Sport Sister Podcast - Season 2, Episode 4

Episode 4 – Opportunities for female players with disabilities: Jules Parke-Robinson and Emma O’Connor.

Jules Parke-Robinson and Emma O'Connor

Jules Parke-Robinson served for over 20 years as a British Army Officer in the Royal Military Police, before moving into a corporate career in 2019. A former Welsh rugby international, Jules joined the board of British Wheelchair Basketball, 4 years ago, assuming the role of Chair in 2020.  Emma O’Connor is an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion specialist. She is currently working within the higher education sector, having previously worked for various professional and grassroots football clubs.

Jules and Emma join Natalie Doyle to discuss how to create opportunities for female players with disabilities. They discuss the impact of the pandemic, barriers to participation, how to create an inclusive environment, and much more.

“Yes, playgrounds can be a really uncomfortable place but they can also be quite an inclusive place because people don’t have that unconscious bias.”

- Jules Parke-Robinson

Read this episode’s transcript

Natalie Doyle:

Welcome to the Sports Sister Podcast, where we bring together professional experts with grassroots pioneers to discuss key topics for grassroots sport.

I’m Natalie Doyle, and in this episode, we’re joined by two experts from the world of disability sport. Jules Parke-Robinson served for over 20 years as a British Army officer in the Royal Military Police before moving into a corporate career in 2019. A former Welsh Rugby International, Jules joined the board of British Wheelchair Basketball four years ago, assuming the role of chair in 2020. Emma O’Connor is an equality, diversity, and inclusion specialist. She’s currently working within the higher education sector, having previously worked for various professional and grassroots football clubs.

I’m really looking forward to this conversation today because I feel there’s a lot that I can learn about the world of disability sport, and I know that these two have got a lot of experience in this area. Let’s go and pick their brains.

Jules and Emma, thank you so much for joining me today and welcome to the Sport Sister Podcast.

Jules Parke-Robinson:

Thanks very much for having us.

Emma O’Connor:

Thank you.

Natalie Doyle:

I like to think at Sport Sister, we’ve got quite a big equality focus. Obviously, everything we do is around gender equality and sport, but we’re going to get into a different element of that, which I don’t think we’ve discussed on the podcast before, which is around providing opportunities for female players with disabilities. And you two have got some fantastic experience in this area, so I’m really looking forward to picking your brains today. First of all, for the listeners, it’d be good to get your thoughts on what does the sporting landscape look like at the moment for female players with disabilities? And Jules, should we start with you?

Jules Parke-Robinson:

Yeah, thanks. I think it’s really, really challenging. I think we’ve talked a lot before about the landscape regarding gender, but then you add disability on top of that and it’s an extra layer of complexity and challenge and a real barrier, particularly for young girls to overcome. It’s hard enough for young girls as it is unless they have a real drive and a passion for sport to find the confidence to go and try something new.

But you add in the disability layer on top of that and it becomes really, really difficult. I think we need to work so much harder to offer more opportunities to young girls with disabilities and older women as well. It goes without saying, I think without the youth pipeline then actually the opportunities for older female athletes with disabilities becomes more narrow as well. I think there are opportunities out there, but they’re not as rich as I would want them to be. And I’m sure Emma would probably agree.

Emma O’Connor:

Yeah, I would agree with all that you’re saying there Jules, I’d also say actually let’s get down to the actual stats. More people with disabilities are not as active as non-disabled people. And then you break down the stats, it’s even worse when you’re looking at the gender. I don’t know if that’s due to education. Is it still seen that sport’s still a boy’s thing that they do? I do think it’s improved in the last 10 years, and I do think that’s a lot of education, a lot of visibility. What I do now question is, Covid has hit a lot of grassroots projects, a lot of funding that was towards grassroots projects, but then also that has an implication into the elite pathway because no one starts as an elite athlete.

