Perspective: Sport is a gateway to inclusion

By Tanni Grey-Thompson 

I feel very fortunate that sport has always been a part of my life. As an independent and determined youngster, I tried to never let my disability stand in the way of the pursuit of my dreams. Sport gave me the chance to build my physical and emotional strength – including belief in myself – and to learn incredibly valuable skills: teamwork, discipline and leadership. 

The support I received from my parents and teachers was tremendous, and it allowed me to realize my Paralympic dreams, winning 16 medals over five Paralympic Games. I feel extremely proud to be referred to as a role model for other people with disabilities, and so pleased that my achievements might help others to overcome challenges. 

Sport can help to break down barriers and promote positive attitudes – and ultimately, to give children with disabilities a chance to achieve their full potential. However, many millions of children living in poverty around the world are missing out on a fundamental right, the right to play. If they have a disability, they’ve got even less opportunity. That is why I became involved with International Inspiration, the London 2012 Summer Olympics international legacy programme for children and young people, and travelled to Jordan to see at first hand the impact that this effort was having on the lives of children in that country. 

Although sport is very popular in Jordan, Jordanian schools have limited sport facilities and do not yet provide inclusive physical education (PE) lessons. There are few parks and playgrounds in the cities and even fewer in rural areas. This is in part due to the myriad of challenges linked to local cultural norms. Girls, displaced children living in Palestinian refugee camps, children with disabilities and other marginalized children are generally discouraged from participating in sport and play activities. And because many people still don’t realize the importance of physical activity in the development of young people, little emphasis has been put on making sport a part of the school curriculum. 

One of the things that really stands out from the trip was a visit to Souf Camp – one of Jordan’s Palestinian refugee camps, with a population of over 20,000. The Souf Boys Elementary School sat within the camp and had more than 700 young boys between 4 and 16 years old. With funding from International Inspiration to promote inclusiveness, weekly sport sessions were established and involved children with disabilities. 

In one of the sessions I met a boy called Mouayyed Mohamad Badran, who later took me to his home. Mouayyed used a wheelchair, and he told me about the sport sessions and PE activities that he had been able to take part in alongside his friends. He was so enthusiastic; I was impressed that something so simple was making such a difference to Mouayyed’s life. 

On the second day of my visit, I had the chance to speak to some Jordanian Paralympians, and we shared stories about how sport had changed our lives. They reinforced what I have long believed: that through sport, people can find the determination to attempt, and achieve, amazing feats. Simple things – such as including children with disabilities in PE lessons or giving young people the training and skills to obtain employment – are really transforming lives in this country and elsewhere. 

A number of schools in Turkey hold or are planning Paralympic School Days, as part of which children without disabilities are given the chance to move around in wheelchairs and play sports blindfolded and thus develop empathy and engage in recreation alongside peers with disabilities. In India and Indonesia, Special Olympics events address negative perceptions towards intellectual disability. This vital work challenges stereotypes and changes attitudes, focusing on what children with disabilities can achieve, rather than what they can’t. 

Despite these steps, children with disabilities remain among the most disadvantaged in the world. Every Olympic year presents an opportunity to further the inclusion of children with disabilities. The baton now passes to Rio de Janeiro, as the next Olympic host, to continue the fight to include children of all abilities in the practice of sport. 

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