Here at Hoops Connect we’re all about helping you to get into sport and fitness. But we’re also here to investigate the big issues in sport. With that in mind, we met with journalist, sportswoman and disability sports expert Gemma-Lou Stevenson, whose own experiences of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome has made her a passionate advocate of para-sports, and especially their portrayal in the media. 

 

Hi Gemma! Nice and general to start, but we have to start somewhere! Where do you think we’re at in the world of disability sport at the moment?

Hi! The London 2012 Paralympics were a turning point.

We have some brilliant national governing bodies who are so proactive at pushing their sports, they’re phenomenal.

Where we really saw the impact of the London 2012 Paralympics was at this year’s Para-Athletic Championships in London – just look at the amount of people who turned up.

The level of media coverage has really increased, and the audiences have grown so much as well.

 

It has to be a positive that we’re now getting some para-sport stars who are household names?

I do think it’s good – there was a time when I’d talk about tennis players and people didn’t have a clue who I was talking about.

Now with Alfie Hewett, Gordon Reid, Jordanne Whiley people know these names.

But that’s as much credit to the athletes themselves as it is the media. It’s such a big thing for Jonnie Peacock to be on Strictly, a massive step.

Hopefully he lasts all 12 weeks!

 

Gemma Stevenson
Gemma-Lou Stevenson has written for BBC Sport and runs her own para-sport online publication Para Chatter. (Image courtesy of Zara Tivey)

 

Do you think that increased exposure is having a positive affect one people outside of sport?

The legacy isn’t translating into real life – life on the street for someone who isn’t a Paralympian.

More could be done. I didn’t realise until I actually was in the chair what people were complaining about.

I will be full and frank, I have suffered disability hate crime. I have had people telling me to ‘understand my limitations’ as a wheelchair user. I was a teacher and I had people emailing me telling me it was disgraceful that I was teaching as a wheelchair user.

That is not the Paralympic legacy. The Paralympic legacy is that anybody can achieve what they want to.

 

That’s awful! How can coverage of para-sport improve to remove those barriers?

The ideal is that one day you won’t find the term ‘disability sport’ as a section on a sports website.

We’ll just see sport as sport. Don’t bring the disability into it. The big thing is for people to treat sport as sport.

I think that these sports can compete with able-bodied sport for public attention. People watch para-sport and go ‘wow’.

But that’s where the problem lies, they need to see it more. We need to get it on the television.

 

Definitely! Anything else?

There’s something in the disability community called ‘inspiration porn’, where you have to use a person’s disability to quantify the end result.

“Such and such lost the ability to walk when they were so old, now they’ve won this.” No – they’ve just won.

If they’ve won an athletics championship, they’ve won an athletics championship.

This idea that “such and such could barely stand and now they’ve got a degree” has been pummelled out by the media so much that that’s what people are used to seeing, so people have been convinced that that’s what they want.

Whereas somebody needs to take the bull by the horns and change that narrative.

 

 

What about the grassroots of para-sport – do you think the Paralympic legacy has given people more opportunities?

It’s got more disabled people playing sport.

The increased media coverage allows disabled people to see what they can do. And the national governing bodies are doing great things at the grassroots level.

I’m almost jealous of young people now because they have so much opportunity from such a young age!

We’re starting to see that coming through – you have somebody like Alfie Hewett who is in the top four wheelchair tennis players in the world and he’s only 19.

Players coming through now are a lot more savvy about how the system works and how they progress to that elite level.

There is so much more available at the grassroots level now, there’s so much more on these peoples’ doorsteps. It’s not necessarily that everybody gets to try every sport in every area, it’s that people get to try sport.

Sport is amazing at creating a community. It’s about developing social skills and keeping yourself as physically active as you can.

I think it’s going in the right direction – I don’t think it’s perfect but then again what is?

 

So how can it improve, and how can we get even more people into grassroots para-sports – besides downloading Hoops?

You’re seeing that the grassroots level is becoming more and more prevalent in this country, and there’s more and more people taking up para-sport.

One thing that I really hope improves is accessibility.

New leisure facilities that are being built are all doing wonderful things to encourage disabled people to come and join in. But the issue that still exists is proximity.

If a sports club is 40 minutes away, that is a much bigger commitment for a disabled person – a 40-minute journey becomes a two week planning exercise. It can provide a real barrier.

I think that’s the next step forward.

 

Hoops is now available in app stores, so you can use us to find opportunities for any sport or fitness activity you can think of. Simply click here to download the app for Android, and here for iOS – or search for Hoops Connect.

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