You start off in the grassroots sector or the grassroots team, and then you make your way to the elite pathway. I’ve always pushed for more opportunities, but then also I feel sometimes some sports are certain classes. So when I look at a disability, is it a middle-class sport? Is it disabled players only accessing sport because they’ve got a supportive family that can transfer them? If you’re at elite level, you might be doing national travel, so you’ve got to find money for flights, you might have to bring your PA or your support worker as well. I also want to get more support workers taking their clients out into grassroots sports as well in the local area. I can go off and talk about this for the next 10 hours as well.

Natalie Doyle:

<laugh>. Well, that’s good, hopefully you can. The covid impact is a really interesting point. Do you think there’s been more impact for disability provision than there has for mainstream provision from Covid, or do you think that’s just a reflection on what we’ve seen across the board?

Emma O’Connor:

Yes, from a support worker’s point of view, I know a lot of support workers now won’t take their clients out. Maybe in their EHC plan, where it says go swimming once a week, they may use Covid as an excuse to not take them there or to do that activity. And I’m not saying every support worker, I’m saying there’s a small minority of support workers that may use it as an excuse. Also, sports organizations, the cost of venues have gone up, living costs are going up, public transport costs are going up, taxi costs are going up. So if you are not using public transport, you might be getting a taxi there, again, that’s going up. Energy’s going up. So prices are going up, which then people look at should we stop this provision?

Whether it’s an hour in the swimming pool if they had an hour for inclusivity or disability session, they may need to re-look at that and go, actually, is that making us money? Is it part of our KPIs for the council or the contract? There’s so many things Covid has brought up. It’s also highlighted inequalities as well. So while we’re in lockdown, a lot of people with disabilities were on the vulnerable list, and they were told by the government, don’t use public transport, don’t do this, don’t do that. And then suddenly changing them. So say for instance, you used to do tennis, you used to get the bus there. For the last two and a half years, you’ve been told not to use the bus, social distance, don’t hug, wear a mask, stand within a distance. And I think especially for people with learning disabilities, that might be something that will take years or if ever, so yeah.

Jules Parke-Robinson:

I think it’s really difficult, isn’t it? And I think one of the things to remember is that there isn’t one type of disability. There’s a whole spectrum. One of the things that we found, particularly in the sport of wheelchair basketball, is that many of our players at all levels are clinically vulnerable. And so as Emma’s just quite rightly said, that bounce back from Covid was really challenging even at the elite level in terms of the risks around returning to train and returning to play. And so we have seen that that return has been much slower than we would’ve hoped. And trying to then bring that particularly into the grassroots level is really, really difficult. We are making progress now when we have a program called Inspire A Generation, which we actually brought it online during Covid, which was very hard work, and we are probably a little bit behind where we would want to be, but that is very much about going into local communities, local schools, almost like the have a go concept and actually for us Birmingham Commonwealth Games was a really great spectacle in terms of three x three basketball, which is what Inspire A Generation is about.

It’s like, you need less equipment, it’s less cost, it’s the ability to pop up a court anywhere and encourage people to have a go. But it’s been a real challenge. And the numbers in terms of membership that we had pre-covid to where we are now, we’re having to work really hard to encourage people back into the sport, which is a shame because we just want people to have that access.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah. And I think especially after we spent so much time indoors, I think probably people need to be active more now than ever. So it’s really important that we try and provide those opportunities as much as possible. You must see some really good examples though the pair of you, of organizations or clubs who do this really well, who are providing great opportunities for players with disabilities. Would you like to tell me about some of those?

Jules Parke-Robinson:

Yeah, there’s a wheelchair basketball club that takes the sort of one-club concept. So not only the National League side, but obviously a women’s team as well, a youth team, but also in parallel with the running game which is fantastic. So it’s just an all-inclusive environment, and it’s just really inspiring to see. And again, you know, going back to the Commonwealth Games, one of the things that we were concerned about beforehand was the scheduling of the running game, three x three and then interspersed with wheelchair basketball. And I had a nervousness beforehand thinking, is everyone going to go to the food stall or the bar when the wheelchair basketball comes on? And no, it was absolutely packed. And seeing people get inspired by this fast and dynamic game was really, really interesting. And so having that model and bringing that into a club environment, it’s meant that the wheelchair basketball players feel absolutely, that they belong in that club environment. And it’s so great to see.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, that’s really important, isn’t it, that visibility of the sport. And I think there certainly seems to be more through the Paralympics or like you say through the Commonwealth Games, there certainly seems to be more interest in watching sports across all spectrums. Do you see that with wheelchair basketball Jules?

