The state of disability sport in New Zealand

New technologies are helping more disabled people get into sport and recreation, and the quality of fitness programmes for people with disabilities are increasing. 

However, participation rates for disabled adults is still far lower than for non-disabled people. 

These are some of the trends noticed by Tom Smith, the CEO of Parafed Auckland. 

He believes the disability sport sector in New Zealand is emerging and is in good shape. A woman sits in her wheelchair lifting weights

How technology is opening doors 

“What we’re seeing in disability sport right now is technological advancement. 

Power assisted bikes, opportunities to get into more recreational sports like adaptive mountain biking, and things like that. 

“Equipment is allowing people with disabilities the opportunity to be outdoors a lot more and taking on recreational pursuits,” he says. 

A good example is things like Freedom Trax, which fit to any wheelchair to enable the person to go over tricky terrain easily.

Go to Freedom Trax (external website)

“Some people want to get back to hunting and just being outdoors and physically active. 

It’s not necessarily your traditional sports, it’s that sort of embracing the outdoors and being independent,” Tom says.

A boy runs towards the finish line using a walker

A shift towards solo activities 

Tom says the overall trend in disability sport is the same for mainstream sport: there’s a shift away from team sports and towards individual pursuits. 

“People don’t have time and commitment for team sports as much these days. 

“There’s absolutely a place for team sports, that have humungous benefits for people. 

“But people want to do things that are fun, quick, social and safe, and it’s generally for their fitness.” 

He says one of the most popular classes Parafed Auckland runs is a strength and conditioning class. 

Wearable tech, like Fitbit and Apple watches, are also playing a role in the move towards individual pursuits, Tom says. 

“Especially sports where you can use your technology to monitor how far you’re going, how fast you’re going. 

Cycling and running are absolutely taking off.”

A woman sits in a sailboat on the water

The biggest barriers to participation 

Sport NZ released a report in late 2018 about disability sport in New Zealand. 

It shows that participation rates in physical activity for people under 15 are about the same for disabled people (93%) as non-disabled people (95%). 

However, for adults the gap widens, with 63% of disabled people participating in physical activity, compared with 77% of non-disabled people. 

Tom says that’s partly because young adults transitioning into adulthood often have less carer support. 

Parents don’t necessarily take you to things anymore, so there is a bigger gap in participation between non-disabled adults and adults with a disability.” 

He says overall, the barriers to participation are the same for disabled people as for non-disabled people. 

I’ve been involved in sport for 15 years and every time we [ask people what barriers they face, we get] the human response of, I don’t have enough time, it’s too expensive, and I don’t have the transport to get there. 

“That absolutely exists within disability as well, and it’s probably even more so when there’s such a high rate of unemployment among disabled people, and also travel and transportation isn’t as accessible.”

A girl sits in a wheelchair by the pool with a swimming cap on her head

Focusing on quality over access 

While it’s important to ensure everyone has access to sport and recreation activities, simply providing the activity isn’t enough, Tom says. 

Within disability sport for quite a few years, good enough’s been good enough.”  

He says that a lot of the time, activities for disabled people are piecemeal. They’re often an opportunity for carers to have a break or to fill off-peak time in a leisure centre. 

I think now we’re in a stronger position to advocate and make sure that we either have inclusive access to mainstream sport, or that our offers actually look and feel good.” 

By “offers”, Tom’s talking about the quality of the programme and how its promoted. It’s about making sure participants find them valuable and engaging. 

For us it’s not necessarily about more, more, more, but it’s about providing quality opportunities and changing attitudes and aspirations.” 

He says, for example, by including activities like rock climbing and skiing in their youth programmes, the parents can see their child participating in activities they previously thought they couldn’t. This not only promotes participation but changes attitudes and behaviours.

Two people stand on skis on a snowy mountain