University research aims to break down barriers for disabled athletes

30 October 2019

Dr Robert Townsend
Dr Robert Townsend is looking to create opportunities in disability sport through research.

Major research is underway at the University of Waikato designed to offer more sport and recreation opportunities to New Zealand’s disability community, and deliver more coaches into the field.

University of Waikato lecturer, Dr Robert Townsend, is helping to drive long-term research into New Zealand’s disability sport sector, overseeing three doctoral students awarded special scholarships by the University.

“Our disability sector in New Zealand is currently underserved in research and we just don’t know enough about what’s happening. This research is about making our sport and recreation opportunities more accessible for all New Zealanders, and helping to break down barriers as we do it.”

Dr Townsend said one of the major barriers to sport for disabled people is the provision of high-quality coaching. The research would also explore what the barriers are for New Zealand coaches entering the workforce.

“We’re doing this to better understand sports coaches, and to include and support disabled people at the elite medal winning level, and also at the community level for the health and wellbeing of our disability community,” Dr Townsend said.

The research will examine three key areas:

  • Policies and practices that support inclusion in disability sport and active recreation
  • Coach development in disability sport
  • The welfare of Para athletes.

Researchers will work alongside the Halberg Foundation, Paralympics New Zealand, Special Olympics New Zealand, Sport Waikato, and Parafed Organisations in New Zealand.

“We know there are pockets of amazing work happening within all these organisations. Our research will also help bring more insight and direction into what’s being delivered.”

Dr Townsend has examined similar issues in the United Kingdom where he completed his PhD at Loughborough University.

“A major barrier to accessing sport and physical activity for disabled people is a lack of knowledge and understanding of disability,” he says.

“Coaches often talk about the fear of the unknown. The fear of doing or saying the wrong things, or even the fear of injuring the participants, are barriers to entering the disability coaching workforce.

“Talking about these barriers is often the first major step in breaking them down, but we need better education and development support for coaches.”

Other barriers for participants often came through access to sports facilities themselves.

“Not all pools have hoists. Some gyms still have stairs as access, and obviously changing all these things come at a significant cost to organisations which can also be a barrier.”

He said there is a real drive in New Zealand to be an inclusive society and, given sport’s potential to disrupt what we might see as negative perceptions around disability, it was certainly time for New Zealand to be looking more closely at the disability sport sector.

Dr Townsend is also working on a co-production project with athletes, coaches and other stakeholders from Special Olympics and Parafed Auckland to develop resources for coaches working in the disability sector, which they hope to launch early next year.

“We’re looking at producing resources for coaches, including infographics that draw directly from the voices of disabled athletes to help shape how disability coaching can be developed,” Dr Townsend said.

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