Jules Parke-Robinson:

Yeah, absolutely. And if you just look at the recent Rugby League World Cup and how they actually brought all aspects of the sport in together, and they were all championed in equal measure. And that’s what we need to bring through to the future to make sure that we have that equal visibility, equal voice, to make sure that it’s all aspects of the game, which are equally exciting and challenging and a great spectacle to watch.

Natalie Doyle:

Absolutely. And obviously Emma, your focus is predominantly football. There’s some fantastic role models for women’s football, but perhaps not so much for players with disabilities. Do you see any improvements in those areas?

Emma O’Connor:

Yeah, so I used to work for an organization called Panathlon Challenge, and they work closely with schools, especially SEN Schools. And actually in the last couple of years they’ve done specifically girls-only tournaments. As well as the tournaments they do girls coaching as well, but they would do it the same day, so it’s all on one day. With schools, since Covid, the numbers have slightly dropped. There’s a lot of risk assessments now schools have to do when they’re doing outhouse competitions. So before covid, numbers were really, really high. Teachers were bringing students across county and national tournaments, but obviously there’s been a slight drop-off. So what Panathlon do is they do tournaments, but on a side bit, they allocate an area, you might have students that are not at the level of playing football.

And what I mean by that is maybe not understanding some of the rules, maybe some of the fundamental movements may be a little bit challenging, like striking a ball, passing, or running with a ball. It will be split on one day, which is quite easy for schools because they’ll put students in a minibus to one location.

The day is similar, so having lunch all together at the same time, which is quite important at that level for the social interaction as well, because if you think over the last couple of years, lockdown for many people with disabilities, social interaction has been reduced like most other people as well. So where you are practising conversation, like, how are you? the small things we take for granted. It also gives them an opportunity to speak to other students at other schools as well.

So where you’re in your class or your school, you’re seeing the same students, and these competitions give another opportunity to practice your social skills, your communication skills. But yeah, with the girl’s football, it’s slowly getting there. And what I mean by that is every year there’s more girls playing, especially with Panathlon competitions. And for me, I see that as a success. Can it be better? Yes. Am I happy with the numbers? No. Would I ever be happy with the numbers? No, because I would want everything to be better and to be more. When I will be happy is when there’s more clubs and I’m not having to travel two hours for a girls-only session. At the moment, a lot of girls that are able, and what I mean by able is, they can kick the ball, strike the ball, then their more likely to interact in pan-disability sessions.

There aren’t a lot of sessions where it’s girl’s pan-disability sessions. If there are, it’s very limited, and again, it depends on your postcode. Provision in Devon looks different in London to Birmingham. My experience at my previous role at Downs Syndrome Association, provision looks a lot better in London than it does in Devon or where there’s areas where there’s a lot of travelling. So Plymouth was where there was maybe not as many opportunities as there should be, but then that also determines on what the population is. And in London obviously it’s very dense, it’s very high.

But also it’s parents having the knowledge in the local area as well. That can sometimes be hard because if you’re a family that doesn’t have friends that have children or adults with disabilities, then it’s really hard to find out what’s on because you’ve got the local offer, but a lot of that information is sometimes out of date. So again, sometimes you’re chasing information about what’s appropriate for your child or adult because you’re going to get more questions with sessions with a child or adult with disabilities than with someone without. So it’ll be like, where is the accessible toilets or changing rooms? Is there a hoist? Where’s the parking? Are the coaches DBS checked? What time are the sessions? What time are the breaks? If they’ve got to take any medication at certain times, they’re is generally going to be a few more questions from the parents side.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, it can become a bit of a postcode lottery can’t it, in terms of how easy it is to access those playing opportunities. Do you see that in your sport as well, Jules?

