Disabled and non-disabled children and adults play table tennis together.

“It’s not just about sport, it’s about accepting people for who they are”

John Willis is the founder and Chief Executive of Power to Inspire, a charity all about inclusion through sport, based in Cambridge. He was born without fully formed arms and legs, and last year he took on a challenge to try all 34 Olympic and Paralympic sports.

In this blog he talks about changing attitudes and why sport for all is so important.

I was interested in sport from a very young age. Unfortunately, there weren’t many opportunities to get involved in sport at school.

A few years ago I was nagged by a friend into doing a Triathlon relay – I did the swim. We had a great time and it showed that disabled people and non-disabled people can do sport together, you just have to design it and think about it and adapt it.

John Willis, a disabled man with foreshortened arms and legs, waits on a diving board for the signal to dive into the pool, in front of an audience of adults and children
John waiting on a diving board for the signal to dive into the pool.

I did another challenge the following year – 50 1000 meter swims in 116 days – which was quite something and it took me all around the country. I spoke to well over 3000 children and adults about sport. I set up Power to Inspire to take this even further.

Changing attitudes at an early age

Through Power to Inspire, we go into schools and clubs and talk to kids about inclusive sport and we got our games going in schools last year. Everybody seems to have great fun – from mainstream kids learning about inclusive sport to running mixed games where we take mainstream kids into SEN schools.

At one session, we turned to the P.E. teachers and said “Everyone seems to be having a fantastic time, you must always be in and out of each other’s schools with being just down the road from each other” and they said “We’ve never been in each other’s schools before”. So we’re breaking down barriers.

Children trying out new sports like archery and goalball.
Children trying out new sports like VI football and floor lacrosse

It’s fantastic to see kids learning together. It’s not just about sport, it’s about accepting people for who they are. There’s a real demand for our games in schools. We want to keep doing more of it and spread the word. We’re also talking to various clubs about doing big accessible events.

2012 created a huge change in this country. There wasn’t acknowledgment of disability discrimination a few years ago, it was just the norm. Now people are aware it exists. There’s been a massive change. Seeing more disability sport, people on the telly, it’s becoming more accepted in mainstream culture now. People look at Jonny Peacock as a fabulous athlete first, and disabled second.

Outside of the Paralympics, things do get better but it’s like a tide. The water reaches further up the beach each time, but it does go back. What we need to do is create some blockages so the water doesn’t go back so far and we can push it further.

John, a disabled man with foreshortened arms paddles his kayak on the River Cam
John Willis practicing kayaking on the River Cam

Sport is for everyone, full stop

The camaraderie of sport is amazing, with fans of all sports all over the world. That common enthusiasm, I don’t think you quite get that anywhere else.

I set myself a goal last year to try all 34 Olympic and Paralympic sports. I had an absolute blast. I fell in love with far too many of them. There is a sport for everyone and Sport for All emphasises that for me. The work I do with children, once they’ve worked out a way to do something, they just think let’s get on with it and the see the person, not the disability. I want everybody to be able to play and to be able to compete. If you can create that exhilaration of pushing yourself, it doesn’t matter what level you’re at.

Sport is available to everyone full stop. It’s just a question of finding out what you like and finding out where you can do it. And find friends, not just disabled people, but friends who are passionate about that particular sport. Last year I ended up playing tennis which I never thought I’d do. The equipment is available and can be adapted, it just takes a bit of imagination. There’s no such thing as “can’t” – all there is, is working out how to do it. Just take a small step. It all starts with a small step.

Making sport more inclusive

This summer, the World ParaAthletics Championships and the five year anniversary of the London 2012 Paralympic Games gave us an opportunity to champion inclusive sport.

As part of our mission for Everyday equality, we ran a ‘Sport For All’ series to encourage better representation of disability in sport. Over the past few weeks we:

  • shared blogs from storytellers,
  • celebrated the incredible athletes involved in the ParaAthletics on social media,
  • showcased accessible challenge events,
  • did a Facebook Live with Richard Whitehead,
  • and shared some new research which showed that a quarter (28%) of disabled people did not feel the Paralympics delivered a positive legacy for disabled people.

Please help us continue the conversation by championing inclusive sport and challenging negative attitudes. Read more Sport For All blogs and catch up with all of our activity using #SportForAll on our Twitter.

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