It is obviously a wonderful transformation, Presiding Officer—I have much more hair, anyway. [
It gives me great pleasure to open the debate. Tackling inequality is a priority for the Scottish Government. We have to ensure that disabled people benefit from all that we are doing to improve the lives of everyone in Scotland. That is why, in December 2016, the Scottish Government published “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People”, which is a disability action plan that contains five longer-term ambitions and 93 practical actions that the Scottish Government will deliver.
The action plan will take us significantly further forward in implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and realising the rights of persons with disabilities. We are confident that that will add to the success and prosperity of our communities and country. The plan is our commitment to disabled people’s rights and contains an ambition on active participation.
Tackling social isolation and loneliness, which can affect anyone at any stage and age of their life, is also a priority. It is known that social isolation and loneliness can have a significant impact on a person’s physical and mental wellbeing, which is why we are tackling them with a preventative approach that allows them to be treated as a public health issue.
We understand that disabled people and people with chronic health conditions are at greater risk of social isolation and loneliness than others. The results on loneliness in the recent Scottish household survey indicated that people living with a long-term physical or mental health condition are more than twice as likely to experience feelings of loneliness compared with those living without such conditions. “A Connected Scotland: our strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections” is a step forward in tackling those issues.
I recognise that sport has the power to change lives. We know that being physically active is one of the best things that we can do for our physical and mental health. I am proud that the Scottish Government is determined to create a modern, inclusive Scotland that protects and respects human rights, a key element of which is the promotion of equal participation and access to sport.
There have been a number of high-profile successes in sport for people with disabilities. Scottish athletes won six medals at the world para-athletics championships in Dubai this year, and nine at the world para-swimming championships in London. We are going up the medal scale.
In March, the Scottish wheelchair curling team won the silver medal at the world wheelchair curling championships, which were held in Stirling. Since 2015, the number of Scottish para-athletes to be selected on to world-class programmes has increased from 27 to 33. The number of sports in which Scottish para athletes have been selected has also increased from nine to 11.
However, we know that having a disability, at both high-performance and grassroots levels, can still be a major barrier for many people who want to participate in sport and physical activity. The Scottish Government firmly believes that there should be no barriers at all to participating in sport. Everyone should be able to enjoy sport, whoever they are and whatever their background. I look forward to discussing with and hearing from members across the chamber how we can do more to remove the existing barriers, so that disabled people have every opportunity to improve their physical and mental wellbeing—and maybe to increase that bag of medals as well.
When I attended the special Olympics last year, I saw how people of all ages and backgrounds, supported by sporting organisations across Scotland that provide them with the tools that they need to achieve their own personal goals, can change their lives through sport and feel a sense of empowerment. It was an absolute joy to be there. I was involved in the special Olympics a long time ago—I may talk about that later.
Scottish Disability Sport is doing great work in highlighting the benefits of getting people to participate in sport. It works to co-ordinate, in the widest possible areas of sport, athletes and players of all ages and abilities who have physical, sensory or learning disabilities, and it works in partnership in order to develop opportunities for disabled people.
I congratulate SDS on recently winning the sportscotland transforming coaching award for its young start programme, which is an exciting programme that supports the transitioning of participants on their journey into being coaches. Currently, 79 per cent of the participants have successfully achieved qualifications and are now deployed within the coaching workforce. It has been estimated that that has had an immediate impact on 1,500 individuals. That is great to hear.
I want to take us back a wee bit. While we are talking about success and legacy, I want to mention Janice Eaglesham, a former colleague of mine whom we lost in August this year. I first worked with Janice in the early 1990s, when I was working with a group of athletes in the learning disability sector. She was not only a brilliant coach but a fantastic inspiration to everyone around her, and many people whom I worked with went on to run with her Red Star Athletics Club. Many of them won medals in the special Olympics and other events.
You couldn’t keep up with Janice: she was fast at everything and did everything at a pace. She stayed in the next building from me where we lived in Glasgow. She used to run with her greyhound, and I would stand at the window and just marvel at her. She gave that type of commitment to everything that she did, and it is absolutely right that she is recognised in the chamber today. [
Janice Eaglesham is a great loss to disability sport in Scotland, at both national and international levels, and I hope that the Parliament will join me—in fact, it just has—in passing on our condolences to Janice’s husband Ian Mirfin, who is a renowned athlete and sports coach himself, and all her family and friends. I hope that members are happy to do that today. By their applause, they have recognised her. Janice touched many, many lives.
I move on to some issues around equality. The Scottish Government works closely with sportscotland on equality in sport, and its new corporate strategy, sport for life, outlines a vision for an active Scotland where everyone benefits from sport and inclusion underpins everything that it does. The new inclusion principle underpins the commitment to show greater leadership, to influence and drive the changes that are needed to address inequalities, and to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to get involved in a sport that they love.
The sport and physical activity sector must recognise and understand that each individual has a specific range of different characteristics and complexities if we are to effectively address issues that may be preventing or constraining people from getting involved and progressing in any aspect of sport or physical activity. We need a really focused, person-centred approach.
For our part, the Scottish Government is committed to supporting equalities in Scottish sport, ensuring that people of all ages and from all communities across Scotland have the opportunity to participate in sport and physical activity. Extra funds have been distributed by sportscotland to help meet the Scottish Government’s priorities on reducing the inequalities in sports participation that I have just talked about.
In particular, the First Minister opened the national sports training centre in Inverclyde in 2017—the first sports training centre of its kind in the United Kingdom. Oh, what Janice Eaglesham and I could have done with that in the early 1990s—but we still did great work anyway. That state-of-the-art residential facility was designed with inclusivity in mind for disabled sports users—both performance and community users. It will ensure that Scotland is even better placed to support our disabled athletes in their preparations and will help to ensure that sport and activity are absolutely accessible.
Sportscotland is working with governing bodies to improve access to information and sporting opportunities for British Sign Language users. The process was started with consultation at the recent sportscotland equalities and inclusion conference to establish the needs of sports governing bodies in improving their work in that area.
I recognise the good work that is going on across the whole country to create opportunities for disabled people to engage and participate in sport. However, there is always more to be done.
At this point, I congratulate and recognise the work of the McGee brothers, who are international world leaders in boccia, with many medals in their cache. They are constituents of mine, and I am always proud to meet them out and about, when they will show me their latest round of medals.
I welcome the support from across the chamber today as we examine new and innovative ways of developing and enhancing disability sport in this country, learning lessons from global best practice and creating an environment where disabled people can excel and harness the mental and physical benefits that participating in sport can bring—and, my goodness, doing that will push us up those medal tables.