Today’s debate is one that I am glad to speak in, having some considerable experience over my 75 years—sorry, my 76 years—of a fair few of the challenges that have been discussed so far.
In fact, it is almost 77 years. [
It goes without saying that access to sport and exercise is vital for the health of everybody in Scotland. When a group in society is unable to fully benefit from sport, we need to consider what action we can take to improve the situation. That situation is the case for disabled people for a number of different reasons—from physical accessibility to personal or social attitudes. However, whatever the reason, we can, and must, do better as a nation.
For most of my life, my participation in sport has been impacted by disability. Some sports are easier to adapt to, while others are more challenging. Playing croquet, for instance, is less challenging than my other favourite pursuit, which is sailing. Even then, support has been available through the charity Sailability Scotland, whose work I will take a moment to highlight. Working with the Royal Yachting Association, of which I am a member, and Scottish Disability Sport, Sailability works with sailing clubs and centres to promote sailing for all those with any form of physical, sensory or learning disability. That can mean helping with the setting up of new, disabled-friendly sailing clubs, or working with existing ones to adapt their existing practices. It can mean maintaining a fleet of boats that are suitable for disabled people to use, or organising competitive racing events for disabled people.
Sailability’s work has made it possible for hundreds of disabled sailors to enjoy quality time on the water, and, since its founding in 1992, the charity has played an instrumental role in getting disabled people involved in sailing. That is largely done by adapting existing practices to support those who are not able to benefit from them. Without my left hand it can be difficult to manoeuvre a boat and pull the necessary ropes at the right time. However, by changing the way the system works, I have been able to go at exactly the same speed as my competitors and I have often won—although it does sometimes involve holding a rope with my teeth, which can be quite uncomfortable. That principle can be applied to many different sports. Entirely new kit is not needed when changes to existing equipment can make a difference and can bring sport to a completely new group of players.
I have received some excellent submissions from organisations in the run-up to this afternoon's debate, as I am sure every member has. I am grateful to all of them for their thoughts. Scottish Disability Sport has been instrumental in driving up engagement and participation in disability sport. I am particularly impressed by its commitment to delivering disability inclusion training to coaches across the country by running more than 100 programmes, involving 1,600 candidates in the past year alone, as well as working with 15 universities to improve access to sport. I am sure that inclusion will be at the forefront of its work in the years ahead.
I am also encouraged by sportscotland's outline of the financial contribution—to the tune of more than £500,000 per year and almost £2.5 million over four years—that it is continuing to make to Scottish Disability Sport. That is in addition to its active schools and direct club investment programmes. The work that it is doing is exactly the kind of work that we should celebrate.
Finally, I recognise the work of the Scottish Football Association, which has been working to develop para-football since the launch of its first strategy in 2012. That has made a clear difference—going from one disability-friendly competition to 14 in seven years. In turn, that has enabled more than 7,000 participants to enjoy their sport and 6,000 coaches to be educated in disability inclusion.
In Scotland today, it is estimated that one in five people has some kind of disability—approximately 1 million people. We know that disabled people in Scotland are far less likely to participate in sport than non-disabled people. We know the devastating impact that a lack of exercise can have on people’s health, and that is no less true of people with a disability. Without any prospect of getting out and enjoying physical activity, it is all too easy to get in a rut and, by the time one reaches middle age, it is a struggle to break out of a downward spiral.
Whenever people have negative attitudes about disabled sports, just show them footage of our athletes in the Paralympic games breaking records and inspiring a new generation.
If accessibility is the problem, let us see how we can work with clubs to help them bring their sport to more people in their communities. Let us look at starting the process as early as possible, by developing pathways from schools and communities into competitive sport.
We take great pride in being an inclusive society for disabled people and it is true that there has been a massive improvement in recent years. However, disabled people’s access to sport still lags stubbornly behind and more must be done. There are so many fantastic role models for disabled people when taking up sport—we only need to glance at some of the performances at the Paralympics to tell us that.
Let us work together in opening new pathways into sport for disabled people and encourage them to get involved at any opportunity. With the right support and equality of opportunity, there is nothing that we cannot do.