Jules Parke-Robinson:

Yeah, and I was just going to add, I think Emma mentioned it earlier, but you layer onto that the cost of living crisis and the distance and the expense of travelling to get to a certain activity, it makes it really, really hard. And you know, we’ve found even with the adult game that the number of clubs has reduced and so they’ve been concentrated. So some people are travelling two hours to a training session midweek, and that’s not sustainable. So we’d love to see a landscape which allows opportunities that are closer to home for people. So as Emma said, it doesn’t become class driven or that cost is not then a barrier to people being able to be included in sport.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, that’s true, isn’t it? And it’s also about, then once those opportunities exist, as you said Emma, how do you make sure that people are aware of those opportunities and how are you making those links in your local community to make people aware of what it is you’re providing?

Emma O’Connor:

I think this one is really important because some coaches or organizations sometimes don’t listen to others. I always wanted to engage with parents to say, look, we need more players or we need more help, can you signpost me? That’s not a sign of weakness, that’s a sign that I want to make this sustainable and I want this to last longer than, say for instance, you’ve got eight weeks funding. I hate that because some organizations are like, oh, that’s eight weeks of money. Well no, it’s not. This is just a startup. This is to make it run, making its own revenue, but making it last and having a good positive impact within the local community. But Jules, as you said, I really don’t like when people are having to travel so far. Even in London, going from West to East London, it’s not actually that far <laugh>, but it takes two hours, especially if you’re getting public transport. I always question how accessible they are, if you’ve got any mobility issues or if you’re in a wheelchair, are the lifts working? Is someone putting the ramp out for you? Is it really busy? What time are you doing the session? If you’re going to be doing it at five, you’re looking at rush hour. And again, that experience for that individual is going to be shocking. The session could be absolutely amazing, but getting there is just as important as the actual session as well.

Jules Parke-Robinson:

Yeah, totally agree. Totally agree with you Emma.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah. Facilities must be a real challenge. Finding facilities anyway can be a real challenge, but when you have additional requirements of what that facility needs to provide, do you find that that’s a barrier?

Jules Parke-Robinson:

Well, it’s the equipment costs for us and that’s why within Inspire A Generation, we’re trying to make sure that we have that opportunity to fund a small number of chairs so that your local leisure centre or your local school is able to host those kind of sessions. Obviously, the higher up the structure you get in terms of the pathway, then the more expensive the equipment becomes. But, at that youth level to try and encourage young girls into the sport we just need to understand and make sure that our funding model supports that local engagement so that we can have that spread across the whole country and it’s not then confined to those key areas. The only challenge I would say with that is that obviously in order to do that, we have the structure of existing clubs as a really useful thing to tag onto.

One of the other areas that we’re really trying to work on now is an active plan to recruit more female coaches because particularly for young girls in this landscape, we talked earlier about barriers, most of the wheelchair basketball coaches are male and if you are a young teenage girl then you sometimes respond better to a female coach. We know that men and women learn in different ways and they respond to different types of coaching. So we are hoping that that campaign will really then ignite passion in younger girls because they will see that opportunity to potentially be coached by a female. And also I think it’s understanding that there’s a lot of complexity going on for teenage girls and boys, that they might not want to open up to in a different environment.

It’s not just about the fact that you’re trying to get them to play sport in the first place. They’ve got this additional complexity in terms of a disability and then they’ve got everything that’s going on in their teenage life, which is going to impact their willingness to try something new, to have confidence. They might not be feeling great this week of the month and they don’t want to have that conversation with the coach or they don’t want to play this week and are having that confidence to either be able to explain that or having an environment where they don’t need to explain that and it’s just understood.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, absolutely. And again, it’s great in terms of role models, isn’t it, like showing other options that are available to people. If they decide not to pursue participating in sport, then what other opportunities might there be for them?

Okay, so if we start to think about if we’ve got clubs listening to this, which I think we probably will, who are looking to improve what their offer currently is for players with disabilities, what advice or tips would you give them?

