Sport initiatives are increasingly being viewed and promoted as catalysts to achieving a range of non-sporting objectives variously labelled under sport for social change or development, sport for peacebuilding and reconciliation and sport for education, equality and inclusion.
The UN recognises the vital role sport can play in enhancing personal and societal development and the EU has been at the forefront of promoting the use of sport in combating exclusion, inequalities, racism and xenophobia. As such the role of sport in promoting social inclusion has become a key focus in both research and international policy. However, there are calls for empirical evidence to show how the design and structure of projects and initiatives impact on positive social outcomes and for community level research to develop localised theoretical frameworks to inform initiatives going forwards.
This research aims to contribute empirical evidence to these areas by analysing the implications of the Mixed Ability Model (hereafter MA Model) for inclusive sport through the evaluation of disabled and non-disabled participants’ experiences of Mixed Ability Rugby (hereafter MA Rugby) in the UK and Italy. The MA Model seeks to promote social inclusion through the integration of disabled players into a mainstream social sport setting in their local community, playing alongside non-disabled participants. This research answers calls for better understanding of participant experiences and perspectives of inclusive sport and in particular hearing the voices and viewpoints of people with disabilities.
Participation in sport and physical activities has been reported to have positive impacts in achieving personal and societal benefits, leading to a plethora of policies and initiatives promoting sport. In particular, these are targeted at underrepresented and traditionally marginalised groups. Disabled people fall into this category. In England, only 17% of disabled people aged 16+ participate in sport for 30 minutes a week compared to 36% of non-disabled people and in Italy the gap is even wider, with only 15% of disabled people participating compared to 42% of the non-disabled population.
Article 30 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities encourages and promotes ‘the participation, to the fullest extent possible, of persons with disabilities in mainstream sporting activities at all levels’. However, the disability sports literature highlights a plethora of barriers remaining to this being acheived. Physical barriers are cited as lack of time, finances, carers/assistants, adequate infrastructure, transport and equipment and emotional barriers include feelings of stigmatisation and exposure to prejudice, lack of confidence and self-esteem, challenges around interpersonal communications and lack of awareness of opportunities and realistic role models.
In line with the social model of disability, inclusive sports seek to focus attention on removing these ‘disabling barriers’ through emphasising societal interventions which enable disabled people to fully participate in sport and the broader community. This leads to a more nuanced approach to sport delivery which recognises the
appear important as does the promotion and facilitation of friendship development. In addition, encouraging participants to feel a sense of ownership within a sporting initiative has been found to optimise social inclusion and therefore more inclusive outcomes are likely to arise when the development of the initiative is led by participants rather than being imposed.
The MA Model represents an innovative approach to inclusive sport by integrating disabled players into a mainstream sport setting whether as players or participating in other ways such as organisational or educational roles. The Model grew organically from a lack of provision for disabled participants to play full-contact rugby. Unlike most sports provision for disabled participants, classification and identification systems are not used and MA Rugby is governed by World Rugby Laws without adaptation and with only minor adjustments to take into account individual participant needs.
The MA Model has been developed, and is being championed by, IMAS (International Mixed Ability Sports), a community interest company who support grassroots clubs in establishing MA Rugby teams and who have co-produced educational resources with the participants of MA Rugby. Through this approach, IMAS seek to increase sustainable participation in sport, break down barriers between non-disabled and disabled participants, address social exclusion and generate long-term positive change. However, research into the MA Model is currently lacking, as is broader research into inclusive sports which encourage disabled and non-disabled participants to play collaboratively in a mainstream environment.