Sport and inclusion

Neil Heslop

To celebrate Learning Disability Week, Neil talks about the importance of this year's theme — sport and inclusion.

Whether you’re a fan, an amateur competitor or just play for fun, it matters and is a force for good.

The benefits of sport are clear. It improves health and wellbeing, increased social inclusion and personal confidence. Inclusive sport can also help break down barriers, challenge negative attitudes and crucially, encourage social interaction between disabled and non-disabled people.

Sadly, despite all this amazing potential, the evidence suggests this simply isn’t happening widely enough.  Recent research from The Activity Alliance revealed just one in seven (14%) non-disabled people were aware that they had taken part in sport or physical activity with disabled people and only half (48%)  said they even knew a disabled person.  

That’s why it’s so important to learn that sport and inclusion is the theme running through Learning Disability Week 2019 which starts today.

Rugby star

I’m passionate about sport, particularly football and rugby and played the latter to a decent level as a teenager.  I played with Harlequins’ development squad from the ages of 14 to 16 and also played rugby and football for my school in Guildford.  

When I was fifteen, we were playing a derby match against another local school.  Jumping for a ball, I found myself sandwiched between two opposition players and was taken to hospital.

I’d been well and truly clattered, and was fearing some kind of muscular skeletal injury.  During the process of describing the incident, it was obvious the doctor in casualty was concerned I hadn’t seen the two players closing in on either side of me. 

It turned out he was studying retinitis pigmentosa. He diagnosed the condition that would ultimately cause my eventual blindness.  The young doctor recognised I was experiencing the tunnel vision associated with its onset.  My parents were contacted, and I was later told I would lose my sight within thirty years. I lost it in five.

Force for good

My sight loss stopped me playing and shattered my dream of an England debut at Twickenham but never doused my passion for rugby or sport generally. I also endure the rollercoaster ride of being part of the Newcastle United soap opera as a lifelong fan.

I will never know whether I would have made the journey to elite level but the enjoyment and confidence both playing and supporting sport has given me is enormous. 

Whether elite competition is your thing like our ambassador, Olivia Breen who competes in next year’s Paralympics, or just an occasional weekend visit to a local club, sporting activity filters down through the population to bring us closer together. Whether you’re a fan, an amateur competitor or just play for fun,  it matters and is a force for good.

Joy of sport

Leonard Cheshire supports individuals to live, learn and work independently, whatever their ability and we offer specific sport related opportunities through our Can Do programme.

At the start of May, we ran the very first Can Do Sport residential. A water-skiing course at the home of the British Disabled Water-ski and Wakeboard Association at Heron Lake in Staines. The group of 10, made up of participants and support staff who stayed at the facility all week. They took part in development workshops in the morning and learned to water-ski in the afternoon.

The reaction of the participants encapsulated the joy sport can give. By the end of the week they were lapping the lake with broad smiles on their faces.  It’s not too glib to suggest such initiatives really do have the potential to change lives. They foster confidence, self-belief and particularly in the case of inclusive sport, bring communities together. 

This Learning Disability Week let’s all try and increase our efforts to utilise the power of sport in our work.