Emma O’Connor:

I would challenge, first of all, your unbiased consciousness. And what I mean by that is, there’s so many different disabilities and conditions so we are not going to know everything. So sometimes it’s actually speaking to our existing players, our workforce, our volunteers, our committees. And I would do it via a survey to find out, anonymously, what is going well, what can we do, what do people think inclusion is, what does it actually mean, what does it actually look like? Because sometimes what it looks like and what we think it is, it doesn’t mirror up. And then you might get some useful information from that. I’d also see if there’s anyone or local organizations like disability organizations or people that work within the club to say, actually could you give some feedback on what your thoughts are on this?

Or whether you want to go, actually why don’t we set up a committee for EDI and think about how do we make our club inclusive, because I don’t like it when people just ask me, what’s your view on Downs Syndrome? Well, I don’t have Downs Syndrome. What I’m going to do is maybe talk to a parent, carer, support worker or an individual with Downs Syndrome and go from that. So that’s where I say challenge your unconscious bias on that. And that can sometimes also come through media as well. I would first of all figure out what the landscape is, the information you’ve got in your club. And that might be, oh actually we might need to coach up some of our workforce because I don’t think they understand disability or what inclusion is. They might just think people with disabilities are all in wheelchairs.

Well actually there’s a lot of different disabilities and conditions, so maybe have a CPD program going across the year. Obviously don’t make it compulsory unless it’s certain roles within the organization like the committee and maybe the chairman, the treasurer, that sort of does all the training, but I’d also keep the training open so if a player or a parent wants to come to it, because I think education is sometimes really important. And it shouldn’t just be the selected people. It might have to be mandatory but also keep it open that actually if a player wants to come, if a coach wants to come, keep that open. But I think learning, engaging and then keep reviewing just because you’ve done this inclusion workshop a year ago, I bet you it’s not relevant now, you need to go update that.

And also inclusive language changes all the time. So some organizations will say disabled people, some will say people with disabilities. So again, it’s using the appropriate language. I mean there’s some language that you wouldn’t want to use that might be acceptable in the U.S but again, it’s understanding whether you create inclusive pack of words you use to describe people with disabilities or whether you go and talk to an organization like Mencap or anything like that. But I don’t think you can say we are a hundred percent inclusive. You’ve got to keep reviewing, keep learning, keep improving.

Jules Parke-Robinson:

Yeah, I think our clubs, given that most of them are already existing and they exist because they are either wheelchair basketball clubs or they’re one club with the running game, we’d be really keen for them to find a really good way to proactively welcome young disabled players. Many of the players that we have currently, say that the reason they got into wheelchair basketball was because their parents forced them to try a new sport. And we know that sport is good for all of us and therefore, they had parents who encouraged them to go and do things and transported them around, etc. But we want to work closer with clubs and schools together because actually how can we normalize disability sports in both the school and then the club arena?

And I think there’s so much more that we can do, and Emma touched on it there in terms of education, how can we get playing disability sports into schools? Because actually, we know that if young people are exposed to things then it becomes normal if they have it introduced at a certain age. I have a young deaf daughter and so she has no knowledge of not wearing her cochlear implants. And so the people that she joined school with, age four, to them, that’s just normal. And so they look at her and they’re like, oh yeah, well, that’s the way that it is. And so whereas I will have adults approach me and say, well what’s that and why? And you know, a million questions and it’s really interesting, isn’t it?

Yes, playgrounds can be a really uncomfortable place but they can also be quite an inclusive place because people don’t have that unconscious bias that Emma mentioned earlier. So actually, if we can have that education landscape which brings this into a school environment and it becomes the norm and they don’t have to have a disability to play a disability sport. You’re going to have able-bodied playing wheelchair basketball, and actually what a great leveller. I mean I’ve played it, it’s absolutely nails and it is so hard. <laugh> I don’t know how they do it. It’s like multitasking on a completely different level. So, seeing that challenging environment and how kids can get really inspired by that, schools and clubs working together is the way that we really can see that this can take off certainly for our sport. And again, Inspire A Generation is a program that’s exactly trying to do that. We’ve got local activators coming in and encouraging that.

