As the pandemic raged on last December, Andrew Parsons, chair of the International Paralympic Committee, issued a declaration to further inclusion. “There is no doubt the post-pandemic world will lead to more frequent challenges for global society,” he said. “That is why persons with disabilities need to be placed at the centre of what comes next.”
And as the world reopens, a Western research team is hoping Project Echo, an online discussion forum for parasport participants, will help policy makers and service providers better understand the challenges faced by persons with impairments or disabilities engaging in sport or physical activities.
The platform is led by associate professor and director of the School of Kinesiology Laura Misener, who has spent more than a decade studying disability in sport. With academic partners at the University of West Scotland and Mount Royal University, the project originally focused on the long-term impact the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the 2015 Toronto PamAm/Parapan American Games had on the parasport community and in affecting social change.
While the Toronto games led to a new transit line and developed new programs, neither of the large-scale events moved the needle in heightening awareness around disabilities. “The whole notion that we’re going to change everybody’s attitudes with an event may not be the right approach,” Misener said.
When COVID-19 hit last March, it was an opportunity for Misener and her partners to pivot, and instead look at how to make the platform more relevant in the current time frame, focusing on the issues, challenges and opportunities going forward as participants return to sport.
Project Echo is accessible to anyone wishing to join or start a conversation, with input from the Ontario Parasport Collective helping to inform discussions and questions. A variety of posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram drive traffic to the site, where Misener and her team hope to learn from the lived experiences of three parasport groups ─ the high-performance athlete, the recreational athlete and the casual or non-sport participant. Their feedback will help generate evidence-based research to help improve accessibility and break down barriers.
Londoner Adam Purdy, a three-time Paralympic swimmer and double gold medalist in the Sydney 2000 games, plays a key role on Meisner’s team, representing and seeking input from high-performance athletes.
“Participating in high-performance sport and as an athlete with impairment I have witnessed the evolution of parasport,” Purdy said. “My voice and my perspectives on the matter are valuable in the effort to help sculpt future opportunities for up-and-coming athletes. Sharing the community voices, opinions and ideas through Project Echo will support and streamline accessibility and service delivery for people with impairment who are keen to participate in sport and recreation.”
Purdy, who earned his master’s in sport leadership and management at Western last year, and fellow graduate student Denise Kamyuka heard concerns about safety, social isolation and the frustrations of not being able to access physical activity as they collected data early in the pandemic.
If changes are to be made in parasport, Kamyuka says the time is now, with direction from those directly affected.
“There’s a need for the able-bodied population to step aside and allow the disability community to tell us exactly what they need, what they want to see changed, letting their living experience lead the direction of the research,” she said.
As facilities reopen, Misener said there’s a risk thoughts around accessibility will get left aside as community and nonprofit groups running recreation programs “just try to get things done and survive.”
Yet she remains hopeful evidence-informed research through Project Echo can have an impact on the sport and broader community.
“A lot of the challenges aren’t necessarily specific only to sports and physical activity,” Misener said. “Issues around transportation, timing and length of programming are relevant to a lot of different activities. I think there’s a lot that we can learn that will be informative for anybody who runs any sort of community or social programming, just around general accessibility.”
“Participation in sport and recreation can improve the quality of life for all people, but specifically for people living with impairment,” he said. “Project Echo enables us as researchers to better understand the ongoing socio-cultural impacts that parasport has within a community, the issues associated with inclusion, and the subtle or individual constraints that act as barriers to participation.”