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Inclusive sports and inclusive sports facilities – still a long way to go
Inclusion and inclusive infrastructure design are still very topical issues. On the one hand, this is very positive and shows that people are aware of the issue and also want to promote it. On the other hand, however, it also shows that we are not making as much progress as we would like to and that there are still clear deficits.
Competitive sport and inclusion are basically at odds with each other, because we have not yet quite succeeded in taking the step from integration to inclusion. Of course, there have been Paralympic Games, Special Olympics and inclusive sporting activities in clubs for many years, and the Paralympics in particular have even received a great deal of public attention, but the idea of inclusion has so far only played a minor role in competitive sports. For inclusion actually means: all together. That means that all people do sports together – people with and without disabilities, young and old, men, women and gender-diverse people. Admittedly, in Germany, for example, even non-disabled athletes are allowed to participate in wheelchair basketball. Mixed-gender teams are also allowed to play there. So, it is already very inclusive. Yet, this ends at international level. The Paralympic classification rules describe how severe an impairment must be for an athlete to be considered eligible, and a large number of "minimal disabilities", as they are termed, are a thorn in the IPC's side. The sport could even be excluded from future games if the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation does not implement the IPC's stricter criteria. So much for inclusion. On the other hand, the ban on long jumper Markus Rehm from competing at the Tokyo Olympic Games caused a stir. The Paralympic athlete wanted to compete with able-bodied athletes at the Olympics and, since his prosthetic leg is defined as an unauthorized aid, he even wanted to do so outside of official competition. However, even the latter was rejected, despite its great symbolic significance. What is the much-cited (supposed) Olympic creed? “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part" – well, there seem to be limits after all.
Competitive sport on the whole is definitely far from being inclusive, and there doesn't seem to be much of an effort to achieve true inclusion. People with or without disabilities, women or men and sometimes also different age groups – they mostly remain separated and divided into classes as before. The main reason given for this is the fairness in sporting competition, which is understandable to a certain extent. However, classifying athletes into separate competition categories, even if it is only disabled and able-bodied, is not entirely in line with the concept of inclusion.
Thus, it is mainly amateur, popular and recreational sports that provide truly inclusive sporting activities. Most sports associations also advocate and explicitly promote inclusive sports programmes and have even developed brochures for clubs, which provide suggestions and basic information. A lot of sports clubs already have inclusive sports groups. However, it will take a lot of awareness-raising and development work to establish nationwide programmes. Public funding may also prove helpful in this respect. The “Index für Inklusion im und durch Sport" (Index for Inclusion in and through Sport) developed by the National Paralympic Committee Germany (https://www.dbs-npc.de/sport-index-fuer-inklusion.html) reads on page 15, among other things: “For us, inclusion in sport means on the one hand that every person can choose what kind of physical activity, play and sport they want to engage in in their own environment according to their individual wishes and requirements, and that they can participate in these activities in a self-determined manner and on an equal footing. (…) However, it is not about everyone having to do sport together, but about individual needs being taken into account. Everyone should be able to express their wishes and exercise their right to choose.” This approach, too, is certainly very positive, but, nonetheless, the question arises as to whether this is sufficient for real inclusion or whether it once again tends to favour a "class division". It is understandable that not all sports opportunities must necessarily be open to everyone, but in keeping with the principle of inclusion, this should at least not be excluded in each individual case and should be promoted in principle. However, there is a long and winding road ahead. Therefore, it is of course important to actually provide a range of facilities and opportunities for all interested parties to engage in inclusive sports in the first place. At the level of amateur, recreational and popular sports, there is the opportunity to offer and try out new ways and possibilities of engaging in many common sports in an inclusive manner. However, this requires the appropriate infrastructure to be in place.
Which brings us to the sports facilities. This is another field that frequently fails to comply with the requirements of inclusion, and the deficits here are usually even more serious. The much-cited refurbishment backlog in the sports facilities sector is in itself a problem, so that it is hardly surprising that inclusive design is not making any headway.
In 2019, the Berlin network "Sport & Inclusion" published a “Kriterienkatalog für zukünftige inklusiv nutzbare Sportbereiche” (List of Criteria for Future Inclusive Sports Facilities) (https://cdn.dosb.de/user_upload/Inklusion-sport.de/PDFs/Kriterienkatalog_fu__r_inklusiv_nutzbare_Sportsta__tten_2.pdf), summarizing many aspects and requirements of inclusive sports facility construction. The aim is to design sports facilities, whether indoor, outdoor or indoor swimming pools, in such a way that as many people as possible can use them – both actively and passively as spectators. The focus is not only on accessibility, but also on accommodating the needs of people with various impairments and disabilities: e.g. people in wheelchairs, with motor disabilities, with limited sensory perception or mental disabilities. As many people as possible should be able to use a sports facility, they should feel safe and comfortable there, they should be able to find their way around and change, they should be able to use the sanitary facilities, they should be able to get to and from the facility without structural restrictions or routes that are not suitable for them and, last but not least, of course, they should be able to fully practise their sport on site. The list of criteria is extensive and shows that there are many requirements for an inclusive sports facility. In the future, sports facility construction must address these requirements to achieve an inclusive sports facility structure. Only if the sports facilities are inclusive, can inclusive sporting activities take place there. In the future, such criteria should be taken into account in the promotion of sports facility construction in order to meet the requirements of inclusion.
Inclusive design must also be taken into account outside the “standardized” sports facilities. For even in informal sport, all athletes should and must be able to use the infrastructure on offer. This applies to multi-use games areas, trend sports facilities, fitness trails or skate parks. Everyone should have the opportunity to exercise there. For example, there are wheelchair users who would like to use calisthenics facilities or skate parks. The structural design can easily allow for such options. However, it is often the access routes and the surrounding infrastructure that prevent people with disabilities from getting to the sports facilities in the first place. By the way, seating and toilets are also part of an inclusive design; those who cannot stand for long periods of time or have to go to the toilet frequently also have impairments that need to be taken into account. Public space is for everyone and should also offer something for everyone, including sports infrastructure.
Although there is still a lot of room for improvement regarding inclusive sports and inclusive sports facilities, society has also embraced these issues. Even though competitive sport is struggling with change, sports associations and clubs are already providing facilities and opportunities and breaking new ground. It is important to support this positive trend and to dismantle old, encrusted structures so that new, progressive and inclusive approaches can be adopted. A key factor in this is providing an infrastructure of inclusive sports facilities, which is fundamental to this development. Exercise areas in public spaces must also increasingly meet the requirements of inclusion. After all, the aim must be to enable everyone, and above all everyone together, to engage in sports.
Finally, for those interested, here is a reference to a current study conducted by the University of Mainz on a project to promote inclusion in sports club work: https://www.lsb-rlp.de/sites/default/files/2021-11/sportinkllotsen_0711_ansicht_klein.pdf