Sports and Physical Disabilities - a Guide for the Able-Bodied

Lucy Beal Lott writes about keeping fit and doing sports whilst also managing her physical disability. She discusses the lack of media attention given to disabled athletes and how this shapes the able-bodied view of disability and sport. She says that, while contact sports can be more of a risk for her, this does not mean that she is not able to play or that minor alterations can't be made. She also discusses the effect that other people's reactions to her engaging in physical exercise has had on her attitude towards sports. 

I remember talking to one of my friends at university about sports and other physical activities; what sports we liked to play for fun and how we stayed in shape in general. At first they were surprised when I told them I liked to horse ride. They pointed out (politely) that my skin condition seemed quite limiting in terms of physical activities and high-impact sports - I mean, I do have fragile skin, so how does that work for me? 

Well, in my specific case, I understand that a fall off of a horse could injure me very badly, causing loss of skin or third-degree burn-like blisters. But that doesn’t mean I don’t continue to ride. If I lived in fear of being injured, I would be unable to do anything that I enjoyed. With disabilities, there are the hard limits that your condition sets upon you (for example, ballet would not be an option for me due to pointe shoes) and there are the limits you set for yourself. I’ve done other high and low impact sports as well, such as snowboarding, archery, dance, cheerleading, yoga and more that I’m sure I’m forgetting; and this often comes as a shock to some people. Why is that? 

There is very little representation for athletes who have physical disabilities, for one thing, so many people do not realise that adapted and non-adapted sports are an option for people with disabilities.  

There is also the assumption that adapted sports are not the same as non-adapted sports. While elements of the game may have been altered, the sport is still the same and requires the same skill-set to play, able-bodied or not. Adaptation is an important part of inclusivity when it comes to disabilities, especially when joining a team or a club. Many people with disabilities find it hard to do so for fear of rejection from the team. The option to have adaptations made is also rarely available, and this isn’t done on purpose; many teams just aren’t aware that there is a need in the first place. 

The same can be said for other physical activities, such as going to the gym. Adapted options are not often something we have access to. I am fortunate in the fact that my disability does not affect me very much in this aspect, but for other people with disabilities, going to the gym can be very daunting. It is humbling to constantly have to ask for other people’s help and having gym staff who have an awareness of their disabled patrons is a huge relief. Some machines are simply impossible to use, as well, and, unless the gym has other options, there is not much to be done. We can also experience negative repercussions due to other’s fear. Some people were wary of teaching me to ride horses for fear of my injuries, and others with similar health conditions have experienced the same thing.  

Inclusivity is something that needs to be discussed more when it comes to disabilities and sports. This is a problem because able-bodied people don’t often realise that there is anything wrong to begin with. The most important factor is our reaction to it and how our reactions can influence other people’s. As a child, many of my school teachers at my small private school were terrified (understandably) of me getting injured while playing. But they handled this fear in the wrong way; they kept me inside and made me play with toys instead of with friends. And when I did get to play in the playground, they told the other children about my disability in a negative way and I was excluded because of the influence of the teachers. Would the children have done this if they hadn’t been told to exclude me by our teachers? I don’t think so.  In adult life, this can translate into having a positive idea of disabilities and sports or activities in general, because, in the end, it is up to the individual to decide what they can and cannot do, not the people around them. Interactions driven by fear are never a good thing, and the same can be said for sports as well as all elements of discussion, when it comes to disabilities.