Should Athletes Without Disabilities be Allowed in Parasport?

By Josh

A few years ago I demonstrated my sport, boccia, at a summer camp for youth with disabilities. I have done this many times in my career as a National Team athlete, but this particular time stuck with me. There was a boy with a disability who used a wheelchair at the camp, and he brought along his friend, another boy without a disability.

Both friends participated in several parasports throughout the camp: sports like wheelchair tennis, wheelchair basketball, athletics and, on the day I presented, boccia. I will always remember how much fun all the kids had at that camp, but I especially remember the fun the two friends had. The boy without a disability was wheeling himself around the gym in a borrowed wheelchair competing with his friend in his own usual sport wheelchair. Both were laughing and pushing themselves and glowing.

A recent report, written by Anne Snowdon, a nurse and professor at the Odette School of Business at the University of Windsor in Ontario, shows that 53 percent of disabled kids in Canada have no friends. The study goes on to claim that, of the kids who do have friends, only 1% spend an hour or more per day with them. (Read Globe and Mail article on the report here.)

These statistics are shocking. In response to them, I would like to argue that sport is a particularly good way for kids with disabilities to make friends and to have fun with them. When kids with disabilities play sport though, their able-bodied friends cannot always join them. Some sport programs are for disabled people only; to include a non-disabled participant could take away a spot from one with a disability. Sometimes government or organisational funding is targeted towards people with disabilities only and, those without disabilities, must pay expensive fees to participate in otherwise subsidised programs.
Should athletes without disabilities be allowed in parasport? I see this as an argument in two parts: participation in recreational sport and participation in elite sport. I think that, in both dimensions, athletes without disabilities can play substantial roles and should be allowed to do so.

This debate is not a new one.  This 2003 CBC video clip outlines the issue of non-disabled athletes competing at a high level and at the Paralympic Games.

Sports like wheelchair basketball and sledge hockey often recruit non-disabled team members who use sledges and wheelchairs as they would any other type of sport equipment to compete. At the Paralympic Games however, a disability is required.

Academic literature suggests that people without disabilities may hesitate from participating in parasport because they fear being portrayed as “weak, pathetic and in need of sympathy.” Parasport can be seen as second-class sport by society. It receives less media coverage than able-bodied male professional sport or the Olympic Games, and people with disabilities – the stars of the Paralympics – are stigmatised by society. Yet, significant numbers of able-bodied athletes are competing in parasport. I believe that this is because parasport is an elegant competition that is challenging and fun.  After friends of people with disabilities begin participating in such a fun activity. they stick around and help build the sport.

At a high level, able-bodied athletes should be used as training partners to increase the preparation and performance of Paralympians. I agree with Chantal Benoit in the CBC clip, who claims that competing against able-bodied wheelchair basketball opponents gave Canada a dominant Wheelchair Basketball program for over a decade. I also agree with Dr. Robert Steadward and Rob Snoek in the clip, who argue that allowing non-disabled athletes at the Paralympic Games could dilute the inspirational and specific brand that the IPC has worked to build.

At the recreational level, Canada can be a world leader in bringing parasport to its citizens. Reverse integration, where able-bodied people are integrated into disabled programs, has the potential to benefit whole cross-sections of society, not to mention future generations of elite para-athletes.

Parasport should be adopted in mainstream physical education programs – not just as a special activity that allows students with disabilities to participate, but as a part of the curriculum. Imagine if kids across Canada were playing sledge hockey, Goalball, boccia, wheelchair basketball and other parasports regularly? That way, when a kid with a disability arrives at phys. ed. class, they can participate in an event that everyone already loves, instead of forcing the whole class to try a new sport just so the one disabled kid can participate. Or, what if local community centres offered parasport programs like wheelchair fencing or throwing shot-put, discuss and javelin from a seated position, in addition to soccer and baseball? More kids could become active, and more kids with disabilities would be exposed to parasport.

Most of all, reverse integration will bring people together. Who knows, maybe some of them will become friends.

What do you think — should athletes without disabilities be allowed in parasport?

17 thoughts on “Should Athletes Without Disabilities be Allowed in Parasport?

  1. Para sport saved my life early on after my brain injury. It allowed me the opportunity to participate with other people with a disability. I was able to see that I could still, at first, participate, heal, and then realize I could still compete. If I had arrived at a program with able bodied people I am not sure I would have felt as able to participate and compete.
    Socially recreation programs saved my life. I met people who understood me, people who could relate.

    • Thanks so much for starting the discussion Mary.

      I started my parasport career on a disabled swim team. Like you, I also wonder if I could have had such a positive introduction to sport if it had been in an able-bodied environment. My parents tell me that it was hard enough to convince them to allow me into a disability only competitive environment.

