Disability news

Former blind footballer says progress for disabled people has stalled

David Clarke holding a football standing on a table

The chief executive of ParalympicsGB has said he is disappointed how representation of disabled people has not moved forward.

Dave Clarke, who started his new role earlier this year, believes it would be “disingenuous” of the organisation not to expand their work away from sport and into the community.

“I think where we have gone as a movement, on the field, is from sympathy, to empathy, to acceptance, to enjoyment, and finally consuming,” Clarke told The Guardian.

“The British public are well up for consuming Paralympic sport, though I don’t think we can ever take that for granted. Our challenge is that the same thing simply hasn’t happened off the field of play.

“Whether it’s educational outcomes, employment outcomes, health outcomes, social inclusion, loneliness, inclusion in sport per se, school sport. Wherever you look we’re probably at empathy at best. We’re not further up the curve of inclusion and it would be disingenuous of us not to tackle that.”

Clarke, who has vision loss, holds the record for the most goals scored in blind football (128 in 144 appearances). He says campaigners need to be “forgiving” of their lack of knowledge among the public over issues which affect disabled people.

“Almost all the issues I face in life as a disabled person do not come from a positive decision to make my life hell, they come from a lack of knowledge about what would make things equal,” Clarke told the publication. “It’s knowledge that people have not yet acquired and I think we need to be a bit more forgiving of [that].

“Our approach has to be collaborative. I don’t mean just across the disability and charity sector, the sports sector, it’s about engaging with people who have the power to change things. That’s not always a comfortable position to have to take.”

The former footballer gave a number of examples where the needs of disabled people are being overlooked, such as the closure of ticket offices at train stations across the country.

“While an athlete is training at the venue, at championships, lots of issues around their disability are catered for,” Clarke said.

“The reality is that in the rest of life they aren’t. The same difficulties in accessing transport, accessing services, generally getting around; all those issues are faced by athletes too.

“You have athletes who’ve achieved world-beating levels of performance on multiple occasions who can’t go to the toilet on a train, or get on a train. Athletes who can get all the way to the end of a web process and not be able to tick the button that says ‘buy’.”

Clarke also commented on the findings of a study undertaken by disability campaign group Activity Alliance which revealed 25% of disabled school children don't participate in sport.

“That is a problem,” Clarke said. “It’s a problem for me as the CEO of an organisation that drives Paralympic sport in the UK because not only does it have massive related issues around physical health, mental health and wellbeing, but in terms of a pipeline of talent that’s an issue.

“The question we have to address over the next year is how do we best tackle that issue, and bring everyone with us. I think the Lionesses, with success on the field driving change in the approach to girls’ sport in school, they’ve shown us the way.”

Clarke is sceptical that ParalympicsGB will thrive in Paris 2024 after the funding GB had in past games are now being matched elsewhere in the world, there has also been vast advances in technology and training which means competition has never been so high.

“It is likely in most scenarios that whatever got you on the podium in London 2012 wouldn’t see you anywhere near the podium in Paris 2024,” Clarke said. “I think there’s a different factor coming into play now, which is the challenge the rest of the world is posing as they go on the same journey as us. We recognise it as a wonderful thing for the movement and a terrific challenge for us and our athletes and our sports, to go out there and be challenged and [still] find ways of achieving our goals.

“The performances we see next year are going to be way beyond anything we’ve seen before but I hope the Games as a whole will be, too. I’ve got every reason to believe that they will, but it needs to be because London – with all the amazing experiences we had – it’s 12 years ago now.”

[ The 2024 Paralympics are set to held in Paris between Wednesday 28 August – Sunday 8 September 2024 ]

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