The level of women’s participation across different fields of sport has been an evolving conversation over the years.
By Judith Macharia
However, despite significant achievements in addressing issues of women within able-bodied sport and society, so little is talked about on the experience and participation of female athletes with various forms of disabilities.
Drawing inspirations from the theme for the 2022 International Women’s Day, Breaking the Bias, which emphasizes building a world, where difference is valued and celebrated; this article seeks to celebrate every para female athlete for breaking the barriers within sports despite the risks of double discrimination, associated with their gender and disability.
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It acknowledges their challenges and commitment to the game and provides recommendations for sports stakeholders on how to further encourage their participation and inclusion.
The identity of a woman with a disability is dependent on the nature of her impairment, socioeconomic status, culture, sexuality, attitudes, experiences, and expectations. Furthermore, the societal attitude and understanding of disability have limited their engagements and recognition of persons with disability as contributors to the social economy.
This has been one of the biggest impediments to the athlete’s participation in sport. Additionally, it has contributed to the notion that disability sport is not normal, which reinforces their isolation. It is therefore important that more focus is placed on changing societal perspectives and attitudes on disability sport. This is also linked to the need for a support network, especially at the family level, which in my various encounters with them was considered as extremely crucial in their journeys.
Additionally, the lack of opportunities for women and girls with disability, especially at the grassroots level, has undermined their participation. The majority of the athletes with disability involve themselves in professional disability sports much later in life.
The lack of youth talent development structures has limited the advancement of para-sports. Developing these structures, especially for the youth would be relevant in changing perceptions on their disabilities at key stages in their lives, as the perspective of the entire community.
Another key challenge is the lack of knowledge on integrating students with disabilities into the physical education curriculum in schools. As a result, the children get very little engagement in the activities and are sometimes limited to the capacity of the score and timekeepers.
Understanding the value of physical activity at the developmental stages, not just for their health but also the opportunity to learn sports values; failing to engage them denies them a lot. This challenge extends to the elite sports level where the majority of the athletes have expressed the scarcity of coaches with combined expertise in both disability and sport. There are coaches who are experts in disabilities, while others are experts on the sport, but hardly the two. Therefore, it is important that the coaching education curriculum encapsulate this.
Moreover, there is a dire need to provide more coverage and promotion of para-sports events and athletes. Often, the media presents disability sports events as stories of human interest rather than professional sports competitions. This reinforces the failure of society to acknowledge them as professionals in their daily interactions where they are often pitied.
Hence, mass media should consider sharing more positive stories that provide more visibility and awareness on para-sport, and the experiences of the participating athletes. This would be critical in encouraging more females with a disability to engage in a sport of their choice. In my experience, the lack of information and mentorship has been one of the key limitations to their participation in sports.
Noteworthy, the lack of representation of women, as administrators and athletes, in disability sport has undermined their voices and opportunities to address some of their issues. For this reason, it is important that there exists a more inclusive representation to ensure that the concerns unique to the female athlete with disability are addressed, and transform societal attitudes and narratives associated with disability sport, and womanhood.
Furthermore, the various disability sports leadership, including athletes, should generate more awareness on the diverse opportunities within the sport that is available for female athletes with a disability.
In conclusion, there is a need for reinforced and increased systemic support for the female athlete with a disability by the various sports leadership at all levels. This support should also take into consideration the financial and cultural constraints for the athletes and sports that often have little institutional or social support.
This would be critical in sustaining the current momentum and achievements that have already been made in ensuring inclusivity within sport and society and leveling the playing field.
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