Should Athletes Without Disabilities be Allowed in Parasport?

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?