      I think that disability only sport also plays an important role in our system. Swimming is now integrated in Canada, and athletes in my classification (the more severely disabled range) have dwindled.

      Thanks for sharing the importance of disability only recreational sport programs. Do you think it is possible to have recreational sport programs, with able-bodied participants, that nurture the confidence of disabled athletes? I hope that it is. What would such a program look like for you?

    • Yes I agree that athletes without a disability should be able to compete in ParaSport events. At the domestic level it is essential, as it increases the number of participants, therefore increasing the awareness of the sport, and ultimately improving the level of competition, which only makes our national teams stronger. In Goalball, the sighted player has allowed many smaller provinces like PEI and even SK to field a complete team for the national championships. The more teams we had at nationals the higher the level of competition was, which in turn improved the quality of the national program. It is also important to note that, enabling athletes without a disability to compete in Parasport events, we are increasing the base by which we can recruit coaches. Coaches are infinitely more effective when they have played the game for which they are tasked to coach. Again, this only stands to improve the calibre of our national teams.

      I do believe strongly that the Paralympics should continue to require that all athletes have a disability. It is important for the Paralympic movement to continue to promote its unique brand, so that it doesn’t get lost in the abyss of able bodied sports. As people with disabilities, we try so hard to just “fit in” and be “like everyone else”, but at the same time everyone else, is trying to be unique and stand apart from the crowd. We should be proud that we have a unique brand and promote the fact that the Paralympics are NOT like any other sporting event in the world.

  2. I personally support able bodied inclusion in a number of Parasports, only up to the National and International levels though. I have an acquired injury that I suffered in 2004 and have become extremely involved in sledge hockey in the last 2 years. Allowing players friends and family to get involved on the ice is an integral part of our organization. The bonding that happens through sport is something that can’t be achieved through any other process and helps create and strengthen relationships. Personally, with my injury, I had hesitated getting involved in Parasports as I wasn’t sure what the rules were surrounding disabilities, if I qualified or even what type of situation I was entering. Ultimately, it was the fear of the unknown through general ignorance of Parasports. I am someone who has been involved in a very wide array of sports through my entire life and I can only imagine the number of amazing athletes that have never made the transition to Parasports for the same reason I hesitated. Knowing that able bodied people could join Parasports would have allowed myself and I’m sure many others to enter that uncertain world with more confidence. Recruitment is one of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered since I have become involved and I have witnessed numerous poachings of athletes between Parasports. Many teams in our province compete with only 1 or 2 players with disabilities, but are rounded out with the friends and family of those players…without opening our rinks to both able bodied and disabled players, we literally wouldn’t have a sport to play. This is even more true in smaller cities and towns. I think it is extremely important though, to make sure that there is always a strong system in place to specifically support, nurture and help advance disabled athletes…it’s about maintaining that competitive balance, regardless of skill level. Some sports will never make sense to open up to everyone, but I think there are many that could benefit from opening the doors.

  3. Integrating able-bodied and adaptive athletes into single sports programs is a win-win for everyone. Able-bodied athletes get a better understanding and appreciation of the disability sport system and the challenges athletes with disabilities face and at the same time, athletes with disabilities gain an understanding and appreciation of the able-bodied sport system and the challenges able-bodied athletes face. And both will push each other to be better athletes and individuals as a whole, though some (wrongly!) assume the athletes with disabilities have nothing to offer an able-bodied athlete. Sport is sport, there is no reason to distinguish able-bodied sport from disabled sport. Training with able-bodied athletes have definitely made me a better athlete and I wouldn’t want it any other way. So yes, able-bodied kids should have the option of taking part in wheelchair basketball and sledge hockey. Why not? I know of one young boy who saw wheelchair basketball at the Sydney Paralympic Games and the next morning, his mom caught him out in the driveway sitting on one of their dining room chairs shooting hoops. When she asked him what he was doing, he answered, “Because one day, I’m going to be on the national wheelchair basketball team.” That boy got what so many adults don’t – it was sport. And nothing more.

  4. Great post Josh. I find your argument for inclusion of Parasports in PE programs particularly compelling. I think this should be lobbied for inclusion in the provincial PE curriculums as a Parasport unit included every year that could select from a number of possible sports. It might also make way for integrated competition in Parasport between school. I’m very interested in looking at how Parasport and disabled athletes can be included in high school sport in BC either through integration and/or Parasport events. I’ll also build on these issues in a couple of weeks when I talk about the Sport Canada Long Term Athlete Development model and is application to Parasport.

