Speaking On The Debate To Increase Sporting Opportunities For Those With Disabilities PDF Print E-mail

I support the motion.  As we are seeking the support of local district councils, I will declare an interest as a member of Carrickfergus Borough Council , although that will not deter me from giving it my touch if needed, as it is a stakeholder in this important area of sports development.

I recognise the work of the Minister, the Department, Sport NI and Disability Sports NI to date in trying to develop and increase the opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in competitive sport and, of equal importance, to take part in general physical recreation.

There are many facets to the issue.  Although in the euphoria of the games we hail the successes of the Michael McKillops and the Jason Smyths, there is also the other end of the scale, which is perhaps the weekly participation in a game of bocce.  It is a sport that provides people with special needs the opportunity to have social contact, develop physically and gain self-confidence, which can make all the difference to someone's weekly routine.

However, there is much more to do.  The success of our athletes in the Paralympic Games gives us the springboard to raise the game.  I welcome the monetary awards to Disability Sport NI for increased participation development, and the financial support to Special Olympics Ulster for its ongoing work with people with learning difficulties.  Now is the time when the Department must be prepared to dig deep if we are serious about ensuring a lasting legacy.

At central government level, the benefits are cross-departmental.  Perhaps today we can begin to make a real difference by harnessing all the expertise in sport, education, health, etc, and establishing a legacy working group that is intent on taking sport to a new level by grasping the nettle and really bringing the Sport Matters strategy to life.

Local district councils are crucial partners in the scenario as local delivery units for leisure and sport.  Much work has been done by many councils that can be acknowledged and applauded, but a fresh overview in light of the motion would not go amiss.  Indeed, on the negative side, a council in my constituency has suddenly put pounds before provision.  It does not fully understand that leisure and sports facilities will never be money-making ventures; they will mainly incur costs to the ratepayer.  A balance must be struck, even in these times of austerity, but that council and its new management appears to be solely focused on balance sheets.  For example, the income from sports development programmes, instead of being reinvested in the same area of work, is now being used to offset deficiencies in other areas of its budget, thus giving a false impression.  It is an opportunity missed to invest in exactly the issues that are before us today.

Facility use is another area in which councils could step up to the mark.  I have a perfect example of opportunities being missed; it is one locally, where a high-spec astro turf floodlit facility can lie unused at times, particularly during off-peak periods.  Surely, instead of chasing mainstream sports, which may be more financially lucrative, programmes and initiatives could be developed in what would be a safe and secure surrounding.  Local government needs to think outside the box.  Hopefully, today's motion can change the mindset of those who have not yet got it.

If there is anything to come out of the success of the Paralympics and the successes of our individual athletes and their heroic performances, it is and should be an end to the prejudice suffered by people with disabilities in our society.  All too often, when disabled people are attempting to normalise their lives — and sport is a great vehicle to do that — they are treated appallingly.  It comes from all quarters of our society, and it still exists.  If we can end those prejudices and change the mindset of those who are in positions of influence and who cannot acknowledge and see the benefits of people with disabilities' participation in sport, that will be a real legacy.