Disability Sport on the Rise: How to Get Your Child Involved

Taya Coghlan looks at the importance and rise of disability sports available for kids and how this should be encouraged.

In the last few decades, there has been significant progress in how wider society views and values the disabled community. Not too long ago, disabilities were considered exclusively from a medical standpoint – one where a disability was an ‘abnormality’.

The disabled community have long been fighting the negative stigma and the unrealistic idea of ‘normality’ in order to gain equality. Recently, there has been strong support for adopting a social rather than a medical perspective on disabilities.

This push to challenge the dominant ideology and vernacular around disabilities has demonstrated that the disabled community are far more restricted by society itself than their own impairments. Despite major progress, the fight for awareness and equality for the disabled community still has a long way to go as many still face discrimination every day.

While stereotypes are a very real reality for those living with a disability, the Paralympic Games has become a pioneering force in challenging close-minded attitudes about disabilities. Paralympians are proud to compete in their own specialised sports landscape. They compete on their own world stage not because of limitations, but because they qualify on account of their skill and abilities.

For children with disabilities, participation in day-to-day activities is often an uphill battle. This gap only widens when children transition into adulthood. Unfortunately, it is likely that they will face stigma and discrimination throughout their childhood, potentially denying them opportunities that are essential to their social development and mental well-being. However, children’s disability sport can help reduce this gap, encouraging heightened self-esteem, perceived physical competence and peer acceptance.

This is why the Paralympic Games, arguably the largest worldwide event within the disabled community, is so important. Last year, the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympic Games broke all pre-existing international broadcasting and online viewing records, attracting an audience of 2.02 billion people. The positive and widespread media coverage of the Paralympic Games and its athletes in the last decade has been leading the way in reshaping how society perceives the disabled.

Those with disabilities have traditionally been thought of as incapable or dependent, thus fostering unfair assumptions as to what persons with disabilities are capable of. The incredible physical and mental feats the athletes perform within the Paralympics challenges these ideas and forces dominant community attitudes around disabilities to be re-thought. Those who compete become heroes and role models for children with disabilities, empowering younger generations to realise their full potential and inspiring them to become their own agent of change.

Benefits of Sport for Children with Disabilities

Sport is increasingly being utilised as an instrument for positive change within the disabled community due to the many immediate and long-term benefits it can provide. The physical health benefits of sport are well known, but sport can also present an opportunity for children to improve their mental health, encourage friendships and facilitate the development of crucial life skills.

Regular participation in sports activities can lead to many physical improvements including enhanced cardiovascular endurance, increased muscle strength, higher energy levels and improved balance and motor skills. An increase in physical strength and energy can lead to a greater level of independence and confidence as more tasks can be completed without assistance.

Sports participation also improves the psychological well-being of children with disabilities through presenting the opportunity to form friendships, express creativity, and develop a higher level of confidence and self-worth. Across Australia, there are sports activities being coordinated by people living with a disability, for children with disabilities. Through these organised activities, children can meet friends with similar life experiences and create a positive social network. It can also provide a much-needed venue for informal peer support and sharing of experiences amongst the families of children with disabilities.

Sport also creates an environment that allows children to develop crucial life skills. Participation in sport teaches about cooperation, teamwork, handling defeats and disappointments and how to work towards objectives. Team sports also enable children the opportunity to develop organisational and leadership skills. These skills can then be transferred into other aspects in life, such as school, further helping to build self-sufficiency.

How & Where to Get Involved

Fortunately, we live in a sports-crazed country. Whether your child is interested in joining a sport for fun, fitness or to challenge themselves, there’s plenty of opportunities to do so in Australia.

  • Wheelchair Basketball (Basketball Australia)

wheelchair-kids-basketball2160Wheelchair basketball was one of the foundation sports in the inaugural 1960 Paralympic Games. Almost 60 years later, it continues to be incredibly popular and is currently hailed as the fastest growing sport for athletes with disabilities. Wheelchair basketball is now played in over 80 countries with over 100,000 players across the globe.

The rules are almost identical to that of the able-bodied format, but with amendments to allow for the use of the wheelchairs. A player may wheel their chair and bounce the ball simultaneously, however, they are only allowed to push twice before they are obligated to shoot, pass, or dribble the ball again. If a player takes more than two pushes while in possession of the ball without dribbling, then a travelling violation occurs. All wheelchair basketball games are played on regulation-sized basketball courts, with standard height baskets and basketballs.

As two-time Gold Paralympic winners and two-time World Champions, Australia is at the forefront of wheelchair basketball’s development. The National Wheelchair Basketball League (NWBL) and the Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball League (WNWBL) are Australia’s national championship leagues.

• Wheelchair Tennis (Tennis Australia)

wheelchair-tennis2160Wheelchair tennis is a dynamic, fast-paced game that is now becoming one of the fastest-growing wheelchair sports in the world. It has a huge following of supporters and players, making it a great way for like-minded kids to meet each other.

The game follows traditional tennis rules, the only exception being that the ball can bounce twice provided that the first bounce occurs within the boundaries of the court. Wheelchair tennis integrates very easily with the able-bodied format since it can be played on any regular tennis court, and there are no modifications to the size of the rackets or balls. The winner of the match is determined by the first to win two sets.

•Para-Athletics (Athletics Australia)

Para-athletics is a fantastic way for athletes of all ages and skill levels to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Athletics Australia present opportunities all year round for children to compete at a representative level, whether it be locally or nationally. Athletes are separated into classifications based on their disability to ensure fair competition. There are a wide range of events which are open to girls and boys of all disability groups.

The events include:

~ Track

Sprint (100m, 200m and 400m); Mid Distance (800m and 1,500m); Long Distance (5,000m and 10,000m); Relay Races (4 x 100m and 4 x 400m)

~ Field

High Jump; Long Jump; Triple Jump; Discus; Shot Put; Javelin

Para-athletics follows the exact same rules as able-bodied athletics. The only difference are the equipment regulations. Wheelchairs, prosthetic devices, and rope tethers are all permitted equipment in track and field events and can be modified to suit the para-athletics environment.

• Powerchair Football (Australian Powerchair Football Association)

Powerchair football is an adaptation of soccer for electric wheelchair users. Played on an indoor basketball court with an oversized soccer ball, players attempt to push and ‘spin-kick’ the ball in order to score goals.

Powerchair football is a non-contact sport played on specialised electric wheelchairs, called powerchairs. Each powerchair must have four or more wheels, a lap belt and a foot guard. The players use the footguard to kick and block.

The game is very similar to able-bodied soccer, however, powerchair football has two distinguishing rules:

  1. “Two-on-one”: Only one player from each team is allowed within 3 metres of the ball on the court (except in the goal area). This means teammates must spread out which enables better game flow.
  2. “3-in-the-goal-area”: The defending team is only allowed two players in their own goal area.

The Australian Powerchair Football Association is Australia’s powerchair football governing body. APFA aims to provide opportunities for electric wheelchair users to participate in sport events at a local, regional, state and national level.

Besides being played at a local and national level, powerchair football also provides players with the opportunity to attend international tournaments and play for Australia’s national team, the Poweroos. It is an exciting time for the sport of powerchair football, with the next world cup being held in Australia in 2021!

Written by Taya Coghlan, on behalf of Lifeplan, an Australian NDIS provider. You can catch Taya on LinkedIn.

The Fencing Academy of NSW is starting a Sabre Wheelchair Program in 2023. To kick start the program, the Academy is running an “Introduction to Fencing” Wheelchair sessions in October and November 2022. For details of getting kids into wheelchair  fencing download Fencing Academy of NSW – Wheelchair Program