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.

Latest stories

Related stories

The debate over transgender athletes’ rights is testing the current limits of science and the law

The petition presented to parliament last week calling for trans women to be excluded from…

Professor Tahu Kukutai

Immigration debate: Lack of planning catching up to us

Leading demographer says Covid-19 has exposed short-sighted population approach; calls for Māori interests to be…


A different style of coaching pays off for Morgan

According to wakeboarding champion and University of Waikato alumna Morgan Haakma, a great coach can…

Petrie dish

University of Waikato researchers win funds to help fight superbugs

University of Waikato scientists have today received a boost in the battle against antimicrobial-resistant germs.


Inspiring others is motivation enough for Kristie

By studying what she was interested in, Kristie Baillie developed a genuine interest in people…


Chair role enables Engineering to advance at the University of Waikato

Thanks to a philanthropically-funded position at the University of Waikato, Professor in Engineering Mike Duke…

New app keeps students on their toes at National Biomechanics Day

Tauranga secondary school students gained an appreciation of biomechanics, along with a challenging calf workout,…

University of Waikato launches new artificial intelligence research institute

The University of Waikato is bringing data to life, positioning New Zealand as an international…

Students outside Tauranga Campus

Waikato ranked top 60 in the world for research that impacts economic growth and reducing inequality

The University of Waikato has been ranked in the top 60 universities in the world…

AI story

University of Waikato installs the world’s most advanced AI System

New Zealand’s most powerful supercomputer for artificial intelligence applications has been installed at the University…

Professor Craig Cary

Waikato scientist part of team awarded prestigious Human Frontier grant

Professor Craig Cary has travelled to volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean and…

Carma Maisey

Teachers get boost into Masters study thanks to University of Waikato Programme

Matamata Primary School teacher Carma Maisey credits the University of Waikato’s Poutama Pounamu Blended Learning…