  5. I appreciate everyone’s comments thus far. This is a great topic. I got involved with Parasports because of my partner who has a brain injury and who ended up on the Paranordic Team and went to the 2010 Paralympics. I began loving cross-country skiing and we would go together to ski after participating in a 6 week course for people with disabilities. I was told that I had to learn just as much if I was going to keep up. So I did learn and then I went on to take coaching courses so that I could really help. Now we are both involved with teaching new people who have a disability learn to cross-country ski. One of the things we offer is a beginners day and each person can bring a family member or friend for the same subsidized price. It is our belief that if an able bodied friend or family member learns the sport the better chance the other person has of getting to the mountain. Many of our participants probably would not be able to get there very easily as the bus system to ski hills is non-existent or might as well be for the most part. Only those who can drive can manage to get there without help. Our committee did a lot of fundraising and applied for grants to make this program possible for a very small fee for participants. Transportation, equipment, trail passes and coaching are provided to all who attend. This year we also offered an Integrated Jr Program for kids 8-16. This worked great for both kids who did not make it into the regular system of cross-country skiing like the jack rabbit program and those with a disability. An awesome outcome in this program was when two sixteen year old’s learned how to guide the visually impaired children. I know that our sport is different from the team sports you are discussing but there is still areas when it makes sense for both groups to come together. I believe that recreational sport activities is awesome to include both especially during the school years when sport and friendship is critical for healthy development. If I think about sports like Para-Nordic then I disagree including able-bodied athletes as there is a drastically unfair field of play here and it would be nearly impossible to compete at an elite level for someone with a disability
    . Team sports are different as you can then even the playing field somewhat. Like others, I strongly believe that one area that should be kept strictly for those athletes with a disability is the Paralympics. I am torn when it comes to other levels of sport. Sometimes I think there is a need for segregated space where people within a category can shine in their own right.

  6. Great post! It’s very common athletes with disability taking part in events to able-bodied athletes. Some parathletes even started teir carriers this way. So, why the other way is not possible?

  7. The insights so far have been great.

    Shawn mentioned that some sledge hockey teams have only one or two disabled team members. That worries me. Although it is great that the sport is flourishing – many teams means more excitement – it makes me think there should be some sort of disability quota system, or a benefit for teams to include more players with disabilities in leagues that are encouraging non-disabled participants. I also imagine that more able-bodied players means that some would-be sledge hockey players who have even minimal impairment in their upper bodies might not be able to fairly compete. What does everyone think about about quotas or incentives?

    Perhaps a good analogy to draw to elite para-athletes using able-bodied training partners would be to female athletes. I know that able-bodied female fencers sometimes compete in “Open” tournaments with males. This can be a double edged sword. The competition is more physical and challenging, which is beneficial for females preparing for elite tournaments. However, the style is also sometimes so different, that females who consistently compete against males do not necessarily get tactical training benefits for the tempo seen in female opponents.

    What do you think – a good analogy?

  8. Funny – I’ve been thinking about the comparison to women’s sport since you sent me this article (could possibly be because this week is International Women’s Day and i just wrote a post on women’s sport for the IPC’s blog… I’ll post the link when it goes up). But I hadn’t considered it from exactly the same perspective you did Josh. You compare it to high level women using men’s competion (or Open… which usually means men’s…) in order to be challenged. I was thinking of it more from the perspective of participation numbers – I always question when you girls play hockey on men’s teams (which is very common in small towns across Canada and has been at the centre of many court cases). They often sign up for the men’s teams because there aren’t enough girls to create a women’s team or because they feel they have more competitive opportunities with the men (not necessarily because they feel the girls aren’t capable of high level hockey but because the league is pretty small – few teams, not much depth, etc.). On a personal level I can certainly appreciate why they make this decision, but I always question the implications – if girls play on boys teams how do we grow the sport on the women’s side? do we not just perpetuate the idea that it isn’t possible/plausible to field a strong girl’s team? I’m guessing the same could be applied to parasport – if a small town only has one or two athletes that technically qualify for parasport then it makes sense to encourage able-bodied friends and family to form a team so that a team exists. But do these towns then stop actively recruiting athletes with a disability because once they have a full team it just isn’t that necessary or urgent? I assume/hope not but I suppose it’s always a possibility.

    I personally am a big fan of Blair’s suggestion that phys. ed. (gym) curriculum in schools include one unit of parasport for each grade each year so that, over the course of their schooling, all children are exposed to a variety of parasports. For the students with disabilities it would give them a chance to try new sports they might want to try outside of school (and if they already play that sport then it gives them a chance to be the ‘star’ athlete for a few classes rather than being the student that always needs special accommodations). For the students without disabilities it exposes them to many new sports they might not otherwise encounter – they might be enticed to join an integrated team, volunteer at a Paralympics, etc. If nothing else they will have a greater understanding of (and hopefully better appreciation of) disability sport.

