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Queen’s-led project working to make parasport more inclusive

Photo via PowerHockey Canada.

With the 2021 Summer Paralympics set to open later this month in Tokyo, a leading researcher from Queen’s University is calling on Canadians not only to watch the sporting event, but to also open their eyes to the reality that even within the parasport community itself, ironically, inclusivity is a real issue.

“We have this image of what an athlete should look like and often, someone living with a high level of disability doesn’t fit the mold and so opportunities – and the spotlight – often pass right over them,” said Amy Latimer-Cheung, a Kinesiology and Health Studies Professor at Queen’s University, who is leading a multi-year research project funded by national innovation organization Mitacs to build a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment for Canadian parasport athletes at all skill levels.

Not only is media coverage of parasport athletes limited, said Latimer-Cheung, but it typically favours certain events over others that include more mobile athletes. “For example, at the upcoming Paralympics, we may see athletes running with hi-tech prosthetics, but we won’t necessarily get to watch athletes who use a power wheelchair playing boccia,” she said.

“An athlete is an athlete is an athlete. While some sport performances might look different from what we are used to, we need to focus on and appreciate the skill and incredible athletic performance displayed by all athletes, regardless of their level of ability,” she continued. “It’s time for Canadians to reimagine their perception of athletes.”

Latimer-Cheung’s research effort — which will engage seven Mitacs research interns from Queen’s University and Western University in multiple projects over the next two years — involves interviewing individuals living with disability, including Paralympians themselves, to better identify solutions to create opportunity for participation, according to a media release from Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.

The research team is partnering with the Canadian Paralympic Committee, Ontario Parasport Collective, PowerHockey Canada and other stakeholders to close the gaps in community-based sport programming for athletes with disabilities, the organization said.

“Across the country, there just are not a lot of sport opportunities for athletes like myself who use a powerchair,” explained former player Paul Desaulniers, who is President of PowerHockey Canada and has Muscular Dystrophy. “The disability community itself lacks awareness of these opportunities, yet the possibilities of sport to make a lasting impact on lives are endless. We are working together to change the disability sport landscape in Canada.”

One area that is particularly under-represented in Canada is powerchair sport, according to Mitacs. Jordan Herbison, Mitacs intern and postdoctoral research fellow at Queen’s University and McGill University, is working with PowerHockey Canada and community partners to build a more inclusive and high-quality powerchair program in Canada, starting with Ontario. His research, which includes interviewing and surveying athletes and sport administrators, will form the basis for an inclusive “play book” aimed at giving community program providers the tools and knowledge they need to create more opportunities for people who use powerchairs, and to ensure a positive experience, according to the release.

“I believe in the power of sport to positively impact people’s lives and that everyone who wants to, should have the opportunity to experience the benefits of sport,” said Herbison, referring to the project as an amazing learning opportunity. “I am gaining a better understanding of the needs and challenges of athletes with high support needs, and I look forward to working with our community partners to positively impact parasport across Canada.”

Another project, led by Mitacs intern and Queen’s University Master’s student Alyssa Grimes, is aiming to develop standardized training that any sport organization can use to attract and retain new volunteers, since many parasport programs rely on volunteers to run. “We know lack of available volunteers is a major barrier to program access,” said Latimer-Cheung. “If we can help to create a high-quality volunteer experience, the hope is they will be more engaged and it will ignite a passion to continue to support parasport longer term.”

Though real change is needed in Canada to ensure athletes with disabilities enjoy the same sport opportunities as their able-bodied peers, Latimer-Cheung believes sport clubs are willing to do the work, they just need to know how.

“As equality, diversity and inclusion become more prominent, we’re on the cusp of major change and it’s really exciting to be a part of it,” she said. “It’s not good enough to say that you offer parasport programs. At the end of the day, athletes need to leave feeling valued, important and having had fun, and our research will ensure that this is the case.”

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