"They don't understand that we also exist": South African participants in competitive disability sport and the politics of identity

Disabil Rehabil. 2018 Jan;40(1):35-41. doi: 10.1080/09638288.2016.1242171. Epub 2016 Oct 19.


Purpose: To describe how athletes with disabilities talk about their experiences of participating in competitive disability sport in South Africa.

Method: In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with 20 athletes with disabilities. Data were analysed via thematic content analysis using an inductive data driven process.

Results: Participants described their involvement in competitive sport as a positive experience; they described it as a catalyst for the recasting of identities and reframing an understanding of physical impairment, a context for empowerment and resistance of disablist attitudes, and an arena in which a sense of inclusion and belonging is experienced. However, their narratives also lay bare something of the struggle on the part of persons with disabilities to be seen as fully human and reveal how participants reproduce some unhelpful disablist discourses.

Conclusions: There are complex contradictions and cross-currents in the way athletes with disabilities describe their participation in competitive disability sport. These narratives highlight political and ideological tensions about inclusion and representation and remind us of the need to document the experiences of persons with disabilities and the potential dangers inherent in idealizing disability sport. Implications for Rehabilitation Competitive sport is a useful context for rehabilitation and the empowerment of persons with disabilities. Athletes with disabilities say that they are able to resist dominant stereotypes about disability and recast their identities through participation in competitive sport. Disability sport seems to provide a setting in which persons with disabilities can reproduce unhelpful disablist discourses. There are dangers inherent in idealizing competitive disability sport. Even where athletes with disabilities are competing at the highest level and are successful, rehabilitation professionals must be aware of these issues, must be able to listen for experiences of exclusion and low self-esteem, and to engage with athletes on these issues.

Keywords: Disability sport; Paralympic Sport; South Africa; inclusion competitive sport; representation.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Athletes / psychology*
  • Disabled Persons / rehabilitation*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Politics
  • Return to Sport / psychology*
  • South Africa
  • Sports for Persons with Disabilities* / psychology
  • Sports for Persons with Disabilities* / statistics & numerical data