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Looking out to go in: Disability Community Organizations could help with your parasport promotions

In celebration of International Day of Persons with a Disability, we're proud to share this blog by Joseph O'Rourke, a research assistant on the Level the Field: Disability Inclusion in Sport research project between viaSport and UBC's School of Kinesiology.

People with disabilities in Canada have much lower participation rates in sport and physical activity when compared to the general population. Engaging new participants to try sport or physical activity (PA) prevents a common challenge for disability sport organizations. Many initiatives aimed at increasing the participation of people with disabilities (PwD) tend to (re)engage the same population of athletes, parents and participants, which can inadvertently prevent the participation of other PwD who wish to be more active.

Recently, researchers on a partnership project between viaSport and UBC School of Kinesiology worked with disability community organizations (DCOs) outside the sport sector to explore this issue. Through working outside the sector, we aimed to better understand how PwD perceive existing sport and PA program opportunities and to explore new approaches for increasing participation.

In our research, we worked with the Inclusion Langley Society to conduct interviews with community members about: their experiences with PA, (re)imagining PA participation, and their awareness of programs. We learned that although there are programs available, access is usually prevented by inadequate public transportation, unwelcoming and unsupportive environments (physical space, type of program), and that participants are often treated differently (by staff and others) - even though they may be regular participants in the same community programs.

We also learned the importance of support staff in DCOs such as Inclusion Langley. In many ways, support staff serve as gatekeepers in finding and sharing opportunities with clients. These staff act similarly to sport club Program Officers, but instead of coordinating in-house programs (although they do have them), they search for new opportunities they can attend with clients (i.e., ‘programs').

What opportunities might these learnings present for the sport sector?

Existing programs go a long way towards supporting PwD in regularly participating. However, for sport organizations to grow their participation, we recommend thinking outside the canon of sport and exploring partnerships aimed at improving the access to and quality of the experience. When asked what inclusion meant to them, one participant in our province-wide online survey responded: “when every person has a right to be included in any sport and recreation activity that they wish to. That coaches, teachers, volunteers gain knowledge and creativity to adapt activities as needed to facilitate inclusion for all.” Another participant responded that inclusion meant: “Having people with disabilities being included starting at the planning stage of an event. Make it known we are welcome.” Implementing such changes at the program level would be a great step toward fostering an environment of inclusion. However, making inclusive changes to existing organizational practices and systems often becomes difficult due to budget and capacity constraints faced by sport organizations.

Recognizing the reality of these resource constraints, sport organizations could consider working with disability organizations outside the sport sector. To increase the participation of PwD in their programs, working with DCOs will assist sport organizations in considering how programs are promoted and what information should be provided. It would also enable them to consider how their program offerings may or may not be meeting community needs, whilst exploring better promotion strategies for the intended audience. For example, local sport clubs could develop new programs alongside DCO staff and clients, with a focus on addressing issues of accessibility and participation experience.

Lastly, to help inform the promotional strategies of disability sport organizations and enhance pathways into sport and PA for more PwD, we developed an infographic focused on program promotions. The handout briefly describes six information parameters which parasport leaders need in their promotions and messaging, such as on program websites or marketing collateral.

Our disability inclusion research is ongoing, so keep an eye on the viaSport website for updates and resources.