Sport

Legal and sporting obligation to promote equality of opportunity among people with disability: Paul Lenehan

While Disability Sport NI has been leading the way in encouraging clubs to be more inclusive, there is still plenty of work to be done, writes sports lawyer Paul Lenehan...

Members of the Northern Ireland U19 Wheelchair team pictured at Girdwood Community Hub for the Disability Sport NI Launch Picture by Hugh Russell.
Paul Lenehan

“We had to make some difficult decisions… I think Special Olympics is an awesome organisation – one that is well supported by the philanthropic sector”

THIS was the evidence of the US Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos as she defended the Trump Administration’s decision to end public funding for the US Special Olympics programme before a US Senate Committee earlier this year. 272,000 affected children did not seem sufficiently important to warrant Government assistance. The rather ungracious U-turn in the wake of a rightfully stinging public reaction did little to repair the damage that goes far beyond the counting of dollars.

We now live in an era where primacy rests in the lowest common denominator; a Brexit fuelled utopia of populism and self interest. Too often our social and political discourse is presented and packaged as if equality and equality of opportunity should be considered gifts to be passed about at the whim of those in “power”. One manifestation of this sorry reality was billionaire, Donald Trump, cutting funding for Special Olympics.

Sport’s broad socio-economic reach makes it inevitable that sport and sports participants will get caught up in this tide of insular, narrow thinking. Closer to home, cuts in the name of austerity, have affected many sports, particularly those on the fringes, who rely so heavily on grants and financial assistance to function. Experience unfortunately tells us that all too often it is disability sports that are the first to suffer when the funding axe is wielded.

Yet, when we speak of equality, Northern Ireland could be considered one of the world’s most regulated jurisdictions. It seems we have “human rights” lawyers on every street corner. This is set against a backdrop where it cannot be in dispute that sport plays such a positive and profound role on individuals, communities and on broader society. With that being said, how can such vital opportunities for some of the most vulnerable members of our society be so easily swept aside in the manner which thankfully was the subject of Senate scrutiny?

Tucked away within the Northern Ireland Act - the statutory embodiment of the Good Friday Agreement – is Article 75. This provides a legal obligation on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between, amongst other things, persons with a disability and persons without. It therefore follows that it is simply not acceptable (or indeed legal) for Government, of whatever the level, to neglect matters of disability sports equality. There is a legal duty for Government to promote equality of opportunity in sport. Furthermore, and perhaps of greater importance, as a society we have a moral duty to challenge any deviation from those legal requirements as enshrined in the Northern Ireland Act.

It would be unfair to paint an overly negative picture when considering disability sports equality. While society cannot, and should not be complacent, there are many examples in Northern Ireland and beyond of disability sports programmes thriving.

Across Northern Ireland there is great work being done to promote disability sports from participation level right up to elite level. Disability Sport NI has been leading the charge in trying to encourage a more inclusive society through encouraging and supporting clubs and governing bodies to be more inclusive and through offering support to sporting facilities as regards improving accessibility. In recent times we have seen Tennis and Judo being awarded the Disability Sport NI Inclusive Sport Award in recognition of each sports inclusive approach to disability.

We also saw the launch of Belfast Amputee Football Club. All this bodes well for the future. These positive steps must form a solid foundation for continued growth and development in this area. As a society we cannot stand still.

The provision of sporting opportunities for all is something that should be non-negotiable. It is a measure of the standing of our society as to how we approach such matters. Equal opportunities are not a gift; they are a legal and moral imperative that goes to the very heart of what constitute the DNA of sport and sports participation.

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