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)