disabilities” written by Lesley Evans Ogden. In this brief article the writer reports how wheelchair basketball, once seen as a sport played solely by sportsmen and women with disabilities has become increasingly popular with able bodied athletes.
Evans Ogden suggests that the sport has changed many previous ill-conceived perceptions about both wheelchair users and the nature of sport. Here is competition played by athletes with a broad range of needs and abilities who play as equals in a game that requires immense skill and courage, but does not discriminate between individuals. Danielle Peers a former national wheelchair basketball player is quoted in the article as stating that this inclusive approach to sport could be perceived as a way to “do disability differently.” Peers, who does not have a disability recalls her own assumptions that as an able bodied athlete she would be able to compete alongside those who depended upon a wheelchair and soon excel at the sport. She now recognises that this was both arrogant and naïve and reports having been quickly taught a lesson about the competitiveness and skill of her new team mates.
Progress has clearly been made in both encouraging more people with disabilities to become involved in sport, and affording them the respect they deserve as athletes. Marni Abbott-Peter, a four-time Paralympic medal winner in basketball for Canada who now coaches the British Columbia team in Canada, sees many advantages in having a more inclusive approach to her sport. “Once we started having more able-bodied involvement, it brought a lot more ‘sport people’ to the sport,” she says.
This form of what has been termed “reverse integration,” in part aims to bring able bodied athletes closer to the world of those equally dedicated competitors who happen to have disabilities. I am sure that the understanding and appreciation gained by all who participate in such sporting activities is more focused upon the competition than it is upon disability.