On Friday, September 14, 2012, a side-event panel was held during the 5th Conference of State Parties for the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). The panel focused on the implementation of Article 30.5 of the UNCRPD, which guarantees the right to sport, recreation, and play for all persons with disabilities. Representatives from the Paralympics, Deaflympics, Special Olympics, and the UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) spoke about current initiatives to support the implementation of Article 30.5 as well as areas where progress still needs to be made.
Eli Wolff of Brown University, and program director of the Inclusive Sports Initiative for the Institute of Human Centered Design, moderated the event. Panelists included Eric Dienes, Liaison Officer for the UNOSDP, Ann Cody, Governing Board Member for the International Paralympic Committee, Craig Crowley, President of the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf, and Kristin Hughes, Senior Manager of Communications of Special Olympics International. Ann Cody, Craig Crowley, and Kristin Hughes all noted significant increases in participation in their respective sports programs over the past few years. Ms. Cody also pointed to the increase in participation of female athletes in the Paralympics, which has more than doubled over the past 10 years to 1,513 participants.
Panelists also discussed some of their local-level initiatives that were being conducted around the world to promote access to sport for people with disabilities. The UNOSDP, whose goal is to use sport to promote the millennium development goals and other development initiatives, has established the promotion of the right to sport for persons with disabilities as one of its five priorities. The organization has mandated the inclusion of persons with disabilities in its Youth Leadership Camps, which provides select youth from around the world with sport for development training. According to Mr. Dienes, “We bring these young men and women together to further develop their skills in project development and leadership so that they can strengthen their communities.” Ann Cody discussed the IPC’s sport-specific junior programs that increase access to sports for people with disabilities below the age of 25. Special Olympics has also focused on grassroots efforts to increase access to sports for people with intellectual disabilities. There are currently four million Special Olympics athletes around the world and over 50,000 competitions took place in 2011 alone. Special Olympics also uses their sports program to reach the Millennium Development Goals by promoting social inclusion and providing health screenings, health education, self-advocacy training to athletes.
While these initiatives demonstrate that opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in sport are growing, all of the panelists asserted that more work needed to be done to reach parity in access. The UNOSDP coordinates the International Working Group on Sport for Development and Peace and one of the five thematic working groups is sport for persons with disabilities. This group remains inactive due to a lack of leadership by member states. Mr. Dienes called on member states to step forward to activate this group. Mr. Crowley asserted that the Deaflympics, which addresses the specific communication needs of deaf individuals, needs further acknowledgement in both the disability community and the greater sporting community. All panelists mentioned that, while programs have grown tremendously in the past decade, a large population is still not being reached. Kristin Hughes noted that, while Special Olympics reaches 4 million people with intellectual disabilities, that constitutes only 2% of the global population of 200 million people with intellectual disabilities.
The panel introduced areas where progress is being made for people with disabilities, but also highlighted that there is much room for improvement in the fields of policy, participation, and media coverage. Despite being affirmed as a human right by the UNCRPD, people with disabilities have yet to achieve parity with their non-disabled peers in access to sport. The power of sports participation for self-efficacy, self-esteem, and social inclusion makes sports participation all the more necessary for people with disabilities. As Dr. Ted Fay, Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Human Centered Design and Professor of Sport Management at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland, concluded, “Many of us, personally or in advocacy for others, have witnessed shame and the destruction of life based on a person's identity group. We will no longer accept any excuses. We are coming from a cloak of shame to a future of fame! “