OP-ED: Please Mind The Gap

13 Dec 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

Neil Callaghan is founder of 20-Fifteen SPORT, an independent sports marketing consultancy that understands the value of disability inclusion. Written on International Day of Persons with Disabilities (3rd December), Neil considers what our perception of disability means for sport. 

In April this year Microsoft announced a new five-year plan ‘Doubling Down on Accessibility’ to close what the World Bank had previously described as a ‘disability divide’, in reference to the exclusion and marginalisation of persons with disabilities. The blog post from President and Vice Chair Brad Smith, begins by highlighting “More than 1 billion people around the world live with a disability, and at some point, most of us will likely face some type of temporary, situational or permanent disability.” It goes on to detail Microsoft’s plans centred around technology, workforce and workplace – as the organisation continues to accelerate a ‘culture of accessibility’, led by Chief Accessibility Officer Jenny Lay-Flurrie.


Having worked in the sport and sponsorship industry for 20 years, I recognise the lack or gap in the way disability is considered, prioritised, or even discussed in the general day-to-day workings of what goes on. There are certainly brilliant, knowledgeable, and dedicated people within sports organisations, brands who partner with them, and their agencies, performing important roles in service of diversity and inclusion. But intersectionality, unconscious bias and the outlook we develop through our personal experiences of the world around us can result in people overlooking matters of disability or having a very narrow and assumptive perception of it. But on closer inspection, you might find it’s more important, personal, and relevant to everyone, than you think.

There are over 14 million disabled people in the UK, that’s 1 in 5 or 20% of the population, and over 1 billion globally (15%). For some disability can be congenital, for others it’s acquired during their life which could be through accident, injury, illness or side effect of a medical condition. Impairments that create substantial and long-term negative effects on someone’s ability to do ‘normal’ daily activities (using language as defined in the Equality Act 2010) can be physical or mental, visible and invisible. This creates a very broad spectrum of conditions and personal needs which will be unique to each individual and not always clear or obvious to another person. 

There is a strong likelihood disability will be part of our lives either directly through personal lived experience or indirectly through family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, or others we engage with. It’s also the case that your current experience of disability right now and what it may become in future is likely to change, with age and all the unknown developments life brings.

Examples of this are everywhere including sport. From accidents that have changed the lives of individuals like Michael Schumacher, Billy Monger, Matt Hampson and Henry Fraser, to former football and rugby players revealing their struggles with dementia, or the amazing work Doddie Weir, Rob Burrow and Stephen Darby are doing to raise awareness and funding for MND along with friends and supporters like the incredible Kevin Sinfield who last week ran 101 miles in 24 hours raising over one million pounds.


The Paralympics is often the go-to, and perhaps for some the only, point of sporting reference when it comes to disability and disabled people in sport. And whilst it absolutely represents the pinnacle of sporting endeavour and achievement on an international scale that should be promoted and celebrated fully (which Channel 4 do brilliantly well and I would recommend Rising Phoenix as a must watch for all sports fans)… there is more to consider. Particularly as not every disabled person will aspire to be a Paralympian or elite level athlete, which can be a label or false expectation that gets applied. 

For me, both the current reality and future possibility of the relationship between sport and disability goes much further. Sport has a unique power to transform and change lives for the better, which is why so many take part, care so deeply, and brands invest to be associated with it. I see disability inclusion as being central and relevant to many different aspects of sport, sponsorship, and the multitude of buzzwords our industry likes to spend time talking about, whether that’s…  

Performance, achievement, overcoming adversity, fulfilling capability, technology, innovation, insight, creativity, community, culture, values, DE&I, mental health, well-being, passion, compassion, legacy, grassroots sport, the women’s game – I’ll stop there.

Disability and disabled people are very much ‘part of’ all these things in our society. But all too often these topics are not considered or discussed in the context of disability which gets overlooked or siloed as somehow ‘separate to’ everything else. 

When I worked with BT to activate their lead partnerships of the four Home Nation Football Associations, we were proud to be one of the few brands and sponsors in football actively promoting the Para & Disability game. For all the billions invested by sponsors in football and other sports globally, outside events like the Paralympics or Commonwealth Games which don’t take place annually, it’s a smaller minority of brands who are using their partnerships to promote disability sport or disability inclusion. Of those that do, fewer still are landing it on the radar of a mass mainstream audience, and too often the activity could be classified as being one-off or short-term ‘inspiration’ content.

The WeThe15 movement which is backed by a group of influential organisations and launched around the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, is a great exception to this rule, striving to end discrimination for disabled people at a global scale. How this mission continues to develop post-Tokyo is something I’ll be following with interest. 


Likewise, it’s encouraging to see long-term plans from organisations such as The FA and the British Paralympic Association (BPA) who chose today’s #IDPD to announce a new 10-year strategy ‘Championing Change’, with a vision to inspire a better world for disabled people through sport, that will address UK-wide social impact along with elite level success. 

Most rights holders will be facilitating accessible options for disabled people to participate in their sports at different levels, but that can often go on behind the scenes, away from mainstream coverage the fans and public get to see. So it’s powerful when other impairment specific formats are incorporated in coverage alongside mainstream action or shown in their own right.  As Wimbledon has done with tennis for some time, it’s great that next year’s rescheduled Rugby League World Cup hosted in England, will for the first time incorporate the wheelchair competition along with Men’s and Women’s tournaments as part of the main event, and also feature the first-ever Physical Disability Rugby League (PDRL) World Cup during the tournament. This is all good news and positive progress. 

But you don’t need a representative team, impairment specific format of your sport, or a disability focused campaign, for disability inclusion to still be important in how you engage and address the needs of your audience, all year round. Not enough organisations in sport are treating disabled people as an equally important audience of fans, advocates, and potential customers. If that’s down to them being a much smaller minority in terms of current numbers, is that because they are not interested or are they being left out by design?

This is a major opportunity being missed that I’d like to see (and help) more sports and sponsors’ address. Improving how accessibility is considered in all areas including communication, can unlock significant benefits for everyone involved, not just disabled people. Does it make any sense to reduce your potential addressable audience by up to 20% from the outset because content is not accessible? Why would you not want everyone to feel included, welcome and valued?

Alongside the many other reasons, there is a clear commercial rationale for disability inclusion. The so called ‘purple pound’ is estimated to be worth £274 billion per year. Research studies, including one in America by Accenture in partnership with the AAPD & Disability:IN, has highlighted the significant gains in profitability, value creation and shareholder return that companies who embrace disability inclusion are benefiting from vs those who don’t. 

Brands and business leaders are taking this seriously, as they will be held accountable by their staff and customers, to ensure publicly stated principles are being upheld through real-world actions. DE&I has risen in priority and is reaching the boardroom agenda. It’s not a case of compliance or fulfilling inconvenient obligations. Nor is it a responsibility of the HR department or a DE&I lead alone. It’s about organisations being genuinely open to considering people’s needs, understanding you can arrive at the same or even better solutions in more than one way, and embracing the advantages a commitment to disability inclusion brings to everyone involved. As Microsoft’s CAO Jenny Lay-Flurrie has said, “Disability is just a part of being human”.  

Last year, I shared some thoughts on disability and football and I’m pleased the projects I’ve been involved with over the last 12 months have made a positive and award winning impact on awareness and engagement with disability football across the UK. 

This year, I’m writing having set up 20-Fifteen SPORT. To help clients with sport sponsorship and partnership marketing activity, whilst making disability inclusion ‘part of’, not a gap in, the conversation.