The group for disabled people working in sport and physical activity with our allies: Reflections so far

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The purpose of this blog is to outline some personal reflections on the first few months of setting up the first ever group for disabled people working in sport and physical activity in the UK with our allies.  That statement still feels like an unbelievable one, but it’s also true.

As I write this in sunny I scroll back through my WhatsApp messages which take me back to November 2021.  The 23 of November to be precise.  Talking to my dear friend Lucy, I sent her a message:

"Seriously debating just setting up a group to scope things out and seeing what happens..."

So the seed for the group was planted.  Fast forward 9 months and we’ve come quite a way, with a bright future ahead for the group and many exciting possibilities.  The group is very much a product of its collective membership and fuelled by the energy, wisdom and commitment of those who have come along with us along the way.

Every meeting I am humbled that we have been able to form a group which has such passion, commitment, and determination to make a difference in disability sport.  It is one of the best things I have ever done in all my time working in the disability space and I have learned so much from the people who have come into the group.

Seeing what happened: Lessons learned

Such has been the richness of the journey I have been lucky to travel on so far, its difficult to pick out highlights.  There have been a few things though, which I will expand on here:

The talent is out there

Frankly, it always confuses me when people say that they struggle to get engagement with and amongst disabled people.  It is abundantly obvious from those who attend the meeting that there is a vast array of diverse talent amongst people who work in disability sport and physical activity.  Step into any group meeting and you’ll see people at the top of their game.  CEOs, academics, consultants, people working for organisations up and down the country, I have had the privilege of seeing them all in meetings over the last few months.  If you think the talent isn't out there, you aren’t looking in the right way.

Co-production is vital, taking time and courage

When we set out to form the group, we did so with a commitment to co production so that the group helped to shape its own progress (see also below).  This is so powerful.  Having a shape and agenda which is constructed by the group for the group has been at the heart of its success.  It has, in my view, also helped us to create a spirit and a safe space where people feel they can bring themselves.

The use of a co-produced approach can also be a time consuming one though, as foundations have to be set in place gradually.  This can sometimes create a bit of tension – and its something I have felt a lot – where it feels like there is a need for a plan and a roadmap.  It also requires patience, which is something I have had to learn a lot about (and still am!)

It also means being brave.  It is daunting to go into a meeting not knowing where it will go.  Therein lies the reward too though.  Often, the quality of the discussion has happened because there was no agenda – and the time we have invested has helped to grow the foundations of the group and the bonds within it.

Removing barriers and labels is essential

One of the most important decisions Lucy and I made is to deliberately not have any set criteria for membership.  You didn’t need to have an impairment or be in a particular position.  If you want to come then you can come.  We have also been responsive where we can, such as putting on a daytime meeting where originally there were only evening meetings.

There has also not been any cost for membership.  The small direct financial cost of the group (a zoom membership, purchasing a web domain and mailing list software) have been covered at personal expense because we didn’t want a membership fee to exclude people. 

We have used accessible means of communication, captions via zoom and asked people about adjustments they may need to access the group. Another lesson is here – that by maintaining simplicity and agility, being accessible isn’t expensive – its just about trying to have an inclusive mindset, asking questions and being open to finding solutions.  There is always more we can do here, and I will keep challenging myself to do better.

The lack of barriers and labels in the group though has been important to the work of the group so far in my view – linking back to the creation of a safe space.  Inclusivity is a key component of that safety. 

Allyship is vital

Progress can’t be made alone.  The commitment of our allies has been a key driving force of the group.  Allyship has provided emotional intelligence, sustenance, energy and support throughout – and that is just for me.  The allyship I have seen from people in the group who have been so supportive throughout is integral to the success of the group.  In my personal view, finding and forging meaningful connections with allies is essential to making continued progress for disabled people.  We need people to be aware, to amplify and support our voices and to challenge exclusion alongside us.

Disagreement is healthy and mistakes are positive

The disability space is a rich and broad church.  There are many different views.  In my personal view, without getting too soapboxy, we seem to have forgotten how to disagree with each other and yet to still get along.  The group has consistently seen debate around many issues – and with each debate there has been important opportunity for learning, reflection and growth.  Disagreement is positively embraced and worked through.

I have made lots of mistakes along the way too, and there are many things that I know I could have done better – and I’m sure many things that I’m not aware of too.  One of the most positive learnings in the course of my own personal experience with the group is that I am far less scared of making mistakes and welcome the learning they bring.  If I’m not making mistakes, I’m not challenging myself enough to grow and develop.

Space isn’t owned, but held

Along the way I’ve been really keen to emphasise that the group isn’t owned by anyone but the group.  I count myself incredibly lucky to have the support of many people too numerous to mention to get to this point. 

If I have one job with this group, it is just to keep hold of whatever space it occupies for a period of time before I invite others into it.  In my personal view, nobody ‘owns’ any space – we just happen to work in it and I believe I have the responsibility to do my bit to make that better.  Other people will then hopefully come after me and build on it as they hold that space.

We have come a long way – but there is a long way to go

There has been lots achieved in a short space of time, but it is also apparent in my view that a lot of progress is still to be made.  As we know, the talent is out there, so we have to be relentless in our quest to make disability sport and physical activity a more inclusive place for everyone who works in it.

Where to next?

Plans continue to keep developing the group.  There is also a lot of work to be done.  To take stock, a survey of group members is being developed so that we can learn what we need to do better and build on our successes to help the group go from strength to strength.

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    About the Author

    Dr Chris Whitaker is a disability blogger who writes on impairment related issues.

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