One month ago, I wrote ENIL’s submission for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, regarding the implementation of article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), on access to sports and leisure. My whole heart went into this assignment, because I am an athlete. It also broke a bit with every new email I received while I was gathering data from several countries across Europe and as I remembered my own experiences.

While there are exceptions to the rule, physical activity is not considered an important part of life for disabled people.  Obstacles arise on every level, from playgrounds and public venues to schools, gyms, and further, all the way up to national and Olympic level training centers and stadiums. So, how are we expected to stay active, or even achieve greatness, when the very start of a disabled child’s exposure to physical activity will be either in a therapy setting or full of setbacks, too big for the child’s dreams? It seems disabled athletes are still seen as a novelty and not held to the same standard non-disabled athletes are.

There are some accessible playgrounds in Serbia, several short, adapted nature trails in Hungary and beaches in Spain, but many more remain out of reach. The laws in place regarding access to recreational, leisure and physical activity are mostly not implemented. The biggest obstacles in all the countries are lack of funding, adequate infrastructure and services, as well as lack of public awareness on this topic. When we travel, my karate team and I are always praised, yet so many times we have been treated as fragile and turned away from activities because of our differences. Every time this does not happen is a small victory, but still, the overall impression is that the implementation of legislation meant to free us is just a mirage.

Throughout my school years, I was exempted from Physical Education (PE) classes, and I thought it was normal. It was not until my last two years in high school that I wondered why I was not allowed to at least try some of the activities. Confirming my experience is the information that, in most countries, there is some form of guarantee for children and young adults to be enrolled in mainstream education and PE classes on an equal basis; however, there is a significant discrepancy between the policies in place and their implementation. Once again, everything circles back to awareness. The lack of inclusion is mostly present due to the lack of education of teaching staff, or inaccessibility of facilities, as well as the lack of funding. University classes regarding sports for the disabled most often follow the medical model of disability, creating a climate of perceivable fear of different approaches and individual alternative solutions to obstacles that present themselves.

Paralympic committees do the hardest work, promoting sports at the national level. This is the best form of exposure to sports disabled youth can access. Non-Olympic sports are in a worse position, yet fighting constantly to draw attention to things that are so rarely visible outside of our own little disabled community bubble. The departments in charge of promotion of competitive sports are mostly integrated in Slovenia, Malta and Spain, while in Serbia and Hungary it depends on the sport in question. Taking this into consideration, another barrier presents itself to any disabled person who wants to become a competitive athlete. Finding a sport that incudes them, suits them and excites them, with a strong team of people around them to help them through. I consider myself lucky, because martial arts departments are fully integrated within mainstream federations in all cases, however there is a lack of adequate adaptation of competitive categories which exclude many types of disabilities from national or continental competitions. Until 2019, people with cerebral palsy were not on the list of eligible conditions for the “Wheelchair users” category. Needless to say, this is the only category for people with physical disabilities.

Whether the competition will follow the same structure as those of non-disabled athletes also depends on the sport. There are gaps in the rulebooks, in the knowledge, interest, media coverage and, once again, funding. This results in a smaller number of competitions for disabled people, compared to the general population. The initiative to have competitions for the disabled at the same time with mainstream competitions depends on the department, or even more likely, individual clubs and coaches’ willingness to organise such events. When it comes to martial arts, the general tendency is to hold mainstream and para competitions simultaneously, but this is thanks to the strong initiative by the coaches themselves. Higher level mainstream competitions still remain inaccessible to disabled athletes.

Another important point is that disabled people are rarely considered outside of their roles as competitors, even though I know many who have the qualities of great judges or coaches, for example. In the near future, I hope to become a licenced karate coach. I would, to my knowledge, be the first to do so in my country. This career path is possible in Spain or Malta, but in Serbia and Hungary it requires a bit of ingenuity, and maybe even madness.

After all that I have said, one may ask themselves, what keeps us going then? So many times, disabled children and adults face the empty rooms and empty stands together with the athletes during promotional events. There is not enough funding, or media coverage, to get large numbers of disabled and non-disabled people involved in this issue, so things would change. I still vividly remember the empty stands I faced during the European Para Karate Championships in 2018. The only people in the room were the judges, some of the other competitors, coaches, and our families. The only applause I heard, although so strong it felt like the ground was shaking, came from them.

In spite of it all, I wouldn’t ever change my decision to become a competitive athlete. I have the best team and coaches I could ever imagine. All the people working on the ground in disability sports are some of the best I have ever met. They see the person, not the disability. They will find your strengths, not your weaknesses. They will show you who you are without the label. And ultimately, sooner than you may think, in spite of all the challenges, you will see it too.

Written by Nina Portolan, European Solidarity Corps volunteer at ENIL