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School story

In this story, Elliot Watson, Programme Officer at Get Yourself Active, talks about his experiences as a young Disabled person of the lack of inclusion in school sports.

In April 2005, in my last year of primary school, I was diagnosed with a spinal cord tumour that required surgery. My neurosurgeon informed me of the risks of having my spinal cord operated on. There was the risk of permanent nerve damage being caused to my spinal cord, which could affect the use of my legs. Fortunately, I fully recovered after my initial surgery with the help of lots of intensive physio.

In September 2005, I started secondary school. I continued to lead a normal school life for the next two years, where I enjoyed participating in physical education lessons.

From a young age, I had always enjoyed being physically active. Outside of school, you could often find me playing with my friends on our bikes or skateboards and swimming with my dad and brother. In primary school, physical education lessons were few and far between and often quite limited in activities.

So, when I started secondary school, I was excited to see physical activity was a regular part of the curriculum. A wide range of activities such as cross-country, cricket, hockey, football, tennis and rugby were offered.

A lack of accessible activity

In 2007, the tumour inside my spinal cord grew back, which meant I had to undergo more surgery. Unfortunately, as a result of this operation, some permanent nerve damage was caused to my spinal cord resulting in a loss of feeling, strength, and sensation in my legs.

Although I could still walk after this surgery, I no longer had the coordination to run. When I returned to school, I discovered that I could no longer participate in physical education (PE) because all the activities involved running.

My PE teachers gave me a choice to sit out and watch or leave and get on with other work. This meant I felt left out and different to everyone else. Especially as my teachers never made adjustments to try and include me in the activities.

Reflecting back, I think this was probably for several reasons. I think my teachers didn’t know how to/were not confident in including a Disabled person in physical education as they probably hadn’t had any training around this.

They were perhaps scared that I would injure myself if I participated and the implications that could have on their career. Additionally, I think it was partly down to a lack of resources, as it was one PE teacher to a group of approximately 30 children. Hence, everyone had to do the same activity.

What does it mean to not be included?

Besides the obvious such as not experiencing the physical and mental benefits of exercising, there are far broader implications, such as non-Disabled students perceiving Disabled students differently than their non-Disabled peers.

If a non-Disabled child sees a Disabled child being excluded from an activity, then they will think that Disabled people can’t do certain things because of their disability which is not true. It’s because suitable adjustments have not been implemented to enable the Disabled person to participate.

Children are very impressionable and do the majority of their learning at school. Suppose non-Disabled children see Disabled children being excluded from certain activities. In that case, they will likely grow up thinking that Disabled people are not as capable as non-disabled people. And that it is normal to exclude Disabled people from certain activities.

The knock-on effect is that these children will grow up carrying these beliefs into their adult lives, resulting in unnecessary barriers continuing to exist in society for Disabled people.

Changes we want to see

Every Disabled child has a right to get active, and I want everyone to have the chance to feel good and have fun wherever they are.

I want to see physical activity and disability training made mandatory for physical education teachers. This would ensure that every Disabled child feels just as included and able as their peers.

This would start a new message for every child: Disabled people are just as competent and should be treated equally in society.

Next Steps

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We’d love for you to share your experiences of getting active and having fun wherever you are. Please do get in touch to share your thoughts on the latest news or what sport and physical activity mean to you.

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