Paralympics haven’t decreased barriers to physical activity for most people with disabilities

Tokyo 2020: how the Paralympics have evolved from rehabilitation to spectacle. Shaped by evolving societal attitudes towards physical and mental impairment, the Paralympics have gone from championing rehabilitation to being the second biggest mega-event in the international sports calendar. File Photo by Vix_B, Flickr CC BY 2.0

Kathleen A. Martin Ginis, Cameron M. Gee, The Conversation August 22, 2021

More than 4,000 athletes from around the world will compete at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, a tenfold increase since the first Paralympics in 1960. Despite the growth in Paralympic athletes, for most of the world’s 1.5 billion people with a disability, participation in sports, exercise and other types of physical activity is still nearly impossible.

In a recent research review, we reported that children, youth and adults with disabilities are up to 62 per cent less likely to meet the World Health Organization’s physical activity guidelines than the general population. This is because people with disabilities face over 200 barriers to doing physical activity, two of the largest being built environments and transportation. For example, most public playgrounds, swimming pools, and outdoor tracks are built in ways that make them inaccessible to wheelchair users.

Accessibility is key

Even fitness and recreation facilities that say they are accessible often lack basic accessible features, such as changing rooms, showers and clear pathways so that a person with a visual or physical impairment can easily move about.

Truly accessible facilities are often underutilized. Worldwide, people with disabilities can’t get to these places because they have limited or no access to public transit services.

Participation costs are another big barrier. People with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty. Some facilities demand additional entrance fees from family members who come along to help the person with a disability. Adapted sports equipment is expensive — a special wheelchair for playing wheelchair basketball can cost as much as $5,000.

While the Paralympics can inspire disabled athletes to take up sports, barriers still exist that keep disabled people from regularly participating in activities. Simon Bruty, Olympic Information Service, CC BY-NC

Physical activity barriers create health inequities. Persons with disabilities are at greater risk for developing chronic diseases linked to physical inactivity, such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They are also at greater risk for depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.

Some of the risk can be reduced by participating in sports, exercise and active play. Our recent research found that physical activity significantly improved the cardiometabolic health, physical fitness and mental health of children, youth and adults with disabilities. Even small amounts of activity — well below the levels recommended by the World Health Organization — can improve health and well-being.

Inspiration does not equal participation

People with and without disabilities often say they feel inspired by watching Paralympic athletic performances. Unfortunately, the inspiration and sport enthusiasm created by the Paralympics (known as the “demonstration effect”) has little effect on actual sport participation.

In 2012, more than 31 million television viewers across England watched the London Paralympic Games. And yet, from 2006 to 2016, the percentage of people with disabilities in England who participated in sport increased by just 1.5 per cent. Sport participation rates hit a high of 19.1 per cent of the disability population in 2013. By 2016, that number had fallen to just 16.8 per cent.

Richard Whitehead of Great Britain wins the gold medal in the men’s 200 metres – T42 final at the Rio Paralympics in 2016. Bob Martin, Olympic Information Service, CC BY-NC

What happened? After the London Paralympics, British disability and sport organizations were not adequately resourced to support the influx of new participants. There was also a greater focus on getting people with disabilities to try a sport rather than addressing the barriers preventing them from staying in sport. Ultimately, the motivation created by the Paralympics was not enough to override the longstanding barriers to sport participation.

Pandemic launched new initiatives

The COVID-19 pandemic has created even more barriers to participation. Regions have locked down. Facilities and programs have closed. Access to personal support workers and other disability services has been lost. But there is a silver lining — these challenges have spurred some new actions.

Throughout the pandemic, organizations around the world have provided free online workout programs for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Our research team with the Canadian Disability Participation Project launched a free physical activity coaching service for Canadians with disabilities. Coaches give information and motivation, by phone, to help clients overcome barriers to being active during the pandemic.

The province of Ontario recognized physical activity as being critical to the health of people with disabilities. Sports and recreational facilities were allowed to open during the province’s shutdown so people with disabilities could do physical therapy.

While these efforts are encouraging, they must be part of a long-term, global solution. International and national physical activity action plans note the importance of addressing the needs of people with disabilities. These action plans have not been given enough resources to make real change.

The Paralympics will raise awareness about sporting possibilities for people with disabilities. Some viewers may even be inspired to try a new sport, join a gym, or simply to go outside and play. Now is the time to move beyond the optics of the Paralympics and push for proper investment and serious action to remove the barriers to physical activity in our built environments, policies and communities and affect real change for people with disabilities.

Kathleen A. Martin Ginis, Professor and Director of Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention and Management, University of British Columbia
Cameron M. Gee, Postdoctoral fellow at ICORD, University of British Columbia
Disclosure statement
Kathleen A. Martin Ginis receives funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Praxis Spinal Cord Institute, CIBC and Canadian Tire Jumpstart Foundation for research related to physical activity participation and disability.
Cameron M. Gee is affiliated with Athletics Canada as a physiologist with the Paralympic team and previously affiliated with Wheelchair Rugby Canada as a graduate student.

Source The Conversation The Conversation


  Further reading
CDPP KT Bulletin #2 January 2018_0

Sport & Exercise Participation and Disability: A Blueprint for Change, The Canadian Disability Participation Project. January, 2018

Also see
After the Paralympics: New initiative to get more Canadians involved in power wheelchair sports The Conversation
Tokyo 2020: does the Paralympics empower disabled people? The Conversation
Tokyo 2020: how the Paralympics have evolved from rehabilitation to spectacle The Conversation
The Paralympics strive for inclusion. But some rules unfairly exclude athletes with severe disabilities The Conversation
A brief history of the Paralympic Games: from post-WWII rehabilitation to mega sport event The Conversation
The Paralympics is changing the way people perceive disabilities The Conversation
Joe Delagrave on Traveling to the Tokyo Paralympics New Mobility
For a disabled person, becoming a Paralympian isn’t just about ‘trying harder’ The Guardian

How accessible are the Paralympics Games? The Tokyo 2020 Summer Paralympic Games will feature around 4,400 athletes in 22 sports adapted for players with disabilities. As one of the largest international events for athletes with disabilities, the Paralympics have long been steeped in activism for disability rights. But what challenges remain in improving access to sport? Al Jazeera English. Youtube Aug 24, 2021.
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