Giving the disabled a sporting chance

Anna Myatt and Heather Nicolson, a level 1 coach who uses a power chair who helps out with junior coaching at Craiglockhart in Edinburgh.
Anna Myatt and Heather Nicolson, a level 1 coach who uses a power chair who helps out with junior coaching at Craiglockhart in Edinburgh.
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Edinburgh Leisure runs a range of sessions encouraging sporting participation for people with special needs, explains Anna Myatt

At Craiglockhart Tennis Centre, our vision is about creating opportunities for everyone to get active and stay active, no matter what your ability or disability.

Research shows that 72 per cent of adults with a disability or health condition do not play as much sport as they would like.

The Lawn Tennis Association strategy has its focus on four areas including Wheelchair, Deaf, Visually Impaired and Learning Disability Tennis where there are pathways to playing at elite level. Yet only 30 per cent of people with disabilities are categorised by those impairments.

At Edinburgh Leisure, we offer a range of sessions aimed at people with assisted special needs (ASN) from ASN cardio tennis open to ASN adults and their carers, helping to build their fitness while improving skills and coordination to our Junior and Adult ASN tennis, aimed at those with ‘mild moderate support needs’ due to learning difficulties.

We also run junior/adult wheelchair tennis which is adapted for those who have disabilities in their lower body. Invented in 1976 by Brad Perks, who had been experimenting with tennis as a recreational therapy following injury in a freestyle skiing competition, it has grown at an amazing rate. Now fully integrated into all four Grand Slam Tennis events, and with more than 170 tournaments on the ITF’s own Wheelchair Tennis Tour, it is more popular than ever.

Yet despite its popularity, there still remain a great many barriers for disabled people to participate. For tennis, the challenges are the cost of equipment including the sports wheelchairs required for elite competing, and their maintenance, plus the cost of buying rackets, grips and restrings.

Accessibility is also an issue with not enough clubs countrywide catering for this group. One player in our wheelchair sessions travels from rural Dumfriesshire to access the appropriate coaching and facilities at Craiglockhart, as he was struggling to find clubs locally that allowed participation outside of normal working hours. Most of the programmes in existence, across all sports, take place during the working day and are heavily focused on ‘special Olympic sports’ as opposed to recreational sport.

There’s also the cost of sessions and coaching, both individual and group and a lack of access to qualified staff. And when competing, the added costs of travel including to and from the venue during the competition, accommodation, and transport of the chair (by plane).

There’s an argument as to what the best pathway is to inspire the elite and non-elite. Is it about running disability specific sessions or integrating the players into mainstream coaching? Our philosophy at Edinburgh Leisure has been to encourage both of these, integrating players into mainstream sessions when they are ready.

So it’s not difficult to understand why people with disabilities are not participating in sport. The benefits of being active are well-documented, but still the take-up of sport in the disabled community is low.

So how we do integrate disabled sport into our busy western culture? Undoubtedly, the aim is to capture the minds of our youth so they learn at an early age the benefits of being active. For people with a disability, the need to exercise is even more beneficial to their health and wellbeing.

They can become over medicalised with therapies and are faced with extra stresses and barriers due to their health and societal constraints. This can be extremely frustrating and more detrimental to their health.

Yet emphasising the need to take up a sport, such as tennis, which can be played with able-bodied people, where they can socialise with people of similar abilities whilst having fun, is incredibly beneficial as it’s about doing activities that other young people are doing too.

Through sport this imbalance can be addressed in a more natural everyday approach, gaining fitness to assist their bodies to cope with the challenges of their medical conditions.

No matter what the disability, sport is able to adapt to ensure that a person is able to participate. A game of tennis may sound like nothing to most but the achievement for a person with a disability is immense as they are able to fully integrate themselves into our society with more confidence.

We already have some great models including 14-year-old Scot, Ruairi Logan, who is ranked in the top 20 juniors in the World Wheelchair and Heather Nicolson, a level 1 coach who uses a ‘power chair’, steering and playing with the same right hand who helps out with junior coaching weekly, and players with autism and down syndrome.

The challenge is one of culture and not of will or adaptation. It’s getting the message out there that activity needs to be as essential to everyone’s life as ensuring you’re eating your five a day.

• Anna Myatt is a Tennis Development Officer at Edinburgh Leisure.

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