    Also – I worked at a camp leader for a sport leadership camp for high school students in Alberta – they were all selected because they were ‘sport leaders’ in their school – mostly team captains, star players, etc. Throughout the week we decided to bring in guests to teach them sports/activities they might not be familiar with – orienteering, hip hop and GOAL BALL. It was awesome – one of the reasons I really enjoyed it was because so many of the sports they are familiar with draw on the same skill set – running fast, hand/eye coordination, etc. As a result, a student who does well in basketball will often be a decent soccer player or volleyball player as well – not necessarily at a high level but enough that they will do well in gym class in a variety of sports. But many parasports require totally different skills – hand/ear coordination in goal ball, tactics and accuracy in boccia, wheelchair handling in wheelchair basketball – these are not skills most students have had to develop so introducing them in gym class means that the ‘star’ students or ‘natural’ athletes won’t necessarily be at the top of the pack – other students have a chance to shine. It would just mix things up a bit and challenge some of the hierarchies that can be established in a class over the course of the school year. In that sense I think it would be a hugely beneficial idea to include parasport in the school curriculum for students with and without disabilities.

  9. While I completely understand your concern regarding a quota system, due to the realities of living in a vast country like Canada, that really creates obstacles to participation of disabled athletes in my opinion. Unless you live in a major centre, the realities are that there may not be enough athletes that would fit the “quota” in small towns across the country. If there is a limited supply of disabled athletes in a small city or town, why would allowing their family and friends to support them by helping create a team and an opportunity to participate be a bad thing?

    • I was thinking more for tournaments in bigger centres, where teams are traveling to compete – and maybe some can be combined. You’re right that it would make little sense in smaller communities.

      I am not a fan of quotas in general though. They are usually band-aid solutions that make lower participation less noticeable, instead of addressing participation.

    • I realized as soon as I wrote it that I don’t actually believe this is case… I agree that especially in small centres it makes a lot of sense to recruit able-bodied family and friends to fill out teams and that this is very unlikely to take spots from people with a disability. I was perhaps taking the point a little too far :) I mean I’m in Vancouver and recruiting athletes with a disability to our clinics and teams is still a struggle. We had a waitlist for our Skiing is Believing clinic last month but I think that is the first time any of us can remember turning people away!

  10. It’s quite difficult to provide a sweeping “yes” or “no” answer when every sport is inherently different. However, pretty much every sport I can think of (at this moment) has two types of streams… competitive and non-competitive (or recreational).

    There are Junior A players trying to get to the NHL and there are beer league hockey players. Folks out cross country skiing at loppets and speedier folks racing on the world cup circuit.

    There is a point in every sport where athletes reach a fork in the road and are sorted onto one side of the equation or the other. In a team sport it’s called a “try-out” in an individual sport it’s a key “race” or a “meet” or a “contest”.

    On the side of the fork where an athlete “makes the team” or “qualifies” for special opportunities like provincial or national funding, development teams, national teams etc. etc. the athletes that are targeted for investment should be the ones that could conceivably take it all the way to the highest level – the Paralympics. Funds for elite parasport development are scarce enough as it is without using them on people who can’t compete at the Paralympics. As far as I know Canada has this part right so far…

    On the other side of the fork, anyone who is interested should be welcomed to play. This side of the fork should be all about fun, inclusion and healthy competition. This is the side of the equation where things could go sideways… maybe a kid isn’t comfortable coming out to compete with able-bodied kids, or maybe the spots on a sledge hockey team are “taken” by Bobby Wheelchair’s brother/uncle/dad/sister and nobody on the team wants to give up a spot for Arnie Amputee who is actually disabled. The governing body of each sport should have policies in place to ensure this type of thing doesn’t happen but I am less confident of that (than our government not spending on undeserving athletes on the competitive side of the equation.)

  11. Every “issue” has it’s origin in the instances where sport is used to allocate scarce resources. If spots on a team are limited, or money is available for “development” of an athlete, or there are international competitive perks for a few, everyone starts talking about excluding someone, for some reason.

    Everyone seems to be able to see that for “recreational” sports (and “recreational” is, in fact, seen as some sort of minor, less important part of sport participation – the lesser fork in the road) it makes sense to let everyone play. “Play” is the key concept. But every time just “playing” is no longer the reason for taking part, the issues of who gets to do it become difficult. As soon as developing elite athletes is the goal, or even worse, as soon as money becomes available, who can be allowed to take part, definitions of “disability”, and coaching are suddenly profound problems. Suddenly “forks in the road” must be chosen.

    A paradigm can be very limiting. Cultural assumptions are always difficult to work around. The most dangerous ideas of any time are always included in those ideas that people of that time call “common sense”. Until it is no longer “common sense” that the elite athlete is an ideal role model, none of the issues being tossed around here will be resolved. It is the most basic assumptions of what sport is, what it is for, why our culture should encourage it, how we use our money to do so, and why any of us (able bodied or not) take part, that are the real problems.

  12. Pingback: How do we develop athletes with disabilities in Canada? | AthletesFirst

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