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, that’s so true, especially for the younger age groups and primary school. This is where they don’t have any prejudice yet. They don’t have any preconceived ideas or unconscious bias. What a great time to introduce that sport to them so that they just accept it, that this is part of a sport that they could be part of. And I think that’s really important to open young children’s eyes to that. Emma, you spoke as well around the importance of maybe setting up a committee to drive it. I think that’s really important, isn’t it? We’ve touched a little bit on coaches, but we haven’t hugely got into the workforce element of things, but having somebody to drive forward the project and making sure that they’re taking the whole club with them in order to make sure that it’s sustainable in the long term.

Emma O’Connor:

Yeah, it’s also not having just that one volunteer that’s pushing this agenda. You need to have a collective approach because if it’s just that one person, that one person leaves or gets burnout, beause a lot of time you can suffer from burnout if it’s just the one person that’s trying to bang people’s heads together. EDI is important. We need to think about everything to do with the club. Whether it’s how we market ourselves, where the session is, what leagues we’re in, what language the coaches use, like everything is part of it, you have to think about it like that. And also the cost as well. So everything to do with going to the session. How the committee’s run. Again, it’s looking at governance, how the club is governed, is the committee, if you are going to set one up, does it feed into the Board or do they just feed into the coaches?

Like what’s the communication? So when you have the committee, the notes are visible to anyone in the club that can read them. So again, you’re creating this transparency within the club. And again, if you are transparent and you’re open, more people may come in and join the committee or may have ideas or suggestions on different aspects or different questions to that. So it’s really about governance, how the club or organization is set up. If you’re going to create a committee, again, as I said previously, don’t make it just one volunteer, have collective members. And if you can, look at the members. You might have some youth, so you might have some players, you may have some coaches, you may have parents on that. So obviously with it being diverse, you can get different ideas, different backgrounds, different approaches to different things such as membership fees, the venue, transport, parking, everything like that can be reviewed.

I’m explaining this like it’s really easy. It’s really not <laugh> so having the great idea in doing it, it’s just putting it together but ensuring that everyone is on the same wavelength as well. And then having, okay, what is the purpose of this committee? And going, right, okay, we want to be inclusive, then you need to break that down. What does that mean? We might be wanting more people with disabilities to join the club or we might look at setting up a new session. We might actually want people with disabilities to be in our mainstream sessions. Or we might just want to partner up with another organization in the local area, or we might just want to do some training. So if we do have players that come in with disabilities, they can be integrated.

There’s no coaches asking, what do I do? This person’s got one limb missing. But then that has to be done regularly because coaches or volunteers maybe changing. And again, you might have to say, okay, if you’re going to join the club, here’s our educational pathway. And I’m talking more coaches going from there. There’s just lots of things you can take and there is no, if you go from A to B, what’s your mission, how are you going to get there and what’s the outcome we want to achieve?

Natalie Doyle:

Yeah, there’s so many different ways that you can take it. Like you say, it’s not easy, but I don’t think anything worth doing was ever easy was it? So that’s why we keep plugging away at it.

Thank you both so much for giving up your time. It’s been such an interesting conversation. I think we’ve just scratched the surface on some things, but hopefully, it gives people lots to think about. So thank you so much for joining me today.

Jules Parke-Robinson:

Thanks for having us.

Emma O’Connor:

Thank you.

Natalie Doyle:

That was a really interesting conversation. I think it feels like an area we haven’t really got into before, so I’m really glad that we had the chance to do that today with Jules and Emma. There are obviously some challenges and I think Jules and Emma spoke about those really well. But there were also some real opportunities to make a difference and make a positive impact.

And I would certainly encourage you to reflect on how inclusive your club is, how inclusive is your offer for women and girls and for female players with disabilities in particular. And think about what changes you could make to try and involve players with disabilities a little bit better in what you’re doing.

I hope you enjoyed that conversation. If you did, then please feel free to leave us a review on whatever platform you’re listening to us on, and we’ll be back again next week with some more fantastic guests looking at some more interesting topics.

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