First disability coaching degree will produce generation of teachers trained to help aspiring Paralympians

The Sports Coaching Science with Disability Sport BSc was introduced by the University of Worcester in the afterglow of the London 2012 Paralympics

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mark Stevens was 15 months old when his parents had to make the agonising decision to allow doctors to cut off his legs.

Born without tibia bones and knee and ankle joints, their son would spend his life in a wheelchair, the doctors said. But if his legs were amputated to just above the knee, he would be able to walk with the use of prosthetic aids.

"They made the right decision," says Mark, now 21, who has not let the double amputation keep him away from sport. Football, volleyball, swimming, cycling – he tried it all and is now a key member of his university's wheelchair basketball team and a coach at local schools.

He is also an accomplished swimmer and surfer. Having learned to surf through Freedom Surf, a charity in Cornwall, he now helps teach other disabled people to master the waves each summer at Fistral Beach in Newquay.

Mark is one of 38 students on the UK's first degree in disability sport, launched by the University of Worcester. The Sports Coaching Science with Disability Sport BSc was introduced last year in the afterglow of the London 2012 Paralympics and builds on the optional modules on disability sport that began seven years ago.

The Institute promotes sport for disabled students on campus, with its students helping to run university clubs and teams. They also go into local schools, clubs and activity centres as coaches.

Interest has been fuelled by the success of the London 2012 Paralympics, says Dave Padgen, the national disability sport development officer for BUCS, the body that promotes sport in higher education. Next September, a second university, St Mark and St John in Plymouth, will offer a specialised Disability Sport degree as part of its BA Sport Development programme.

"The extensive media coverage of the Paralympics changed the game completely. I don't think you can underestimate its importance," says Padgen, a former Paralympic javelin thrower. "More resources are being ploughed in and now the challenge is to connect it in the most effective way with disabled people."

It was the experience of working with disabled teenagers who were depressed about their quality of life that led Glyn Harding, Worcester's principal lecturer in Sports Coaching Science, to introduce the disability sport modules. "I was a youth worker and a coach and I thought, why not get these kids into sport?

"Around a tenth of students in higher education have a disability and they probably did not have a good experience at school in PE but they can try different sports at university with three years to develop them."

A lack of facilities for disabled students in older university buildings is one of the things holding back progress. This year Harding got his dream of fully inclusive sports facilities when the university opened its 2,000-seat arena designed to accommodate disabled players. Open to local clubs, it is also the training base for the GB men's and women's wheelchair basketball teams.

Only six of the 38 students on the new degree course are themselves disabled, and Mark believes the Paralympics helped to change the public's perception. "Stereotypes have not gone away but they have changed a little bit. The Paralympic message was that you have a disability but you can compete with the best. More people will now see disabled people as high-class athletes."

His father Brian, from St Ives, Cornwall, says his only son has been "sports mad" since he was a child. "He used to ask us, 'when will I have proper legs?' and I told him the truth. That he would always have his special legs. We wanted him to realise that he had to get on with what he had and that's what he did. He just takes on life and inspires others," he says.

"We didn't mollycoddle him. Mark would go out playing sport with his mates but it really took off for him when he went to Truro College at 16. Its sports department provides opportunities for disabled students to get involved, and Mark became a member of the college swimming academy and the Cornwall Cougars wheelchair basketball club."

It was the lack of opportunities for disabled people to access gyms and sports clubs that led to 10 years in the wilderness for Will Norman, the five-a-side blind footballer who played for the GB team in both the Beijing and London Paralympic Games.

As a child he had enough sight to play sports – from mountain biking to surfing, football, cricket and athletics. "I was one of those people on the go from dawn till dusk, sucking up as many opportunities to be active as I could," says Will, a communications officer at the University of Worcester.

But he got little support at his mainstream primary school, where he was excluded from PE, and made to learn typing instead because his handwriting was considered not up to scratch. He was able to play sports for a while at a secondary school for the visually impaired until his sight deteriorated. "I was left with nothing, at about the age of 18. It was very difficult. I went through a period of around 10 years when I didn't participate in sport in any sustained or enjoyable way."

Having gained a degree in English from the University of Central Lancashire and then an MA in critical theory and philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University, he got a job with Worcester, initially as a widening participation officer.

Visiting a school, he started chatting with Glyn Harding, who was conducting a coaching session. "He told me a member of staff was coaching blind footballers. I went along and there were enough of us to form a club. In my first tournament I was spotted by the GB manager who invited me to a GB training camp. Six months later, I was on a plane to Beijing and the 2008 Paralympics," he said.

Since the London Paralympics there has been a lot of talk about legacy and projects, campaigns and funding, but it won't necessarily touch the lives of individuals, he says. "You can have all the opportunities you want for disabled people to get involved in sport but if they feel disempowered and undervalued by society, they are not going to have the confidence to engage," says Will.

"We need a society that has the emotional intelligence to at least try and understand the challenges – not simply say, 'That is too complicated. I'm going to classify that as not-me and forget about it because I lead a very busy life'."

Able-bodied students on the degree course say that even if they don't follow careers in disability sport, they want to be able to include people with disabilities. With an eye to the competitive graduate jobs market, they also think widening their portfolio will help their careers. "The opportunities we get to work with athletes with disabilities is massive and it makes you more versatile and more employable," says Vicki Huckle, 20, who teaches adaptive rowing in local special schools.

There is a lot of ignorance about disability, says Josh Hanley, 22. "You hear such ignorant comments, people who think that disabled people cannot possibly be Olympians because the Olympics are for superior beings, the elite of sport," says Josh.

He adds: "People on these courses will go out as teachers and coaches with the knowledge, the experience and the confidence to be able to provide opportunities for disabled people, not exclude them."