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Reviewing sports inclusivity at U of T for students with disabilities

What it means to be inclusive, and how we can improve
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Accessibility in sports is important, now more than ever. SHANNA HUNTER, TOM KUHN, STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY
Accessibility in sports is important, now more than ever. SHANNA HUNTER, TOM KUHN, STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

In early September this year, the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games concluded with Canada winning 21 medals. Despite COVID-19 having led to the postponement of the games and making training nearly impossible, a record-breaking 4,403 athletes participated in the Paralympics. The president of the International Paralympic Committee, Andrew Parsons, said that the Paralympics are needed now more than ever to place disability at the forefront of the inclusion discourse, and it seems that, with the Paralympics’ astonishing 4.25 billion viewers, such inclusion may be very possible.

Though the Paralympic Games are over, individuals living with physical or intellectual disabilities continue to fight for inclusion in sports. U of T students also have to struggle for inclusion in sports, so The Varsity researched sports opportunities for students with disabilities at the university. 

What it means to make accommodations in sports

Marissa Juanita Bangyay, a first-year student in life sciences and an individual living with hearing loss, has found success in athletics. Bangyay grew up playing various sports, including soccer, basketball, tennis, volleyball, and swimming. In high school, she played on the girls’ basketball team, and she hopes to try out for the women’s Varsity basketball team in the coming years.

When she joined her high school team, she informed her coaches of her hearing impairment and her coaches made accommodations for her right away. Although Bangyay uses hearing aids, she stated that her team implemented different ways to communicate during practices, such as “wearing the FM system, standing closer to [Bangyay], [and] trying to not move too far into the gym where it echoes.” In addition, during the games, Bangyay’s team would be in a “huddle situation,” which allowed everyone to hear each other. When she was on the court and her coaches needed her attention, they would shout for her, and she’d approach them to hear further instructions. 

Bangyay hopes that similar accommodations can be made again when she joins sports at U of T. Not only did her accommodations help Bangyay participate in sports at the same level as her peers, but they also show that they can be straightforward. Of course, accommodations vary according to the types of disabilities a student has, and some accommodations require more work than others; however, they’re possible to implement, and that’s what matters here.

motionball U of T 

Sports opportunities for students with disabilities don’t stop at the Varsity Blues. The national non-profit organization motionball, founded in 2002 by three brothers — Paul, Mark, and Sean Etherington — works to involve Canadian youth in the Special Olympics, which is a sporting event catered to students with intellectual disabilities. By hosting “inclusive sport and social events,” motionball creates a supportive environment that celebrates differences through interactive and meaningful experiences. 

Chloe Ellard, a fourth-year student in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE), is the co-event director of motionball U of T, an entirely-volunteer led club that is hosted at 33 other universities. 

Ellard said that motionball works primarily with students with intellectual disabilities, so they “try to consider… the space that [they’re] playing in… just in case someone needs certain accommodations.” Working alongside Special Olympic athletes, motionball organizes two main events: the Marathon of Sports and the #NoGoodWay campaign. The former focuses on half-to-full days of sporting events in which teams of 10 join to play different adapted sports. 

motionball organizes its sporting events so that participants of all levels can easily understand the rules through repetition and demonstration. Instructions are given both verbally and in writing, and if volunteers find any participants struggling during the game, they make sure to assist. motionball hopes to create a space where students feel comfortable asking questions or asking for assistance by ensuring that its volunteers “never assume anybody’s ability level or knowledge level.”

“[motionball] at U of T… actually started four years ago,” says Ellard. In this short time, Ellard has found that motionball at U of T has done well at accommodating those with intellectual or physical disabilities.

Ellard is becoming more aware of the accessibility needs of students with disabilities through her academic program. “In third year, we take a course called Adapted Physical Activity, which is learning all about how to make sport inclusive for people with disabilities, [and] how to make sport more enjoyable, more accessible.” Courses like this one are mandatory for KPE students, ensuring that KPE students are constantly learning how to interact with different people in such environments.

U of T’s accessibility policies

It can be challenging to navigate U of T websites in search of information about accommodations for sports players, but the university does offer some options.

Sports policies, along with additional resources including U of T’s Statement of Commitment Regarding Persons with Disabilities, can be found on UTSC’s websites. UTSC’s Department of Athletics and Recreation lists “[creating] a community that is inclusive of all persons” as one of its many charitable commitments. 

The Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre supports this goal by making the centre itself fully accessible, and it has recently provided a state-of-the-art wheelchair accessibility facility at their Tennis Centre. 

Moreover, UTSC Athletics and Recreation also lists the programs it has put in place to promote inclusivity on its website, such as fitness classes designed for all abilities, instructional courses, and opportunities like recreational sports and college intramural teams. With sports ranging from yoga and archery to table tennis and basketball, it’s fair to say that UTSC is committed to making sports accessible for all students.

Furthermore, at UTSG, the KPE’s website has several resources related to sports and athletics. In addition, they offer student outreach programs in conjunction with Sports and Recreation’s Diversity and Equity Team, a group of UTSG students promoting diversity and inclusion alongside physical and mental health, and MoveU, a tri-campus initiative that promotes healthy living through social interaction. 

KPE’s First-Year Welcome Guide also includes a brief statement on their commitment to creating an inclusive environment and removing structural barriers, including ableism. Though it is short, and very few resources in the guide explicitly mention or link the sports opportunities at U of T, it does imply that the faculty is devoted to making space for students with disabilities.

Additionally, in the past, KPE has held sports events primarily for students with disabilities, such as Para sport, in 2016, which was held in collaboration with the faculty’s Equity Movement in the hopes of promoting inclusivity. The event included adapted bocce ball, seated volleyball, wheelchair basketball, and blindfolded soccer. 

Tracy Schmitt, a four-way amputee and Paralympic bronze medalist in alpine skiing, was a speaker at the event. She spoke about encouraging students to help sports become more accessible. By holding such events, KPE educates the attendees and gives those who are disabled a platform to be heard, seen, and represented.

UTSG students can also use Hart House’s website to find information on the types of accessibility support, such as elevators to all floors of the building. 

The future of inclusion 

There are many sports opportunities at U of T for students with disabilities, and there are many students with disabilities who are interested and determined to participate in them.

“I wouldn’t say it was more difficult to engage in sports and athletics,” says Bangyay. “I knew that I would be able to keep up with the team and my coaches because we all have that love for basketball.” A player’s attitude about their disabilities in an athletics context, of course, may vary according to the disabilities they live with, but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that everyone has passions and should have the opportunities to refine them. And sometimes, as Ellard points out, “it’s just about having fun playing adapted games.”

A lot can be done to create sports opportunities for people living with disabilities. U of T is off to a great start — but it can do more, from building more accessible gyms to having more sports clubs catered and marketed to those with disabilities.

We must continue to provide opportunities in sports for those with disabilities and build representation. “You shouldn’t be defined based [on] your disability,” Ellard said. “You should be defined based [on] your ability.” 

Disclosure: Simran Randhawa is a member of The Varsity’s Board of Directors.