Disability Sport and Participation

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 5th December 2019.

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Photo of Mary Fee Mary Fee Labour

As Scottish Labour’s spokesperson on sport and equalities, I am delighted to speak in today’s important debate on disability sport and participation.

Tuesday 3 December was international day of people with disabilities, and purple light-up day—a global movement designed to draw attention to the economic empowerment of disabled people. Empowering disabled people must be at the heart of issues such as improving participation in sport.

Scotland is fortunate to have many leading athletes and sports people of all abilities, and we must always take the time to recognise equally the successes of disabled and of able-bodied athletes. I am sure that members will agree with me that elite Scottish sporting role models should be representative of all backgrounds.

There are two conflicting themes in today’s debate: championing success in disabled sport; and reflecting on the low levels of participation across the disabled population, and the challenges that continue to prevent participation.

It is evident that sport can have a significant impact on the life of a person with a disability, no matter how complex that disability might be. A wide range of sports and activities are on offer for disabled people and I have been fortunate to meet representatives of several of those activities. I recently met Ryan Galloway, the honorary secretary of the Scottish PowerChair Football Association, in Parliament. In addition to the Scotland powerchair football team, there are nine teams involved in the powerchair football league, each of which is run entirely by volunteers and relies on funding, donations and sponsorship. When I asked Ryan what challenges he faces in running the powerchair league, he said that changing places and toilet facilities—not just at venues, but at the service stations that players use when they travel across Scotland—were at the top of the list. Colleagues across the chamber will know that Jeremy Balfour and I have campaigned to increase the availability of changing places and toilets.

Many voluntary groups are working to support disabled people in sport. The Riding for the Disabled Association is dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities through the provision of horse riding, hippotherapy and carriage driving. With the help of more than 150 volunteers, the RDA Glasgow group offers 47 hours of classes per week, which provide opportunities for therapy, achievement and enjoyment; improve health, wellbeing and self-confidence; and benefit mobility and co-ordination.

Disability Snowsport UK believes that taking part in adaptive snow sport has the power to transform a person’s relationship with their disability. It is committed to enabling all people to participate in a snow sport, regardless of disability, injury or experience. In the new year, I will meet Sean and Kieran from DSUK at Braehead to see at first hand the activities on offer and hear about the challenges they face. I believe that I will also have the opportunity to participate.

Unfortunately, disabled people have to overcome a range of barriers when participating in sport. This helps to explain why only 20 per cent of the disabled population meet the recommended level of physical activity; far short of the 52 per cent level of non-disabled people. Scottish Disability Sport reveals that almost half of disabled people fear that they would lose benefits if they were seen to be physically active. That is a major barrier and a clear sign that our welfare system is failing disabled people.

I recently met Kyle Anderson, a pupil from Lasswade High School, who told me of the work that his school does to support young people with disabilities. It has a unit called the pod, which currently supports 14 full-time and three part-time pupils with a range of disabilities. The pod works closely with the main school and pupils including Kyle participate in a PE class with the pod pupils. Sports include touch rugby and football, with the shared classes building confidence and social skills and, more importantly, breaking down barriers. It has become a highlight of the week for both pod and mainstream pupils. I am sure that everyone in the chamber will agree that that initiative and the work that pupils such as Kyle and Lasswade school do is an example of good practice that could be replicated right across Scotland.

I shall finish with a quotation from a disability campaigner, Mary-Elaine McCavert, that I think we should remember when discussing any issue relating to disabled people.

“Disability has many faces. Each of these faces tell unique human stories that are equally valid. Yet, as we are entering a new decade, we carry into it the same challenges as before. The United Nations declared 1981 as the Year of persons with disabilities, yet 38 years later we still don’t have full participation or equality. I cannot wait for the day disability is just seen as another notch on the spectrum of diversity. Something that doesn’t need a day to celebrate it because it’s as normal as ‘normal’ is. Yet that will not be possible until we have a world that is accessible for all. We risk erasing disability identity when we focus on ability alone because then we erase the inevitable challenges of living in a world that was not built for us. If we don’t lean into our limitations caused by our disabilities, our requests for access might not be heard. Obtaining that very access to our world which will then allow us to demonstrate our vast abilities on an even playing field”.