Women’s Month: Institutions of learning facilitate vital pathways for participation in parasports

Bridging the gap between science and parasports underpinned an open discussion during the 6th annual Women in Sport event hosted by the University of Cape Town ParaSports Club (UCT).

The event took place virtually on Wednesday 10th August and was attended by parasports enthusiasts from across campus for an hour of thought provoking discussions. For the first time in almost a decade, speakers included an international speaker, Dr. Bruna Seron, researcher at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in southern Brazil. And as is tradition, Dr. Dominique Brand – Lecturer in the Faculty of Health Sciences at UCT – as a co-contributor to the discussion.

Disability and Sports Participation

In the first half of the event, Dr. Brand provided a snapshot of her research, which focused on disability and exercise. Brand lectures on surveillance of disability in society at UCT’s Division of Disability Studies in the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and on health sector surveillance and assessment at the Community Eye Health Institute in the Department of Ophthalmology.

“People with disabilities need to overcome the tangible and intangible barriers that exist in sports environments to gain the same type of access.”

She told the audience that sport is seen as a powerful tool to advocate for the implementation of at least 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Unfortunately, she said, despite major advances in the parasports arena in South Africa, her research has shown that when people with disabilities play sports, they do so in a restricted environment — as opposed to able-bodied athletes, who freely access sports facilities costs and without submitting a qualification criterion.

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“People with disabilities need to overcome the tangible and intangible barriers that exist in sports environments to gain the same type of access [as able-bodied athletes]. People with disabilities also pay a [sporting] Premium… and that means they’re locked out of those experiences,” she said.

women in parasports

Brand emphasized the urgent need to design and develop inclusive and accessible sports codes, policies and practices that put the needs of people with disabilities at the top of the list and ensure equal participation between athletes without disabilities and athletes with disabilities.

Her research focus was “Disability and experiences of exclusion and inclusion in participation in sport”. She said her research sample included interviews with people with disabilities who participate in a range of parasports, including wheelchair rugby and blind football. Based on her findings, she said there is no escaping the under-representation of women in parasport. And women also experience far more limitations compared to their male counterparts.

“Women face more obstacles. They focus on their home and take care of the children. They have less time for leisure and a fixed time for exercise and recreation,” she said.

ways to participate

Learning institutions play a crucial role in facilitating pathways to participate in parasports.

And on the issue of bridging the gap between science and sport, Brand said that several respondents who participated in her research study indicated that they only accessed sport when re-entering a learning environment . This environment, she explained, is not necessarily a school, university or college, but refers to any learning institution in which participants are enrolled at the time of participation.

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“Either they left school early and [thereafter] have had the opportunity to re-enter a training environment and thereby re-enter it [were able] access sports. Paths to participation are definitely facilitated by organizations [of learning],” She said.

Parasports in Brazil

According to Seron, around 46 million people in Brazil are currently living with a disability and only 10% participate in parasports or any other form of physical activity. She described the number as alarming and made it her mission to understand the barriers to entry for paraathletes.

The reasons were different. She said some feel there are few programs specifically designed for people with disabilities, while others feel their physical disabilities prevent them from playing sports. Some, she added, also received little encouragement from family and friends, and several women stressed that they did not feel comfortable being coached by men. Echoing Brand, she said students enrolled in educational institutions also have easier access to parasport clubs and societies than those not enrolled in a school, college or university.

“There are many [opportunities] for people with disabilities [to access sporting codes] within an institution, but only [within] the institution. But accessibility [is a] challenge [for those not in a learning environment].”

outreach program

Seron said she recently started an outreach program in partnership with several schools in her community to bridge the gap between able-bodied learners and learners with disabilities. The aim is to change perceptions and to show that people with disabilities also like to do sports despite their disabilities.

“It was a great experience and helped make it happen [influence] Attitudes around parasport.”

The program included integrated sports sessions that required able-bodied learners to participate in parasports alongside people with disabilities. She said some of the sports included sit volleyball, bocce ball and blind football and proved to be an eye-opening experience.

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“It was a great experience and helped make it happen [influence] and change settings around parasports, and [it’s] as we try [improve] the life [of people living with disabilities],” She said.

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