Sport in Canada: What does ‘equal’ mean to you?

By Courtney

Equality. It is a word that is often used in reference to people with disabilities. Athletes with disabilities face issues of equality not just in daily life, but in sport as well. However, despite wide-spread agreement it is a desirable objective, there is very little consensus as to what ‘equality’ looks like in practice. This week on Athletes First, I draw on my experience as long-time member of the Canadian Paralympic team and as a volunteer with local adaptive sports programs to explore two very different perspective on what it means to treat athletes with a disability ‘equal’ to their able-bodied counterparts.

I should preface this post by saying the comments made here are specific to the Canadian sport system (and based on my experience in British Columbia). However, I believe that the issues mentioned here are relevant to how adaptive sport programs are delivered world wide and get to the heart of how sport systems view and value athletes with a disability. It is my hope that you, the readers, will use this post as a jumping off point for discussions as to what it means to be treated equally.

Image of two prosthetic legs in brightly coloured striped socks standing in the snow.

Courtney snapped this fun image next to a ski trail... we assume they belong to one of the many sit skiers whipping around the course.

First of all, I think we need to consider the challenges and barriers individuals with a disability face when it comes to sport participation. Here are a few I have identified.
1. Lack of available participants:  Approximately 14% of the Canadian population has a disability. However, the pool of potential ‘elite’ athletes with a disability is much, much smaller. That 14% includes senior citizens with acquired disabilities as well as individuals with disabilities who have no interest in competitive sports programs. The number of people with a disability who are able and interested in pursuing competitive sport is quite small. Which leads to my second point…

2. Lack of programs: Able-bodied athletes have access to many different club programs that provide sport opportunities for all ages. But if a child has a disability, have significantly fewer options. As an example, of the approximately 50 cross country ski clubs in British Columbia, only three have active adaptive ski programs. Of the approximate 61 track and field and running clubs in British Columbia, only one actively promotes programs for adaptive athletes. The scarcity of programs is directly linked to the low number of potential participants mentioned above – this means there is little demand on clubs to develop adaptive programs and clubs that do start programs often have trouble making them feasible given the low rate of participation… it’s a bit of a catch-22.

3. Lack of specialized coaching: There are very few coaches in British Columbia with the expertise to coach adaptive sports, further reducing development opportunities for adaptive athletes. Even when clubs are willing to develop adaptive programs they are often held back by a lack of trained coaches.

4. Lack of accessible venues: Inaccessible sport venues are a huge barrier to individuals with a disability who want to participate in sport. Facilities may be inaccessible because of their design (i.e.: ski areas with no level access to a warm building or wheelchair accessible washrooms) or because of their location (no public transit for individuals who cannot drive).

5. Effects of disability on fundamental skill development: Individuals with congenital disabilities often develop fundamental sport skills (sometimes referred to as physical literacy) at a slower rate than their able-bodied peers. This delay can be related to a lack of programs at an early age and/or to a lack of experience among parents and educators as to how to teach skills to children with a disability. There may also be concurrent health problems or developmental disabilities that further delay a child’s ability to learn to run, jump, throw and just generally move their bodies!

6. Increased cost: Athletes with disabilities often face higher costs participating in sport because of additional expenses, such as a sport-specific wheelchair, prothesis (amputees) or radio headsets (blind). Some athletes must also cover expenses of support staff (for example blind skiers may have to cover the cost for their sighted guide). Compounding the issue is the fact that people with disabilities, on average, have an income that is 28% less than an average Canadian who does not have a disability.

Now – why are the factors important considerations when addressing the question of ‘equality’ in sport? Let me elaborate…

Within a Canadian context, it is the National Sport Organizations (such as Swim Canada, Athletics Canada, Rowing Canada, etc.) who are responsible for fostering the development of athletes (both able-bodied and those with disabilities) to represent Canada internationally at events such as the Olympics and Paralympic Games. While each sport organization is individually responsible for creating the programs that lead from grassroots participation to competing at an international event, the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model developed by Sport Canada (working with the individual sport organizations) provides the basic framework. The LTAD model suggests that athletes move through a series of stages when learning a sport starting with the FUNdamentals (when they participate in local, non-competitive sports programs) and culminating in Training to Win (at which stage they are pursuing gold medals at international events).

Unfortunately, the LTAD model does not fully capture the above mentioned complexities of disability sport. For example, Canada’s elite athletes with a disability are among the best in the world and consistently achieve excellent results on the international stage. But if you were to categorize them according to the Long Term Athlete Development Model, I can guarantee you will find Canadian athletes at a Paralympic Games who are not at the Training to Win stage. Some may not even be at the Training to Compete stage. However, their performances have been good enough to meet international standards. You would not find this situation on a Canadian Olympic team – all athletes, with very few exceptions, would be at the Training to Win stage.

But this leads us back to our original question – what does it mean to treat athletes equally? In my dealings with sport organizations I have encountered two very different perspectives.

PERSPECTIVE #1: That able-bodied and adaptive athletes with similar team status should be given the same support, resources and opportunities. Under this model, equality means that athletes on equivalent teams are treated the same – for example the members of the Paralympic team and the Olympic team receive the same type of services and support.

