Disability Sport and Participation

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

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Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

I was pleased to see, just last Sunday in my region of Lothian, the University of Edinburgh volleyball club host a low-intensity sports event at the Pleasance sports complex, not far from Parliament. The event was aimed at people with barriers to engaging in sport and physical activity, including disabled people. Students and members of the local community were able to try boccia, sitting volleyball and sitting netball. Boccia has been mentioned already in this debate and I am sure that Mr Whittle will remember the day that he and I mistakenly thought that we were challenging the excellent Stephen McGuire in the garden lobby.

Mr Whittle and I tend towards overcompetitiveness on occasion. Each time we competed with Stephen McGuire, he let us believe for a few seconds at least that we were about to beat him. Then he threw the final ball, his skill shone through and we were put firmly in our places. It was a fabulous introduction to that game, which is gaining in popularity.

I suppose that the essence of this afternoon’s debate is that we want each and every person to have the opportunity to take part in the thing that inspires them. I think that we all agree that we need to do more to ensure that not only disabled people but all people have the full opportunity to take part in sport.

The report for the Scottish Government by Professor Grant Jarvie of the University of Edinburgh shows that only 20 per cent of disabled people take the recommended level of physical activity, compared with 52 per cent of non-disabled people. There is work to do with both groups but, clearly, the figure of one in five disabled people is not good enough and we can do more.

Conversely, research has shown that when disabled people take part in sport, they are almost as likely to take part frequently—more than 15 days a month—as non-disabled people are. Therefore, it is important that we break down the initial barriers to participation.

Mary Fee has spoken of the barriers around access to changing places and access to toilets in changing places, and that is key. I was pleased to have an amendment agreed to in what is now the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 that ensures that local planning authorities have to account for the provision of toilets. We have discussed that issue more widely in the chamber, and we know that it does affect people, because they wonder whether they can get out and about. Any such barrier leads to social isolation. Accessible venues with the appropriate facilities and equipment are vital.

Earlier this year, we debated the incredible development of powerchair football in Scotland. It is another sport that is developing rapidly, but the lack of basic facilities means that only a few sports centres across the country are able to hold powerchair football events. When we met participants recently, we heard that the sport has had a profoundly positive impact on their lives.

From my experience in athletics, I know that ensuring that coaches have the appropriate skills and understanding is also hugely important. I congratulate sportscotland on the work that it is doing to ensure that coaches are supported to coach people with particular requirements.

Today’s debate gives us an opportunity to discuss the challenges that are faced by disabled people who are participating in sport as well as to celebrate the progress that is being made and the incredible achievements of Scottish athletes and players. As has been mentioned, in 2019 we have seen some outstanding performances. I, too, associate myself with Christina McKelvie’s comments about Janice Eaglesham. She is a huge loss, but what a contribution she made to the lives of so many people in this country.

The Peak sports centre hosted the largest wheelchair curling event outside the winter Paralympics when the world championships came to Stirling. Some 12 nations took part. Scotland put in a very impressive performance to become silver medallists, just behind the champions China.

In October, Allan Ritchie won the bronze medal on day 2 of this year’s world shooting para-sport championships in Sydney, and Sam Fernando of Fife Athletic Club won a silver medal in the 3,000m steeplechase at the Brisbane INAS global games for athletes with an intellectual disability.

Last month, Scottish athletes took an incredible seven medals at the world para-athletics championships, including golds in the T35 100m and 200m for the incredible Maria Lyle, and a tremendous double gold and two new world records for Scottish racerunners, as mentioned by Mr Whittle, Kayleigh Haggo and Gavin Drysdale.

Anyone who has had the pleasure and privilege of meeting those young people will know just how formidable they are in competition and in the effort that they put into all aspects of their lives. I had the pleasure of meeting Gavin Drysdale in the Parliament. At that point, we were discussing his preparations for his highers. These young people are succeeding in so many ways.

Gordon Reid, the wheelchair tennis player from Alexandria, reached the French open singles final and the doubles semi-finals of the Australian and French opens.

Kayleigh Haggo and Gavin Drysdale were two of six contenders for the para-sport athlete of the year award, at the recent Scottish athletics awards. I was struck by the fact that the para-athlete and the athlete of the year award winners were on the stage to receive their awards at the same time. There is great effort to ensure inclusivity.

As well as celebrating, we need to look at what has been done at all levels to expand the opportunities for disabled people to participate in sport. There is the app from sportscotland in participation with Scottish Disability Sport, which helps coaches to access video training and support the athletes who they coach.

I am conscious of time, Presiding Officer, so I hope that you will let me know when I need to wrap up.