November 10, 2014

All kids should play

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By Lesley Parker for UTS Business School

Research suggests that while children with disabilities are being welcomed into sports teams when the activity is recreational in nature, barriers emerge as sport becomes competitive in the high school years.

It is estimated that two-thirds of Australians enjoy regular sport, yet this is the case for just one in four people with a disability. A study by Break Thru People Solutions, in conjunction with Professor Simon Darcy of UTS Business School, sought to discover why this is so.

It’s an important question if inclusion in childhood sport is an indicator of inclusion later in life, especially in the workplace. “It would be so much easier for us to find employment opportunities for people with disability if we could break down the prejudices that develop at a young age,” Break Thru’s Managing Director, Ross Lewis, says.

Break Thru and the group Touched By Olivia have joined to launch the All Kids Can Play campaign, which will encourage and assist sports clubs to include children of all abilities.

In the lead up to the launch of the campaign at NSW Parliament, Break Thru ran a national survey to ascertain the benefits of, and barriers to, inclusion in mainstream sports. Parents and children spoke of the confidence and friendships gained from sport, but also of the series of barriers to gaining access to school and community sport and the blows to self-esteem when children were left out of teams or, even when chosen, left on the bench.

Of the 800-plus survey responses, a third related to children with developmental or intellectual disabilities, 20 per cent to children with sensory disabilities and 13 per cent to those with physical disabilities.

‘This was good not just for children with disability but it was also seen as a positive influence on other children’

“One of the most interesting findings was that while sport was regarded as recreational participation, rather than being in competition mode, children with disability were accepted more readily within the team environment,” Professor Darcy says. “This was good not just for children with disability but it was also seen as a positive influence on other children, who developed a more empathetic understanding of disability by having children with disability as part of the team.

“However, once sports transferred to competition environments where winning and losing was the dominant ethos, other children, parents and some sporting officials were less supportive of including children with disability within the mainstream sporting environment,” Professor Darcy says.

This creates a dilemma for children with disability: How do they get the benefits of being involved in sport but not be exposed to the negative attitudes of others when sport moves into competition mode?

Professor Darcy notes that the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the National Disability Strategy provide an opportunity for sporting organisations to become more actively engaged in developing inclusive practice for children and adults with disabilities, as individuals become resourced to pursue their sporting dreams and desires.

Michael Brown, chief executive of the local organising committee for the 2015 Asian Cup – Asia’s biggest football event, to be hosted by Australia in January – told the All Kids Can Play launch that football was committed to sport for all, at all levels of the game, and in all roles.

“We know sport gives children a sense of achievement, increases self-esteem and confidence and helps them learn new skills,” he said. “The benefits of playing sport are no different for children with a disability.”

But too often children with a disability felt left out or sidelined. “We can only make a difference if we all champion programs like All Kids Can Play,” he said. “I call on everyone here to be an ambassador for the program and ensure no child misses out on the right to play sport.”

The findings

The Break Thru study found overwhelming recognition of the benefits of children with disability participating in mainstream sport. Interestingly, the physiological and health benefits of playing sport were barely mentioned by parents. Instead, it was the psychosocial benefits to the child that they regarded as incredibly important.

Other findings were:

  • The child’s ‘disability’ is often seen by the parent, coach or teacher as the first limitation to participation, rather than as something to be supported to allow active participation.
  • The impairment or condition may be a limiting factor in certain situations but the challenge is to determine whether the underlying impairment is the issue, or whether the issue is other interpersonal or structural barriers that turn the impairment into a disability.
  • Even in a disability sport context, children with a disability often lack other children with a disability to participate with.
  • The way training and skill building is undertaken by coaches has a major effect on participation and retention rates.
  • Parents felt they lacked knowledge of just what sports were available for their children.
  • Economic factors such as the cost of participation and the need for specialised equipment make sport a ‘luxury’ for some families.
  • Sporting clubs and coaches present a very positive response to inclusion. However, there is an ‘implementation gap’ as this didn’t match the experience reported by parents or children with disability.
  • The mainstream school sporting experience varies greatly between respondents, from successful integrated programs to no sport for students with disabilities.
  • Overall, the evidence suggests a willingness among sport clubs and schools to increase participation and inclusion, but there are still a number of barriers to be overcome.

All Kids Can Play will provide solutions for families, sporting clubs and schools that want to include children with disabilities in sport. Online resources are available at


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