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Published 03 December 2022 5 min read
Disability Football

'A huge opportunity to make a real difference for people with disabilities'

Written by:

Catherine Gilby

As we celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Saturday 3 December, our head of para performance Catherine Gilby writes about the importance of acceptance and support


I’d like you to take a moment out of your busy day to think about a time when dates like this become a historical artefact because we are part of a society that embraces, supports and includes every individual within it.

Imagine how rich that will make us feel.

Until that time, dates like the International Day of Persons with Disabilities allow us to take stock of the progress we are making in relation to true equity within our society and also acknowledge how far we still need to go.

It is important to say that that I don’t have a disability and I fully understand the importance of the lived experience in truly understanding disability.

However, I’m a committed advocate of raising awareness of disability and continually pushing towards a truly inclusive society, whether that’s within the elite sporting context that I work or in the furthest corners of the world I live in.

This also includes unravelling and understanding the discrimination and barriers persons with disabilities face on a daily basis at all levels of society. Fifteen percent of the world’s population have a disability. This is the biggest minority population in the world.

Creating, developing and sustaining truly inclusive environments means a number of things to me.

England's Powerchair team in training at St. George's Park
England's Powerchair team in training at St. George's Park

I believe it starts with a genuine ambition to understand and raise awareness of why inclusivity matters from those who are living it, whether that be within the workplace, on the sports field or within our education system. With a deeper understanding of disabilities, environments have the potential to be fully inclusive.

What could this look like if we achieved it?

It might be communications that are accessible to all because disability knowledge is included at the design phase rather than as an after-thought, workplaces that provide jobs and training where disability is at the forefront and an infrastructure designed with disabilities in mind.

I would like to think we can get to a place where a person with a disability could book a room in a hotel without having to request an accessible room because, in fact, they all are. Too often it feels like improving accessibility, providing equitable opportunities or ensuring inclusion is a choice.

It’s not. This is our moral and ethical responsibility as part of the human race to which we ALL belong. Remember, it’s all too often that it is the environment that is disabling not the disability itself.

I’ve worked within elite Para sport for the last 17 years, leading the sport science and medicine provision for the GB Para swimming programme and now as head of Para performance for the FA.

There is no doubt that Para sport is my passion and has been for a significant part of my life. I put this down to feeling part of something bigger, something even greater than sport.

The England Women's blind team putting in the work during training at St. George's Park
The England Women's blind team putting in the work during training at St. George's Park

I relish the ingenuity, creativity and ambition of the players and staff that I work with, creating truly bespoke performance plans for our players to support them to be the very best Para footballer they can be.

Not only does this enthuse and challenge me to develop a truly world class programme for all our England Para teams but fuels my drive to be one of those positive agitators both in and out of football in relation to disability.

As the FA, we have a huge opportunity to make a real difference for people with disabilities.

The ‘Football Your Way’ plan, launched in 2021, was a landmark disability football plan which I believe shows the high level of commitment that the FA has made to push the disability agenda at every level of the game.

The new plan is the first of its kind and covers seven key areas, demonstrating our commitment to ensuring that as part of the equality, diversity and inclusion strategy, disabled people have the opportunity to engage and participate in football their way, from grassroots all the way to the elite end of the game.

The plan comes under the umbrella of the broader equality, diversity and inclusion strategy, which is about creating A Game For All. We have real clarity on what this means to us: If you have a disability there are opportunities for you to participate, whether that’s for fun or through pan disability or impairment specific football, to enjoy the game and reach your potential.

Let me leave you with this question. What are YOU doing to achieve that vision set out at the start of this article?

I consider that doing nothing is not an option.