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It was 6pm on a night in mid-2011 when I sat at the head of a long boardroom table making polite small talk with the other people in the room. On either side of the table sat my new colleagues, dressed in the monochromatic blacks and greys of the corporate world. On my left were three men, charming, mid-40 professionals in their fields. On my right, one woman, an outspoken, passionate and dedicated leader of her community. Earlier, as each person had filed into the room and taken their seat, I shook their hand and exchanged pleasantries. Small talk about the traffic and weather aside, they all seemed like nice people and I hoped to impress them over the next hour or so.
When the last person was seated, I cleared my throat, calling the room to attention. I made eye contact with each person in turn and, for the first time in my life, called to order the AGM. Pleasantries over, it was business time now, and each person sat up a little straighter in their seats. Dark eyes stared back at me from across the room – three professional men on my left, one dedicated woman on my right and, from the floor, four sleepy golden Labradors.
Dark eyes stared back at me from across the room – three professional men on my left, one dedicated woman on my right and, from the floor, four sleepy golden Labradors.
Whilst this all happened a few years ago, I remember it vividly. At the time, I was working full time as a federal public servant during the day and studying a Bachelor of Sports Science part time at night. I had decided earlier that year that I wanted a career change to work in sport, but I hadn’t quite figured out the specifics of what I wanted to do yet. For a bit of experience, a line item on my resume, and some pocket money, I had taken up a short term contract working weekends with an organisation called Vision Impaired Sport ACT (‘VISACT’) – a peak body for blind and vision impaired sport in Australia’s capital. I thought that the job would be a nice bit of professional experience and nothing more. Little did I know just how completely this role would transform my life.
Little did I know just how completely this role would transform my life.
Of all the people working with VISACT, I was the only one without a vision impairment of some kind. The four people who had been in the boardroom with me that night all had vision impairments to some degree, and all used an assistance animal. During the nine months I worked with the people at VISACT, I got to hear their stories about living and playing sport with vision impairment. They opened my eyes, so to speak, to the challenges and limitations of sport for people with a disability. Most of them had played just a few sports during their lives. Comparably, growing up, I had played just about every sport under the sun – from netball and gymnastics, to judo and waterpolo. If there was a sport I wanted to play, I just played it. I never had to worry about finding a special team in a special league that played a modified game of the sport that I wanted to play. I never had to worry about whether something as seemingly innocent as a set of stairs a sporting venue would deny me access to a game. I never had to source specialised or expensive equipment to participate. I just played sport.
At the time I was working with VISACT, I was playing netball in a local league. At about midday every Saturday, I would change into my netball uniform, drive to the game, warmup, play, cool down, and then go home to have a shower. In total, I’d spent about an hour and a half on sport and getting to and from the game. In comparison, the board members of VISACT told me stories about their participation in sports – the walking to and from public transport, the multiple buses on reduced weekend public transport schedules, and the countless hours navigating their way to a sporting venue. Once there, they’d often have to erect a speciality playing court themselves, such as the one used to play goalball, because there was no permanent facility for their sport in the region. Then, when the game was finished, there’d be countless hours of navigating, walking and public transport to get home. In total, it would sometimes take people six or seven hours just to access and play a single hour of sport.
I’d never really heard stories of sports participation like these before, and they surprised me with the lengths that people would have to go to just to participate. Truthfully, it’s not that I’d never heard stories like these before, it’s that I’d never taken the time to see the world outside of my own realm of experience and to consider the experiences of others. I realised that accessing and playing sport had been so easy for me and I’d never bothered to consider or acknowledge that it might not be so easy for everyone.
People with disabilities are often the most marginalised and excluded groups in society, and my experience with VISACT in 2011 fuelled a passion in me to spend my career working for inclusion. In fact, it’s led me to where I am today – living and working in Vanuatu with the Vanuatu Paralympic Committee, as part of the Australian Government’s Australian Volunteers for International Development program. Here in Vanuatu, as for people with disabilities in many nations, access to opportunities to participate in sport and, more generally, in civic life, are limited. Entrenched stigma about disability, and institutional, attitudinal and physical barriers to participation act to exclude people with disabilities from the kinds of opportunities afforded through education, employment and community life. However, sport, with its universal popularity, holds a unique position to transcend these barriers to inclusion. Indeed, so important is sport to the inclusion process, that Article 30 of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities specifies that parties to the convention ‘shall take appropriate measures… to encourage and promote the participation, to the fullest extent possible, of persons with disabilities in mainstream sporting activities at all levels’.
In addition to promoting a more inclusive world, sport also provides opportunities to empower people with disabilities in profound ways. This is particularly true here in Vanuatu, where sport enables people with disabilities to acquire social skills, act independently of traditional familial social structures of dependence, and through participation in sport, and become empowered to act as agents of change in their communities. This unique ability of sport to simultaneously empower the un-empowered, as well as to transcend racial, ethnic, sociocultural, linguistic, attitudinal and institutional-social barriers, makes it an ideal conduit for strategies of inclusion.
So if you work for or run a sporting organisation, or if you coach or play sport, consider whether there’s an opportunity for you to create an environment of greater inclusion, not just for people with disabilities, but for all marginalised groups. If a person with a vision impairment wanted to play on your team, would they be able to? Do you play sport in a venue that is accessible to people using mobility aids like wheelchairs? Does your sport have a policy for the inclusion of transgender athletes? Do you have women or people with disabilities on your board of directors? Is your sport inclusive of gay athletes? Have you ever been to watch, or supported, a local blind cricket team or goalball team? How can you do your part to promote a more diverse and inclusive world?
So if you work for or run a sporting organisation, or if you coach or play sport, consider whether there’s an opportunity for you to create an environment of greater inclusion, not just for people with disabilities, but for all marginalised groups.
Unfortunately, the organisation that set me on the path to where I am today is no longer – it folded a few years after I left, mostly due to a lack of funding. Whilst I thought it was going to be nothing more than a line item on my resume, I’m grateful for the fact that it opened my eyes to the experiences of other people. I don’t seek to be a spokesperson for people with disabilities, or for any marginalised group for which I don’t identify. Rather, I want to acknowledge the privilege that I have and challenge others with privilege like me to challenge their own assumptions and social stereotypes about ability. The benefits of diversity and inclusion are without question and through the mechanism of sport, I’m doing what I can to advocate for and promote inclusion. How will you use your privilege to do the same?
[Cover photo: Terezinha Guilhermina (L), Jerusa Santos (R) – 2013 IPC Athletics World Championships © Fanny Schertzer]
Jo Reid is an experienced sports administrator and a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion, using sport as a mechanism for positive social change. Combining project management and communications strategy, Jo works with sports organisations in Australia and the Pacific region to transcend social and institutional barriers to inclusion for minority groups. She is a sports science and organisational leadership student at the University of New England (Australia), an Australian Volunteer for International Development, the founder of InclusiveSport.org, and sits on the board of the Vanuatu Paralympic Committee. Jo is also passionate about issues of social justice, women’s and human rights, and ethics.