PERSPECTIVE #2: That athletes at the same stage of development as outlined in the Long Term Athlete Development Model be given the same support and opportunities, regardless of their team status. This model would suggest that athletes receive services and support based on where they are at in their development typically with athletes at a ‘Training to Win’ stage receive greater and more specialized services than those in the ‘Learning to Compete’ stage.

My take? Perspective #2 fails to consider WHY athletes with a disability are frequently not at the same level of development. The LTAD model does not account for the many challenges and barriers people with disability encounter that may put their sport careers on a different trajectory than their able-bodied peers. In my opinion, Perspective #1 is the more fair way of treating athletes – if an athlete meets national team standards they should receive the support offered to all team members. By giving athletes with disabilities equal support, you can also implement equal expectations of performance and conduct. And that will help push Canadian athletes with disabilities to even greater performances.

What is your take? What does ‘equality’ meant to you?

Group photo of Courtney and Andrea's paranordic ski team at a World Cup in Europe.

Courtney and Andrea are joined by their teammates on the Canadian paranordic development team at a World Cup in Europe in the lead up to the 2010 Paralympics.

(More information on the LTAD model can be found here)

5 thoughts on “Sport in Canada: What does ‘equal’ mean to you?

  1. I agree with perspective #1, that athletes with similar team status be given the same financial and coaching support as their able bodies counterparts. Another inequality that I see is the opportunity for athletes with a disability to be part of a training group such as the ones that are run for juniors racers at Callahan, Canmore , Thunder Bay and Quebec. The able bodies athletes have the opportunity to stay and train together with full access to coaches, trainers, nutritionists,massage, gyms, outdoor, recuperation and educational facilities. Perhaps it would not be as utilized in the beginning, but until it is offered no one knows? If the opportunity had been available to me four years prior to the Paralympics, I would have jumped at the opportunity.

  2. Mary and Courtney – I agree with you both on many many points but I do question – does ‘equal’ mean the ‘same’? Will an athlete who is at a different stage in their athletic career get the same benefit from a service that is designed for an athlete at the Competing to Win stage? Or would they be better served by another service more targeted at their specific needs at the time?

  3. It’s an interesting topic and the more I think about it the more “big picture” issues seem to get pulled in.

    For example: This is, of course, all about money… If it didn’t cost so much everyone would have access to the ‘gold standard’ level of support.

    When it all comes down to taxpayer dollars we have to consider the desired effect of the money spent – partially because it needs to be weighed against other GREAT uses like education, hospital beds, shortening surgery wait lists etc.

    The fact is that due to the smaller pool of participants shooting for the top and the smaller audience paying any attention it is hard to justify equal spending on Para sport. One could make an argument for ‘proportional spending’ – i.e. if 10% of the population is “disabled” then 10% of the entire sport budget could be set aside for that special population. That argument might hold water. On the other hand, our paralympians wouldn’t win very often with 10% of the services afforded able bodied athletes…

    When it comes to “LTAD-dictated” versus parallel and “equal” support I think there would be too many examples of waste to stand up to the Sport Canada (taxpayer) test.

    Example: Providing the latest, cutting edge physiological testing and programming for a Training to Win athlete can cost many thousands of dollars annually. In the para “equal” context this would need to be made available to an athlete who might just be learning about heart rate zones and how to train within the correct zone… i.e. they may be in the Training to Compete phase.

    This would be a mis-allocation of funds and would mean less money in another deserving athlete, coach, or program’s budget. Or, viewed another way, the same funds could probably be spent on that same athlete more appropriately to illicit greater strides in development. The optics (to the untrained eye) would be that the able-bodied get the “best” and the paras get “second best”.

    I am firmly in the camp that ALL athletes, whether able-bodied or para receive LTAD appropriate services to the extent that our government makes funds available. Whether that should be more or less is another debate altogether…

  4. Pingback: The case of the missing girl guides: Why we need more women in Paralympic sport | AthletesFirst

  5. I think we do need more women in Paralympic Sport. I think if we as coaches were mad aware of athletes who perhaps were just short of AB National Team status, maybe we could entice them to think about guiding, coaching or supporting athletes with a disability. I think awareness could be part of the solution. There are pros and cons to integrated programs but it could be beneficial in finding women who want to carry on competing. Take a look at Robbi Weldon, she has a cycling guide who in her own right is an elite athlete. Looking to young women in Junior programs, or National programs that may want to look at a different way to compete or support athletes with a disability.
    As far as coaches, wax techs and other support staff, it could be the same ole same ole. Women still tend to shoulder a lot of family responsibility, which takes up a huge amount of time and energy. If women want a family that includes a partner and children, then it becomes very, very tricky. Most people plan when to have a family, but if you are a guide or support staff then you have to plan around sport cycles as well. Paralympics every four years, World Championships, World Cups. Not only do you have the actual family planning, but time to recover an elite body ready to train and race. Then the planning for time and yet extra expense of child care and travelling with a baby or infant. If you are a mother and make the choice to compete at an elite level whether as a guide or otherwise then you have to deal with the judgement you get from others, including teammates and coaches if you leave the child with a spouse or caregiver. It is a very complex set of issues when looking at women in sport. Yes we certainly need more women in sport but it is not an easy fix because there are layers of boundaries.

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