26 Sep 2019

“Invisible” disabilities shouldn’t impair access to sport

From Fair Play, 9:00 am on 26 September 2019

Making time to listen and understand is key to helping women and girls with “invisible” impairments participate in sport in New Zealand.

One in four New Zealanders have a disability and many are still relegated to the sidelines of sport.

A Photo of a group of girls learning to climb on an adventure course

Photo: ambrozinio/123RF

But they have as much right to participate in sport and recreation as the rest of us, says Robyn Cockburn, the chair of Shift, an organisation that seeks to improve the well-being of young women in New Zealand through accessibility to sport and recreation.

Cockburn says while there’s a focus on athletes with physical impairments, there are more that have “invisible” disabilities – like ADHD, cognitive dysfunctions, chronic pain and illness and learning difficulties. And they also deserve to be participating and accessing sport.

She says 10 percent of children have an impairment of some kind, and only one percent of those have a physical impairment. Another one percent has a sensory impairment.

“That means the remainder of those children have an invisible impairment. It might be things like impaired speaking, developmental delays, capacity to comprehend,” says Cockburn, who consulted on Sport NZ’s disability strategy.

“All of these things are likely to impact on their capacity to engage in things that others might engage with.”

Cockburn says removing barriers to participation is the key and for many of those who have an “invisible” impairment, time is the key.

“You need time to listen, you need time to understand and you need time to put that into practice,” she says. “We [currently] don’t organise our sports activities so that… young kids have the time to do all of the things they need; particularly if they have an invisible impairment.”

Robyn Cockburn

Robyn Cockburn Photo: Supplied

Other barriers also faced by those with “invisible” impairments include often not having the financial resources to participate in sport, and they are more likely to experience poor mental health.

“We just need to think smarter about how we might make [sport] possible for people,” says Cockburn.

“We’ve got people who don’t understand enough about conditions like ADHD, Asperger’s, brain injuries, foetal alcohol syndrome – all of these things are features that start to impact on people’s behaviour. So we need to train people in the sector.

“And I think we need to be saying to families who have kids with a disability, actually it’s ok for you to find a way for your kids to have fun, to play and participate.”

A photo of three girls swimming in the sea on surfboards

Photo: serrnovik/123RF

Sport NZ has worked with disability advocacy groups to identify five key areas to help grow accessibility to sport and recreation for this group.

Cockburn, who was also part of NZ Rugby’s respect and responsibility panel, says leadership, enabling attitudes, increased capabilities by building knowledge, a co-ordinated delivery by sports networks and providing quality experiences and pathways, will help grow participation numbers.

Providing proper facilities that also cater for the needs of this group will help them engage with sport. She says doing the basics, like designing fit-for-purpose toilets, can go a long way to accessibility.

NZ Cricket Museum at the Basin Reserve.


Wellington’s Basin Reserve is currently redesigning its toilets in the Museum Stand, and Cockburn says while there’s been a strong campaign around these toilets from a physical perspective, it’s important to also think about those who have a range of different sensory conditions “for whom toileting can be a real challenge”.

“There are certain sights they find alarming, the sound of hand dryers can be terrifying or the sound of flushing water,” she says. “The smells… can be overwhelming. You may need space that provides a parent or caregiver some room. And the concept of queuing can be very stressful.”

Queues for the women’s toilets have lasted up to 30 minutes at cricket games at the Basin Reserve. “Imagine if you had someone who is on the autism spectrum… that may be 30 minutes too long,” she says.

“You can’t always tell about the type of disability someone has by looking, so avoid making assumptions.

“Participation in active recreation and sport is a fundamental human right.”

Fair Play is a monthly podcast covering issues related to women in sport made in association with RNZ, LockerRoom and WiSPSports. Also on this month’s episode LockerRoom’s Suzanne McFadden chats with NRL’s Tiffany Slater, ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup 2021 board chair Liz Dawson discusses the ongoing strategy to encourage girls and women into cricket and we bring you an update on the toilets at the Basin Reserve.