As a wheelchair user, the legacy of 2012’s London Olympic and Paralympic Games has been bittersweet.
On the plus side, opportunities to participate in certain sports have definitely expanded. On the other hand, those with a new-found desire to ‘get inspired’ and ‘get involved’, may find that facilities at their local sports clubs haven’t kept up with the rhetoric. Whatever your disability, it can be tricky to find coaches, equipment and the basic infrastructure needed to enjoy and excel in sport, such as accessible changing rooms.
For disabled students, these problems should perhaps be slightly less severe: schools, colleges and universities have an obligation to make their campus accessible and their extra curricular activities open to all. All too often though there isn’t enough funding available for specialist equipment or knowledge, and many clubs train in inaccessible locations. The challenges are more easily overcome for those who have some experience of disabled sport already – they will know what help they need and can advise accordingly.
But what can a disabled student do to get into sport for the first time?
1) Ask your institution
Every educational establishment will have staff within Student Services or within a dedicated disability service whose responsibility it is to support disabled students; ask them what is already available in the way of sports opportunities for disabled students.
2) Ask your Students’ Union
Your SU should have a student rep for disability and they are likely to know what is on offer from the perspective of other disabled students. As with Tip 1, you don’t need to wait until you arrive to make use of this – emails, visits and phone calls in advance are all helpful.
Have a look at clubs you think you may be interested in. Many will have their own website, Facebook page or Twitter account. See if you can find someone from that club who can let you know about access and opportunities for disabled athletes.
5) Ask the sports centre
Whether it’s teachers in sports science/PE or gym instructors on campus, they will know what is available. They are also well-placed to push your institution for more support – financial, material and practical.
6) Go native!
If you’re going away from home, this is a good way to find out about your new local community. Just because you are a student, there is no reason why you cannot join a club that is open to the wider community. This can be an excellent way to make use of facilities that a local council has put in place, such as accessible gyms and equipment, and clubhouses with wheelchair access. You may also find club members who can give up time to coach or provide assistance, for example acting as a guide for a visually-impaired runner. To find out what kind of activities are on offer in your new area, have a look at council websites, and try searching online for the name of the town and sports you are interested in. If travel is an issue for you talk to your institution for help with arranging and affording transport. Another advantage of looking at what is offered specifically for disabled people in your local area is that these activities are often subsidised by council or government grants, which can make participating more affordable and often even cheaper than membership of a university or college sports club.
Many disabled people – especially young people – don’t like to be told what they can and can’t do because of their disability! Just because a club hasn’t welcomed disabled athletes in the past, doesn’t mean they can’t start to do so now. Be an advocate for disability: challenge people to adapt their activities so that you can participate and demonstrate why it is worth their while. Prove that you can do sport too – whether it’s for fun or competition – go break some barriers!
9) Be flexible and open-minded
This is related to ‘advocacy’- prove what you can do. Try new activities and try things that people don’t think you can do. If one option really isn’t open for you, try something you hadn’t considered before.
10) Enjoy it
Finally, if you want to get active and stay active, the single most important thing is not that you are good at it, but that you enjoy it. Do it for the fun and the love of it.