Sport for All: The Case for Inclusive Physical Activity Programs

The Special Olympics are about to begin in Los Angeles and by this time next year the Olympics and Paralympics will be underway; the world will be watching sport and judging success in wins and losses. While many of the athletes working with me at Laureus USA are Olympians and Paralympians, we understand something as a collective group which is very important - not every kid is going to compete for gold, but every kid deserves a chance to play sports. Therefore we've banded together as a Laureus family to promote universal access to sport for kids, which means a commitment to inclusion.

Kids can be excluded from sports due to a variety of reasons including but not limited to ability, economics, demographics, people in cultural environments that deter motivation to engage in physical activity, distance from facilities and lack of access to transportation, or lack of access to resources. Nike's Designed to Move report in 2012 stated, "Girls, children with disabilities, and those form low-income families are often the most excluded from opportunities to engage in sports and physical play." The sport for good movement is trying to reduce these barriers, reach these children, and provide them with access to quality sports programs. In order to be successful this process will take time, innovation, and changes to existing systems.

For girls and people from low-income families, Laureus USA is supporting a socially inclusive model for youth development through sports currently in New Orleans and then aims to replicate the Model City approach in other cities. In this city, for example, our direct grants reach 56% girls in a community where publicly funded programs serve 5% girls. Most organizations within the sport for development sector focus on these populations; programs serving children with disabilities (either exclusively or embedded within the framework of their program) are rarer. The sport for development movement needs to intentionally focus on reaching these children either by reducing the barriers for them to engage in existing programs or specifically designing programs for these young people.

On July 26 we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act, an civil rights law which redefined how people with disabilities should be included in many facets of everyday American life including sports programs. While the progress we've made in these 25 years is incredible, the lack of access to quality physical activity and sport programs continues to create significant problems for people with disabilities in America. According to Commit to Inclusion:

  • 38% higher obesity rates for children with a disability than for children without a disability.
  • Physical activity is 4 times lower for children and youth with a disability than their peers without a disability.

An area of focus over the past 25 years to solve the access crisis within the sport for good movement has been to ensure organizations intentionally design their programs to be inclusive. "Inclusion promotes a universal design concept that permeates a sports organization's programming, policies and attitudes, stretching beyond basic physical access to the whole environment," said Eli Wolff, Director of the Inclusive Sports Initiative at the Institute for Human Centered Design.

"Inclusion is not a strategy to help people fit into the systems and structures which exist in our societies; it is about transforming those systems and structures to make it better for everyone," said Diane Richler, Past President of Inclusion International.

There are programs doing this very well around the world, including Special Olympics and NPC Rwanda. NPC Rwanda, for example, engages a wide community, creates awareness about etiquette for engaging with people with disabilities, and gives people with disabilities the chance to engage in sports. In 2004 in Athens, Rwanda participated in Paralympics and they won a Bronze medal. This inspired their community and as a result they were able to help create 22 clubs of people with disabilities playing various sports.

The program offers sports like: standing and sitting volleyball, wheel chair basketball, power weight lifting, amputee football, etc. Rwanda has gone through hard times particularly during the 1994 genocide where 1,000,000 million people were killed within 90 days. "Sport has brought new life to millions of Rwandese and I was privileged to meet with Amputees footballers who work with NPC," my colleague from Laureus, Kevin Anyango, told me of his recent visit to the program. One of their coaches told him, " Sports is bringing humanity to the marginalized... sports is giving new voice to Rwandese... it is a source of livelihood. Some are earning money now. People with disabilities are competing at a high level... sports is bringing smiles to everyone."

We need more programs in the U.S. to have adaptive and inclusive opportunities for people with disabilities. In order to create lasting impact over the next 25 years we need to look at these problems holistically and commit to overcoming the barriers to access. I hope others will join us and commit to inclusion.