The gift of sport

Sport can provide disabled people with huge
opportunities for fulfilment and personal growth, says Peter White,
whose own experiences at a boarding school for blind children
taught him an array of skills.

Some of my most redeeming memories of the
otherwise unrelieved grimness of boarding school have to do with
sport. There were over a hundred visually-impaired children at my
first school in Bristol, with ages ranging from four to 20, but I
have never known a group of kids so universally wedded to sport of
every kind: soccer, cricket, rugby, the Wimbledon tennis
championships. If it involved competition, we followed it.

Back in the 1950s, not many of us had our own
individual radios and before any major sporting event the wireless
room began to fill up with youngsters trying to get close enough to
our very temperamental radio to be able to hear what was going on.
Our queuing and scrabbling for a place was every bit as manic as
the similar process I remember at university in the late 1960s for
the BBC’s Match of the Day, or Top of the Pops. Outsiders might
find it odd that blind youngsters whose dreams of playing as
centre-forward for Spurs, or scoring a century for England, were
even more unrealistic than most children’s, should even bother with
sport, but we did, to the exclusion of most other activities.

Part of the explanation is, I think, that
though sport has an undeniably large visual element, it has many
other things too that can be satisfyingly followed: quite apart
from the communicable excitement of the crowd, it has statistics,
it has shape and, unlike many aspects of life, it has a clear

We didn’t just confine our interest to
following it on the radio. Many of us went to matches. One of my
fondest childhood memories is my first experience of watching
Southampton play at The Dell, and particularly the first goal I
ever “heard” them score. The eruption of the crowd (not a
particularly big one in those days, but making a huge explosion of
sound), was the first time I had ever known grown-ups react with
such unbridled emotion, and I felt a part of it. I think I was
experiencing a seminal taste of inclusion, long before Tony Blair
made it a buzzword.

We played too, of course. There was not a game
imaginable that we could not find ways to adapt to our needs.
Cricket and football were played with balls that rattled, either by
putting bells or lead shot in them. We practised athletics either
by following a looped spool on a rope stretched between two posts,
and later, as we became more sophisticated, by being called from
the end of the track on a megaphone. “Left, Left, right!” our
games-master would bellow. When he stopped, you knew that the kid
in question had either completed the course, or crashed into the
nettles at the side of the track. And even less likely games, such
as tennis and rugby, though not played officially, were adapted by
us in our spare time. If we had to change the rules of games to
make them more “visually-impaired friendly”, then so be it. It did
not detract from our enjoyment of cricket that the ball had to
bounce twice before reaching the crease of a totally blind batsman,
or that the same player in the field was allowed to catch the ball
off one bounce; it was still cricket, as far as we were

The point is, this was not just fun. I am
quite convinced that amid all the official training of how to walk
about safely with a cane, nothing had a bigger effect on my
subsequent confidence and willingness to travel anywhere as an
adult, than the need to run to get a ball. If getting around is
presented as a lesson, a skill to be learned, and it is immediately
turned into a chore. But present it as necessary to score a goal,
or prevent a four going over the boundary, and suddenly you don’t
need to justify it, it becomes an imperative. The most worrying
aspect of integrated education I believe is the danger that
children will be sidelined in games, or at best given some token
involvement, at the cost of acquiring enormous physical confidence,
not to mention a lot of fun.

During the Paralympics, an interesting debate
blew up about whether there was a conflict between the relatively
high resources that had been directed toward sport, and other
facilities for disabled people. It was a fair point, but I thought
it was unfair to relate it only to disability. After all, you could
complain about the amount of cash and attention devoted to
mainstream sport.

What was very clear to me was that the
athletes I met at the paralympics, from the superstars like Tani
Grey-Thompson to the guy who won a medal for Boccia, a sport for
disabled people which has very little attention even in paralympic
terms, were on the whole supremely confident and fulfilled. That
came directly from the sport they play, and it is unlikely that,
for most of them, it could have been achieved to such an extent in
any other way.  

Peter White is the BBC’s disability
affairs correspondent.

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