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Letters from Rangatahi: What I wish sport knew?

In this open letter, we hear from Halberg Youth Adviser Support, Kiran Dixon. Kiran’s letter sheds light on some of the challenges young people with disabilities face growing up in New Zealand when it comes to sport, and draws some powerful lessons for adults about how they can provide better quality sport experiences for all young people. 

Growing up in New Zealand, I’ve heard it on the news, seen it in textbooks, read it the newspaper. I even recall listening to teachers and staff at high school all say the same thing – “that playing sport has incredible benefits”. Sometimes, to me, these mental, social, and physical benefits can feel forced, made up or like buzzwords. But then you feel the wind on your face while running, the water flow through your fingers while swimming, the sun on your shoulders as you kick a ball – it is in these moments that sport and recreation becomes something special that I love to do, something truly unique.  

And then I see and hear another kiwi ideal – “sport for all”. I hear how sport is good for everyone, that it’s something that everyone should experience, regardless of who you are. I listen to people say everyone has a right to experience and participate in sport. I bet you reading this would agree. 

This then begs the question, if it is a right, then why is sport and recreation not accessible to everyone?  

There is a common saying among disabled people that offers some perspective on this question. “It is society that disables, not the impairment of the individual”. Food for thought, aye? 

I understand this better than most as historically my experience with sport (and those running it) has been one of opposition, inflexibility, and unwillingness to adapt and modify. I know as adults, we often become set in our ways, sticking to what we know will work. However, this way of thinking makes it very difficult for people with disabilities to participate, resulting in isolation from sport and recreational opportunities.  

The saddest part of this mindset though, is that more often than not, it is only simple modifications and a willing mind, that enables sport to be accessible to those with different abilities. This apparent lack of care is normally underpinned by ignorance or being afraid of the what ifs that come with changing traditional methods. 

It is my belief that to remedy this, educating sporting providers and coaches on how to be inclusive is a positive way to counter this. 

The best way to exemplify this is to use my own personal experience of trying sport and recreation with a disability. My disability of Metatropic Dysplasia results in short stature, limited joint movement, and kyphoscoliosis among other things. Because of this, I have been on the receiving end of both positive and negative mindsets towards adaptation of sport. 

We’ll start with the positive experience. When I was in primary school, I had a great relationship with sport and physical activity. All my teachers made the effort to adapt and include me in physical activities. As well as there were always classmates who would stick with me when we went for a run on the fitness track, or during athletics day. Because of this effort one of my favourite moments from PE at primary school was when one of my physios came in and ran a whole class session, that was designed for me. It was moments like these that gave me the confidence to be myself in that school. It even gave me the confidence to play netball and cricket for the school, which was incredibly empowering.  

Fast forward to high school. The story was completely different. I, along with other students who weren’t athletically inclined, were left to fend for ourselves. No effort was made to adapt the activities. For example, we were left at one end of the pool during swimming, while the athletic kids were swimming laps. I began to believe that because I was disabled, I was not worth the time or effort that it would have taken to make the activities inclusive for me. This was incredibly disempowering and because of this, I began to hate sports. I focused on the arts where I felt that I belonged.  

It was only after graduating high school, and attending Outward Bound with the Halberg Foundation, I began to realise just how important being active is. Through constant adapted activity across 8 days, I realised what I had been missing out on, and that it was possible to make any sporting activity accessible. Having sport and recreation adapted for you, and then experiencing the joy and physicality that sport brings can really change your mindset. It just isn’t fair that a whole sector of society is being left out from something that is not only critical to a healthy lifestyle, but something that should be universally available.  

Balance is one of the most important parts of life, and if active sport/recreation is not available for people with disabilities then we are part of a society that both enables and prevents disabled people from having a great balanced life.  

New Zealand has historically been at the forefront of positive change. We were the first country in the world to give women the vote, we protested apartheid in South Africa during the 1981 Springboks tour, we stood together against nuclear testing and made New Zealand a nuclear free zone. It is milestones like this that have made New Zealand stand out among other nations. Isn’t it time that we lead the way again? Imagine New Zealand being the first country in the world to have all sport and recreation activities be fully inclusive. It’s a big vision, but this will not only show that every person is valued but will show that it is possible to enable everyone to live an enjoyable, positive, balanced life.  

Image Credits: RUN 4 FFWPU from Pexels