How to create a more equitable future for women with a disability in sport

On top of the excruciating chronic pain, limited walking ability, and constant brain fog, what was the most devastating to me at the time was that I could no longer play the game I love. Basketball was one of the most important parts of my life. It felt like I had lost part of my identity.

ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

In 2012, my life was abruptly up-ended after a planned routine hip surgery instead uncovered something far worse, which resulted in disability.

On top of the excruciating chronic pain, limited walking ability, and constant brain fog, what was the most devastating to me at the time was that I could no longer play the game I love.

Basketball was one of the most important parts of my life. It felt like I had lost part of my identity.

Then someone suggested playing wheelchair basketball. The thought had never really crossed my mind as, like most people, I assumed you had to use a wheelchair full-time.

But this person assured me that actually people with many different types of disability played wheelchair basketball, including many people like me.

So, I went and tried it out. And it was incredible — I could play sport again.

When I began, I could barely push the chair around, and I when I tried to shoot I could barely hit the ring, but it gave me a chance to regain my sense of purpose.

I was quickly invited to attend an Australian team camp, and nine years later I became captain of the Australian Gliders at the Tokyo Paralympics.

But it wasn’t just the actual game of basketball that was important in regaining my sense of self.

My experience playing with the Australian Gliders has helped me come to terms with my disability and learn from others in how to negotiate living in a world that still puts up barriers for so many people with a disability.

While my experience has been great, the overall picture is not so rosy. Just 19 per cent of women with a disability are involved in organised sport, compared to 34 per cent of non-disabled women and 27 per cent of men with a disability.

At the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, the Australian team was made up of 43.6 per cent women-identified athletes. While that may have been above the worldwide average of 42.08 per cent, it was still below the Australian Olympic team, which comprised of 54 per cent women.

Paralympics Australia has recently released a strategic plan that includes an impassioned plea to invest in disability sport.

Pointing out that “of the 4.3 million people with a disability, only one in four participates in sport, while three in four want to participate,” Paralympics Australia has rightly identified the need to change the sporting landscape to ensure a more equitable future.

However, how can this future be equitable if women or gender diverse people with a disability are left behind?

Part of the problem is that too often sporting organisations consider women and people with disabilities as two distinct categories, and they compose their diversity and inclusion plans accordingly.

Funding, resources, and planning are often tied to one area of diversity (for example, just focusing on race, gender, cultural diversity), ignoring the reality that people’s identities have different and intersecting facets.

As there has been increased investment in growing women’s sport, organisations have developed women and girls’ strategies to ensure they can be part of the growing movement.

However, almost all of these have a glaring oversight — the existence of women and girls with a disability.

On the other hand, strategies to include people with disabilities rarely mention women and girls.

The result of this is that implicitly, women are assumed to be able-bodied and people with disabilities who want to participant in sport are assumed to be men.

The distinct struggles that women with disabilities face are thus invisible, with very limited strategies to specifically engage them in sport.

Opening up opportunities

We know that women and girls with a disability have less support than men with a disability in the sporting world, and parents and medical professionals tend to doubt their physical capabilities.

Women and girls are often forced to play in mixed-gender teams, often with a wide age range of participants from children to adults.

While some women and girls thrive in this environment, it can be confronting for others to participate when men can often be dismissive of women’s skills or reluctant to fully involve them.

The women and girls that do manage to overcome these barriers and engage in sport repeatedly challenge this scepticism, showing the world what a disabled body can do, rather than what it cannot.

Last month it was announced that Australia would host the men’s and women’s 2023 IFCPF Asia-Oceania Cup (Para Asian Cup), the first time the event has been held for women.

That follows the first ever Women’s World Cup for Para Football in 2022.

At the same time, the Australian women’s wheelchair basketball team were in Canberra for a selection camp for the upcoming World Championships, hosted in Dubai from June 9–20.

The week before, Australia sent three representatives to Paris for the Wheelchair Rugby Women’s Cup, Ella Sabljak, Shae Graham and Rubie Gallagher.

As wheelchair rugby is generally a mixed-gender sport, this is the only international wheelchair rugby event exclusively for women, and the Australian trio joined a mixed-nations team that played against Great Britain and Canada.

Sport allows women and girls with a disability to push the limits of their bodies and challenge the idea that women with a disability are weak.

We know that sport can have benefits for everyone, including body competence, leadership skills, and friendships.

For women with a disability, it can have additional benefits, allowing them to build a communal space with others who are going through similar things and face similar barriers, allowing them to share information and experiences, and build an essential community.

My own experience proves the value of this.

The 2 million women and girls in Australia with a disability deserve to experience this, and we need to change the sporting world to allow them to do so.

We need to move away from siloed thinking that considers people with a disability and women to be two separate categories, and instead move towards an intersectional approach that considers all aspects of a person’s identity.

We need to fill the gaps in our sporting system that allow women with a disability to be overlooked.

We also need significantly more research on women’s disability sport, something Griffith University is aiming to change.

Griffith has started the process by conducting a co-design workshop, where people with a disability have shared their ideas along with academics, service providers, and others to help design and pitch a research project.

Rather than a top-down approach, where non-disabled academics come up with the ideas without consultation, this kind of participatory research allows women with a disability to have a say in their own lives and what research they need to support their sporting goals.

We need to develop ways for women with disability to be able to engage with sport, whether they want to represent Australia like me or just play for fun with friends.

With the Brisbane 2032 Paralympics fast approaching, we need to ensure our conversations about disability equity and gender equity do not remain separate and that women with a disability are fully included.

Georgia Munro-Cook is the captain of the Australian women’s wheelchair basketball team, and holds a PhD in History and Gender Studies, with a focus on the WNBA, from the University of Sydney. She is a research fellow at Griffith University’s Inclusive Futures: Reimagining Disabilities Beacon. 

Major Partners