“I forget I have a disability”:

Understanding young peoples’ experiences in disability sport and active recreation in Aotearoa New Zealand.

This week, after 3 years and 11 days, I submitted by PhD thesis to the University of Waikato. It has been an amazing journey which allowed me to follow my passion as a practitioner into the academic realm. The abstract below from my thesis provides the outline of what I have researched and the findings.

The narratives of Quinn, Andrew, Gaby and Ella, corroborated by their parents and coaches/leaders, show the need for approaches underpinned by the principles of accessibility, flexibility and understanding, connecting practice to policy.


In Aotearoa NZ, although 1 in 4 people identify as disabled, participation rates of YPwI in sport and active recreation is lower than their non-disabled peers. Over the last 80 years, the Aotearoa NZ Government has been aware of this disparity and has attempted through policy intervention to increase participation. However, the Aotearoa NZ sport system is inherently ableist and these policies have been ineffectual. Fortunately, opportunities for YPwI to participate in sport and active recreation do exist especially at the local club level.

Drawing on the social relational model of disability, I give agency to the voices of four young people with impairments (YPwI), their parents and coaches/leaders. Through their lived experiences in sport and active recreation, these participants present unique narratives on how participating with non-disabled young people have shaped the YPwI’s experiences. From their experiences, I sought to understand how sport organisations can improve opportunities for YPwI’s participation within a sport system dominated by ableism and where discrimination through disablism goes unchallenged.

The sport system, as a reflection of society, has a responsibility to address the inherent ableism endemic within sport and active recreation and reposition disability as a priority. Building on previous research focused on personal and societal barriers and constraints to participation, I challenge the dominance of activity adaptation and modification as a means for systemic change. To achieve an anti-ableist sport system, what is needed is more fundamental – an improved understanding of disability, flexibility around prescriptive ableist standards and rules, and increased accessibility to opportunities where YPwI can exhibit their capabilities. Integral to providing quality opportunities for YPwI, change in how the sport system considers and represents YPwI, from policy through to practice. I caution organisations to avoid enlightened ableism – where what is said and what is done are misaligned.

I present an anti-ableist framework, co-created with the YPwI, as a way of improving disability sport provision in Aotearoa NZ that enables the social relational model to be actualised within a sport and active recreation context. The framework presented encapsulates three levels – individual, organisation and system – premised on enhancing the knowledge and understanding of disability, creating more flexibility around what participation means to YPwI and how deliverers of sport and active recreation, regardless of size or capacity, can work individually and/or collaboratively to provide more opportunities for YPwI. 

I concluded my thesis with these final words from Ella, who advises YPwI to

be free just for yourself. Don’t like um, don’t worry about what other people think because that’s going to limit you […]. People should be able to accept us the way we are.

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