Tim Matthews from the Australian Paralympic Committee talks about promoting opportunities in sport for people with disability.
I guess today I’ll touch a little bit on the Paralympic Games but also some messages that I think are really important. Just a little bit of background about myself - I was born with one arm which in terms of disability and impairment is not so much of a significant disability and being born with my impairment meant that I didn’t have to go through the trauma of losing something or having to adapt or change so for me I don’t know any different and I played lots of sport when I was young and loved sport and it probably wasn’t until I was 20 that I even knew that I was eligible for paralympic sport simply because I’d seen something when I was young that said amputees are eligible for the Paralympic Games and for me I didn’t consider myself an amputee.
So to be exposed to disability sport was interesting for me because I didn’t know anyone with a disability growing up in Regional Victoria. I was the only one and for me my mates didn’t consider that I had an impairment as such. I just pretty much did everything that everyone else did and it wasn’t until probably when I got to Atlanta in ’96 was my first Paralympic Games and I’d only started competing in my sport not long prior to that and I’d not seen any paralympic sport on TV. No video footage, no Internet around - Internet days were kicking off I guess but I’d not seen it so I didn’t know what to expect and it wasn’t until I was sitting in the Call Room at my first event and watching someone with one arm tie up their shoelaces that I looked and thought oh, maybe that’s how I do them. I actually didn’t know that I was doing things different or the way I put my watch on so that was interesting for me and the Paralympic Games is a beautiful thing and I’ve been fortunate to go to the last six games but I went to Rio in a completely different capacity in that I went as a spectator and even though I’d been to five games I’d not seen much other than the sport that I competed in so to go to Rio as a spectator and see 12 different sports and just be a spectator and view it for sport’s sake was fantastic.
I think the Sydney Paralympic Games changed the perceptions of people with a disability in the country. I relate it a little bit to like what women’s football is at the moment in terms of I think people initially went to the Paralympics in Sydney as a nice thing to do and let’s support our athletes but when they went they loved it and they loved it for the sake of sport and they just loved watching it for the sake of sport and I think people that have watched football this year, the women’s football would think the same thing.
So in terms of our teams we do quite well with people with a disability. We have a significant number. Every athlete on our team has a disability so that’s great. We do cover off that one but in terms of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders we are under-represented (3.40) – same, but women, we actually do pretty well. 40% of our team this year were female which equates to about the same number of events for female athletes.
In terms of promoting opportunities I think it’s really important to understand where your market is, who they are and where they are, their ages - the impairment groups. There are ways to find them in terms of who they deal with from a service provision perspective. Time consideration is important but physical access is important but it’s nowhere near as important as the attitudes of the people that are delivering the service or delivering the event. I’ve seen lots of situations where attitude is everything. If people are just prepared to make things work then it will work but if that initial engagement is a negative experience then it becomes a bit of a challenge.
We play sport for - when I say we, I mean people with a disability play sport for all the same reasons as able-bodied athletes do and participants for health, fitness, social reasons, friendships, peer recognition, just acceptance and for me once I found out I was eligible for a paralympic sport it was about competition and pathways and for me I wanted to be a Paralympian. Not everyone does but for those that do you need to understand those opportunities.
I think it’s important to understand or where possible deliver events and programs in the context of mainstreaming. We certainly are advocates for mainstreaming. We support it. If you’re delivering a program understand the pathway and where to from here and if it’s part of the pathway who else is involved and get them involved.
Using athletes - athletes are becoming quite well known. Paralympic athletes - there’s lots of opportunities to have athletes to promote your opportunity, your event, your program. Social media is really important to specifically target your audience and the Disability Sector I guess can be pretty cluttered and confusing so you need to be able to ensure your event will stand out where possible.
I like this one. I stole it off Kerry who is here - yeah, he’s still here. I like this one in terms of the gymnastics. Roya, you wouldn’t know or you wouldn’t notice until you read that she was born with one leg and is a gymnast. I’m still looking forward to Roya coming across to paralympic sport some time Kerry but using simple and concise language is important. Don’t lose your impact with too much information and we have lots of choices in terms of how we spend our time so that’s really important too.
This one I guess in terms of delivering the event or the program, make adaptions where necessary but if possible you really don’t want to compromise the integrity of the activity particularly if it’s about sport and full inclusion may not always be practical or possible and may actually ostracize the person that you’re actually trying to assist so that’s important to understand as well.
It’s really important to make sure the program is sustainable and be prepared to fail and take a risk and adapt and change to be successful. There’s lots of programs that take a while to get off the ground and take one or two goes and to connect with a range of organisations before you can pull something together that actually might make it sustainable and worth pursuing with so don’t be afraid to fail and take a different approach and as I mentioned it’s really important to consider who you want to partner with to deliver your program. There’s lots of organisations. Everyone to an extent and again it’s a little bit cluttered in the Disability Sector. Everyone has a grant to deliver a certain program but where possible if you can collaborate, work together and get a better outcome for all. That would certainly have greater opportunity and impact.
From a coaching perspective I love this because there’s an assumption that to coach a paralympian or coach an athlete with a disability that you need to know and understand the impairment and for me you don’t. You just need to be adaptable. You need to be prepared to change. You need to think outside the square and it’s no different to working with a range of different groups or backgrounds of children irrespective of what it is. It’s just a matter of being adaptable so you may need to vary the instruction styles or the rules where needed. How you teach someone to run that’s vision impaired is very different to how I might teach someone who has one leg so it’s just about being adaptable but it does develop and improve your coaching skills.
There’s lots of opportunities now to achieve at high levels in terms of representing your country at a Paralympic Games and other events and a good Coach is a good Coach and I will stand by that forever. The more we expose our best Coaches to athletes with a disability the more I think we normalise disability and the more opportunities will come from that.
I just want to touch very quickly on classification because from a paralympic context, if it’s just about recreation and participation classification doesn’t matter. If it’s just about turning up and having a good time that’s great but as soon as someone is interested in the pathway and the Paralympic Games, classification is really important because it gives context to someone’s impairment and their opportunity. It lets them know what sports they’re eligible for and so many times we see lots of athletes once they’re classified or aware of another sport that they’re eligible for go from no one - just a kid at school to winning a Paralympic Gold Medal in some cases which changes their whole life. It changes the way they view themselves, the way they’re recognised within their family, their peers so there’s lots of opportunities there so I just want to stress the importance of getting classified if it’s about sport early in the pathway because that gives more opportunities.
Equipment is really important and a big challenge in this sector. Obviously it’s really easy for me just to - I ran so all I really needed was a pair of spikes but if someone is a leg amputee they might need a $15,000 leg to run if they choose to run or a 3 or $4,000 wheelchair to race so that’s a challenge and will continue to be a challenge but there’s ways to get around that as well and I think it’s really important when you’re running events or programs just to be prepared to share your results with other providers in your network and work together.
On the bottom here I’ve just got and I see this all the time, for every paralympic athlete that wins a medal there’s lots out there that just don’t know about the opportunity yet so that’s about it.