Britain’s greatest ever Paralympic athlete, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson writes exclusively for Enable Magazine about the important work Laureus is doing to break the barriers between disabled people and sport.
Lockdowns across the world have been hard for us all. Our ‘normal’ way of life has changed immeasurably as governments and societies attempt to stem the level of infections and deaths from COVID-19.
In many areas of the world, these lockdowns have meant limits on social interaction, limits on leaving our own homes and additionally limits on organised grassroots sport.
We know that being active is really good for your mental health and wellbeing, as well as your physical health. As the winter months take hold, it is becoming increasingly difficult for young people to undertake exercise that would have been easier in better weather and on lighter days.
The lack of access to sports facilities such as gyms and swimming pools have had a damaging effect on mental and physical health, with the benefits that they provide to ease the pressure on health services.
Mental health is particularly being challenged as people find themselves more isolated and the absence of opportunities for physical activity means that those with a disability miss out on sport which in many instances is a lifeline for them.
Of course, it is about getting fit and having fun, but for those who are mentally disabled, they need the support and benefit that organised sports activity can bring. It gives them not only the social interaction that they desperately need but also a sense of belonging that they do not get elsewhere – and in some cases they do not understand why their access to sport has been denied.
Engaging with peers is fundamental for those with mental disabilities, who also learn valuable life skills that boost their confidence, health and enable them to make friends.
Sports activity also relies on repetition for those with mental disabilities, because they can easily forget rules and sporting principles if they do not have regular training, game sessions and the specialist attention they require that they simply cannot get at regular school PE sessions.
For those with physical disabilities, accessible facilities are also a problem, both in lockdowns and where more stringent social distancing and limited classes are concerned.
Research by Sport England shows that the number of disabled people who are regularly active stands at 23 per cent, compared to 31 per cent of the wider population. It could be argued that people with disabilities are being penalised because they need access to sports facilities and grassroots sport the most.
At Laureus – a global organisation celebrating sporting excellence whilst using sport to transform the lives of children and young people – Inclusive Society is one of the six Social Focus Areas towards which we provide funding and support to enable programmes to tackle, aligned to the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).
We have two decades of experience and understanding of the frameworks and soft skills required to create a society where young people and children embrace physical and mental differences and can thrive through sport.
We have to be really mindful that, as a Foundation, we have to support and make sure that the projects and young people come out of this in the best shape that they possibly can because those projects ultimately save lives.
We need to remember that sport brings young people together, it gives them an opportunity and a chance to think differently about themselves, to think differently about the decisions they make and how they want to live their lives.
And that is what sport and Laureus does. It gives young people the chance to think differently.
Delivered in partnership with Allianz and InsightShare, we recently commissioned a report entitled Empowering Abilities through Sport, which showcased the real-life experiences of disabled young people from Ethiopia, Thailand and Jamaica, who have benefited from the support of our projects.
In each and every case, we have seen marked changes in their attitudes, their confidence and their abilities to communicate. Sport can provide that in ways, to quote our Founding Patron Nelson Mandela, that nothing else can.
Sport is unique in its ability to bring people together and break down existing barriers of discrimination and it’s no exaggeration to say that lives depend on it.
As well as ensuring grassroots sport remains open and accessible, we must not forget about elite disabled athletes who have had a very difficult year dealing with the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
For many competitors, Tokyo was the culmination of four years of hard work and to be prevented from doing the job that they love will undoubtedly impact their mental health and wellbeing.
Another concern is that some Paralympic athletes may have underlying health conditions or issues that will prevent them from competing in a rearranged Games.
I was lucky enough to compete at four Paralympic Games and few other events could replicate the thrill of representing your country on the biggest stage of all.
I’m hopeful that fans will be able to attend the Games in Tokyo because they are a key part of what makes it such a special part of the sporting calendar.
We also shouldn’t underestimate the importance of young people seeing their role models competing, to help inspire and give them the belief that they can get the same fulfilment out of competing at the sports they love.
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is a Laureus Academy Member, discover more about Laureus and the work they do by visiting the website here.