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How to get into disability sports

Disability sports are booming, but how do you find the best sport for you and what does it take to become an athlete? We explore how to get started.

In recent years, disability sports have enjoyed a seismic rise in attention and popularity. Paralympians and elite disabled athletes are being celebrated on a global stage, with athletes such as wheelchair tennis champion Dylan Alcott becoming celebrities and further elevating the profile of sports adapted for participants with disabilities. Simultaneously, sporting organisations including Tennis Australia, Surfing Australia and others have created dedicated competitions, divisions and development pathways that enable greater participation in disability sports and provide opportunities for people with disabilities to aspire to athletic performance at all levels, from amateur to elite. There has never been a better time to get involved in disability sports! 

Yet while this progress is exciting, the idea of becoming involved in disability sports may still be daunting or overwhelming. Where do you start? What sports are suitable for your individual limitations and strengths? And which sports have eligibility criteria that match your physical abilities? The practitioners from our dedicated community division have compiled some tips to start making it happen.

Consider your strengths and limitations

Broadly, it’s a good idea to consider sports that allow suitable adaptations to accommodate your physical capacities and limitations and leverage your physical strengths or strengths you may be able to develop. For instance, wheelchair tennis accommodates limitations in lower limb function yet demands a great deal of upper body and arm strength and power, which may be developed through targeted training and goal-specific work with a physiotherapist. Swimming may be another suitable option to leverage upper body strength. Other sports offer various adaptations to suit individuals’ physical limitations and strengths. For instance, for adaptive surfing participants to compete, eligibility simply requires a physical or visual impairment, although eligibility and classification to compete have different criteria for different divisions such as ‘open stand/kneel (upper limb amputees, BK amputees) and open (visually impaired).

Review eligibility criteria

While practical considerations generally lead people to appropriate sports, there are also formal eligibility criteria for competitive participation in particular sports. For instance, to compete in wheelchair tennis, a participant must meet impairment type criteria, which broadly include being medically diagnosed with a permanent, mobility-related physical disability resulting in a substantial loss of function in one or both lower extremities. There are also classification criteria related to functional ability for participation in ‘open’ and ‘quad’ class divisions (open division athletes have no impairment to upper body function whereas quad division players have impairment to one or both arms). Eligibility and classification are administered by individual sporting bodies such as Tennis Australia. They are available to view by sport type on the Disability Sports Australia website.

Involve your healthcare team

Along with your own appraisal of your physical strengths and limitations or those of someone in your care, it is a good idea to discuss your sporting aspirations with members of your healthcare team. This includes medical specialists and your GP, who can determine whether you can safely participate in a given sport (e.g. for certain injuries and conditions, certain sports may present an undue risk of further injury or fracture). For NDIS participants working with a physiotherapist and/or occupational therapist, it can also be helpful to glean their recommendations. A physiotherapist can provide a realistic appraisal of suitability based on evaluation of your potential for required physical development while an occupational therapist can evaluate potential eligibility for funding of equipment (e.g. a specific wheelchair type) as well as providing guidance in pathways to participation.

Tap into social media

Many high-profile disabled athletes have thriving social media pages. These can give you a glimpse into their experience, including training, competition and challenges and considerations associated with their sports participation. Athletes may also provide helpful tips or learnings as well as inspiration and motivation. Louise Sauvage, Kurt Fearnley, Ellie Cole and Dylan Alcott are just a few of athletes you may wish to follow (by following these athletes, you should receive recommendations for other related accounts). If you don’t know the names of specific athletes, try starting with the Instagram accounts of Disability Sports Australia, Tennis Australia, Disabled Surfers’ Association, etc. Following these accounts is also a great way to connect with like-minded people and to become a part of the disability sports community and conversation.

Make contact

Once you’ve narrowed down possible sport types, it’s time to get specific. To progress from contemplation to action, you’ll need to make contact with a local organisation to establish steps to get involved. If you still have questions about your suitability or eligibility for certain sports, you may wish to contact a few organisations representing your preferred sports to further refine your options. You may also have a list of questions about things such as availability of coaching or lessons and whether there are any programs or provisions for equipment funding, grants or loans. To find a local sporting body offering a specialised disability sports program, visit the Disability Sports Australia website, select a sport and visit the ‘Where to play’ tab, which will lead you to relevant phone numbers by state or area. This will enable you to locate your nearest club or facility and factor proximity and transportation into your considerations.

Punchline: Getting started as a participant in disability sports requires some research, but there are resources and supports available. Tap into every available resource, from sporting organisations to your healthcare team. With each action you take, you are closer to making it happen.

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