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Disability sport - from access to excellence

Joel Shaljean Joel Shaljean | 09:41 UK time, Thursday, 16 June 2011

A year ago, when I was the leader in Disability School Sport in Essex and the East, what always struck me was the way parents and teachers seemed to accept simple inclusion in sport, as the best deal they could get for their child with an impairment.

Whilst we have made great strides forward in pushing for all children to be able to access PE in their school, we also have a great responsibility to ensure that they are stretched and to let them know that we have high expectations for them.

ping pong game @ Radu Razvan - Fotolia.com

This is the story of Sam, a boy in Year 8 with cerebral palsy/hemiplegia which restricts the use of his limbs down one side of his body. He loved sport at mainstream school but had always been on the outside looking in when new school teams were picked. His self-esteem took a knock and his belief in his ability was greatly affected too.

Sam's school put him through a ‘playground to podium’ talent ID event  in Essex where he was ‘discovered’ five years ago. He went on to break regional and national records for his age group, in disability sport and also had England trials for football. His self-esteem is well and truly boosted. He has medals galore and now his walk is more of a swagger than part of his disability.

It’s not about your child becoming the next star. It’s being aware that unless you put them in an environment where they are properly stretched in sport, and have the opportunity to measure themselves against other children with disabilities, they are missing out in a big way. What they gain from that disability sport is vital. 

So here we have two possible scenarios: one concerns the child in a mainstream school, where they are sometimes included but not stretched, and one concerns the child in a special school, where they are almost always included and often stretched.

Whatever the scenario, it’s very important to understand what makes a child tick in sport. What is their experience of sport (good or bad)? Have they ever been asked what sports they would like to try or what clubs they attend outside school? Would they like try something different?

There are some marvellous new sports for children in special schools. We have seen a huge rise in sports such as boccia (a game in which you throw or kick a ball at a target), new age kurling, sports hall athletics, poly bat (similar to table tennis), goalball (a game played predominantly by blind people) and many more.

The majority of mainstream sports have disability versions. There are numerous wheelchair versions of different sports – for example wheelchair basketball. A good place that will signpost you to various disability sports and outline how you can get involved is the Scope website.

When I was a leader in disability sport, we surveyed large numbers of children with a range of disabilities in mainstream schools in Essex and the East to find out exactly what their experience of sport was. The survey showed that only a few accessed clubs after school, most felt included in PE lessons but only a handful felt they were stretched in those PE lessons. We were able to identify the sports that our children were keen on, and actively put in place opportunities for them to access our clubs and competitions at the level they wanted.

Children with impairments need the opportunity to test themselves out against children who are of similar ability to them. Only when children like Sam are the shooting stars of sport, will they be included in wider society.

Joel Shaljean is deputy head teacher at a special school.

See also BBC Disability Sport page. 

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