Joanne O’Riordan: Sport Ireland working to provide access to sport for minorities
People just looking for camaraderie and to stay fit often feel left out
Dr Una May of Sport Ireland: ‘We’ve been successful in getting people to open their eyes to new opportunities and new target audiences, and new ways of delivering their sport.’ File photograph: Inpho/Morgan Treacy
Access to sport is something that has become a buzz phrase throughout the years. While we have seen our Irish Paralympians rise to the top and the excellent work being done by Special Olympics Ireland, there are those in the middle who feel left out. Not elite athletes or those in the category for the Special Olympics, people who just want that camaraderie and to stay fit.
Dr Una May is the director of participation and ethics at Sport Ireland. Participation is obviously about getting people more active, whereas the ethics side incorporates specific challenges and specific groups and their needs. Throughout April, they have been running a survey asking people from all minority backgrounds, such as people with a disability, people from the LGBTQ+ community and people from ethnic minorities, to participate and tell Sport Ireland what it is they want to see in their sport.
“We know that there are differences, and we know that the levels of participation are significantly lower. What we’re trying to do is explore in a little bit more depth why there is that difference and what’s causing those differences.[...]It’s a complex area because each different group has different barriers and challenges over the last number of years,” explains Dr May.
For example, in disability, the idea of participating in sport has been around for a long time. With the likes of the Cara centre, which helps adapt the physical activity for those with additional needs, Sport Ireland has now started reaching out to their local sports partnerships to go through what they need to do to get people moving.
“Every local sports partnership now has a dedicated disability sports officer or a sports inclusion disability officer. They specifically target the challenges at a local level. In the last number of years we’ve got growing funding from dormant accounts funding. Dormant accounts is particularly targeted at very specific groups, and people with disabilities is one of those target groups. We’ve been able to get funding for programmes and also for sports capital. Sports equipment helps to make things easier for people with disabilities, for example. All that kind of thing.”
One example Sport Ireland gives is their programme for teenage girls. Starting off, they identified what the main barriers were in terms of participation and set up a programme that targeted all these issues. By training staff to be able to identify and get around these issues, along with working together with their local partnerships and setting up local leagues and various other sporting events, the precedent and template has been established, which can be built upon to see if a similar approach can be taken to entice more people from minority backgrounds to participate in sport .
I asked Dr May how Sport Ireland plans to keep innovating and pushing towards a more diverse society, when such a thing is so hard to define?
“I think that’s the key thing. It’s important that we don’t have this notion that what we’re doing is the best. Innovation is really important. Actually, we’ve just established a new unit in Sport Ireland. Our research unit has now become our research and innovation unit. We’re really keen to look at innovation across everything we do and make sure that we’re looking at new ways of doing things. We’re open to suggestions. We’re open to new opportunities.
“One of the big things that we’ve been quite successful [at] – through the dormant accounts we’ve had additional targeted funding – we’ve been able to reach out to national governing bodies who traditionally provide their sporting activity for their members. What we’re trying to do is get them to see beyond their existing members and [look at] what can they do to make their sport more inclusive. Again, on a sport-by-sport basis, that allows them to be more creative, more innovative. We’ve worked with water sports, bringing them together for the Water Sports Inclusion Games.”
The water sports example shows that various activities can be made accessible. For instance, Sport Ireland was able to buy a wheelie boat for people who have disabilities, so they can get on to the boat themselves, rather than having to be hoisted on to it.
“That sort of thing is really important for some people... we’ve been successful in getting people to open their eyes to new opportunities and new target audiences, and new ways of delivering their sport and giving them the support they need to do that.”
Another example is the Healthy Ireland initiative and Keep Well campaign. These videos were usually targeted at people accustomed to exercise, rather than those who just wanted to start out and have a bit of fun. Sport Ireland came together and created a series targeted towards people with autism who had been cocooning for the last year. Even the European Union contacted Sport Ireland to see if they could use the videos as they were such a success.
“Things are really changing, but we have a long way to go. We still need to understand better what the challenges are. There’s been a lot of awareness, and a lot of focus around issues around racism, for example. We’re very conscious that we’re not really very strong in this area. This is something we really want to strengthen. We’ve seen very specific issues for very specific governing bodies of sport, and we’ve done our best to support them. We’ve learned a lot in the process.”
So now Sport Ireland needs your help. They want to hear from all people from minority backgrounds in Ireland, to listen to what they need to do to help everyone to participate in sports. “Right now, we’re learning from our own experiences[...] but we hope to have a really strong response once we’ve heard specifically the voices of people who have been challenged by these issues.”
To access the survey to use your voice and let it be heard, visit Sport Ireland’s website or go directly to surveymonkey.co.uk.