Special Needs

Making Events Inclusive

20 Jan, 2021

By: Shuan Butcher

For decades, sport has been a driving force for change when it comes to inclusion. That has been what we at Move United are focused on: showcasing the power of sport and how it pushes awareness of what is possible for all individuals.

The year 2020 brought us the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act being signed into law. And while ADA did make a good start in removing some physical barriers and creating laws against discrimination, a lot more remains to be done in order to create true inclusion. In fact, inclusion is less about disabilities and being mandated to accommodate them, and more about creating a community where all are welcome. The ultimate goal is full integration of individuals with disabilities into all sports events (and into the community as a whole).

Move United uses the power of sport to push what’s possible for people with disabilities, confronting ignorance, fueling conversation, and inciting action that leads us to a world where everyone is included. We do this through a network of over 180 community-based adaptive sports programs across the country. Our mission is to provide national leadership and opportunities for individuals living with disabilities, encouraging them to develop independence, confidence and fitness through participation in community sports, competition, recreation, high performance sport and educational programs. It is our belief that every person, regardless of ability, has an equal opportunity to participate in sports and recreation in their community.

Since 1956, Move United has focused on one goal: To improve the lives of wounded warriors, youth and adults with disabilities by providing sports and recreation opportunities. Disabilities include those with visual impairments, amputations, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, head injury, cerebral palsy, other neuromuscular/orthopedic conditions, autism and related intellectual disabilities.

Our idea is to make sure everyone is put on a level playing field. We have now about 70 sports that we recognize as adaptive sports, ranging from alpine skiing to wheelchair football. The bottom line is that we all know that sports make us more—more determined, more powerful, more ourselves. So it is through sport that Move United is redefining disability, shifting the narrative from disabled to this abled.

Some of the lessons we have learned, and which we can pass along to event owners nationwide, include the following:

Many Disabilities Aren’t Visible: One in five people has a disability of some sort. While the larger public is able to see a wheelchair or a prosthesis, many disabilities can’t be seen. We need to assume that there will always be people who require additional accommodations. It might be that someone needs just a small assistive device, such as a hiking stick or a cane to help them balance. Maybe they need a golf cart because, while they can stand and walk, they can’t do so for long distances. The point is this: If they can’t access what everyone else can, we’re not doing our job right as event owners and we need to change.

Awareness is Growing: More awareness of the need for not just accessible but inclusive events is growing at the destination management organization level; however, much still needs to be done. As it now stands, there are a number of adaptive sports that aren’t on anyone’s radar (including that of DMOs). There is a significant opportunity to create more opportunities for all athletes, and everyone should be pursuing these. 

Athletes With Disabilities Will Travel to Get to an Event…But Should They Have To? Something we’ve learned is that our athletes will drive two to three hours in order to participate in a sport. We want to make it so that there are programs they can compete in right in their home communities. In fact, there are plenty of instances where not only does an individual with a disability not know he or she can do something, but there is also no opportunity available to try it. We want to flip the script and create the awareness, not just among able-bodied individuals but among those who might not even be aware of the options open to them.

Awareness of the Need for Inclusion Starts at the Local Level: For Move United, the biggest success stories so far have been those about the amount of growth in community-based programs that promote inclusive sports. Just two years ago, we had about 120 programs across the country. Today, that number stands at 181. We’re hoping that with the Paralympics coming back to the U.S. in 2028, even more awareness will be built, and even more programs will be formed.

When we hear news of events meant to accommodate athletes who have disabilities, we will first reach out to our community programs who are most able to assist. They are the ones, after all, who have built their own local coalitions, and who have connections in the area. Often, they are able to provide the advice and resources needed.

Hotels, Lodging and More

It’s not just the sports events that need to be aware of the needs of this population; it’s all the other pieces of an event including restaurants, lodging and similar amenities that need to be reviewed. Imagine if there was a rating scale or a certification for places, in terms of their inclusivity. After all, there are various LEED Certifications to provide information on eco-friendly buildings, including convention centers and arenas. If such a certification were available to denote inclusivity, it could create an additional resource for athletes who need special assistance, as well as for the people planning events for them. 

Some hotels, recognizing this new market, are already working to create more accessible and inclusive accommodations, rather than simply having just a few rooms that have these options. There are more events for athletes with disabilities than before – and more travelers with disabilities as well – so by having better accommodations, such hotels can be ahead of their competition. At the end of the day, it is not just about meeting the basic requirements set forth in the ADA but exceeding them.

Use Slow Time Wisely

Right now, many cities are still in the downturn caused by the pandemic and there are not as many events – in some places, any events – being hosted. It is possible, therefore, to use this time to examine opportunities for creating greater inclusivity. 

Take stock of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT for short). Ask yourself what you’re doing and what you need to change. If you do this now, you are ready when the return to play signal comes. 

It’s time we stopped thinking of people as being disabled and thought of them as this-abled. Adaptive athletes may need some adaptation in order to participate in sports but they are indeed athletes. If we can create opportunity for all, then it’s indeed a win for us all. SDM


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