Op-Ed: Supporting football's hidden gem - Disability football

03 Dec 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Neil Callaghan, Managing Partner, Cake UK (Havas Group) highlights how the sport industry has a long way to go to support disability sport, and looks at some of the work being done already to push the sector forward.

The 8th November marked the 25-year anniversary of the landmark Disability Discrimination Act passed in 1995, a civil rights law designed to prevent discrimination against disabled people in relation to employment, provision of goods and services, education and transport – where there had been no such law prior to that.

The World Health Organisation estimates that more than one billion people - about 15% of the world's population - experience some form of disability. According to the Department for Work & Pensions' Family Resources Survey 2018/19, there are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK – 8% of children, 19% of working age adults and 44% of pension age adults. 

… so, what has this got to do with me, you and football?

If you thought the women’s game has been the forgotten form of football fighting for some much-deserved attention and more equal opportunity (quite rightly so) – please spare a thought for the disability community who are invisible by comparison. 

An important disclaimer – I am absolutely not an expert on this topic, I’m not living with a disability, so can’t assume to know what that involves or how it feels… but for a while now I’ve been listening and learning from people that do and I’ve found it to be humbling, fascinating and inspiring in equal measure.  

I’ve been a life-long sports fan and worked in the industry with particular focus on football sponsorship for nearly 20 years – yet until last year I knew next to nothing about disability football, which is exactly the problem we’re dealing with.  

Two things particularly focused my interest and attention:

The first was discovering my daughter had been born with a rare eye condition which in the worst cases can result in blindness and be related to other serious disorders.

Thankfully she’s doing fine, there were no fundamental health issues and the impact on her vision we hope will continue to be minimal – she’s too young to tell us exactly what’s going on at the moment but her avid viewing of Moomin Valley, Peppa Pig & Hey Duggee gives us some indication! But it was a big shock, on hearing the news her life and future flashed before us as parents; how bad will it be, will her vision deteriorate over time (it might), will it prevent her from seeing colours, reading books, riding a bike, driving a car? Things the majority of us are lucky to take for granted.  

Having a disability should not and does not mean having any less of a life. However, the challenges that come with it can be considerable, particularly in a society that is not purpose built to accommodate them. The comedian Rosie Jones who recently appeared on BBC Question Time explained that she resorts to wearing headphones when alone in public on account of the abuse she receives on a daily basis and commented how she felt disabled people are not just overlooked but deliberately ignored – which is no joke.

The second came when I joined Cake and began working with BT on their lead partnerships with the four Home Nation Football Associations of England, Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland. BT’s rights span all areas of the game from grassroots to elite level – including national men’s, women’s, development and disability teams also referred to as ‘Para’ (coming from the term parallel, rather than Paralympics). Through The FA deal alone, BT became the Official Lead Partner of 28 national teams – a fact that really stood out to me. I’m guessing most people would have no idea there are quite so many and I’m fairly confident the eight Para teams would be a big part of the knowledge gap.  

There are currently a total of 17 national level representative teams across the four Home Nation FAs in seven forms of impairment-specific football; Blind, Partially Sighted, Deaf, Cerebral Palsy, Powerchair, Learning Disability and Amputee – with further pathways and formats people with a disability can engage with through mainstream, pan-disability or impairment-specific versions of the game.

Cake have worked with BT & each FA to define our long-term strategy for activating the Home Nation partnerships – informed by BT’s unique societal role and brand purpose ‘We Connect For Good’, the range of rights at our disposal, and areas of the game most in need of support.  The result is what we call our ‘4-3-3’ strategy reflecting a commitment to enhance three key areas of football; Grassroots, Women’s and Para/Disability.  

It’s been a privilege to meet and work with some fantastic specialists at each of the four Home Nation FA’s (and FAW Trust) who, along with their colleagues and people throughout the football community, facilitate disability football at all levels across the UK. In consultation with them, we are preparing a series of BT initiatives that we hope will make a transformative difference to this area of the game. From grassroots to elite, we want to raise awareness, encourage more support, increase participation and inspire future talent.

For me this is important for various reasons:

  • Whilst companies like Sainsburys and Channel 4 have championed the Paralympics, and Mars have notably embraced the disability community in their advertising, there has been very little support for the disability game from the many brands sponsoring football and we want to change that.
  • From a diversity, equity & inclusion point of view, ignoring the disability community should not be acceptable - but we plan to inspire rather than preach to anyone.
  • Because fans who love football should pride themselves on knowing more about this part of the game and aim to support all the teams representing their country.
  • Perhaps most importantly, there will be people of all ages and backgrounds living with disabilities who may be struggling, feeling isolated (exacerbated seriously by COVID-19) but also unaware of the opportunities and formats they could access to enjoy football and all the positive things that come with it, at whatever level is appropriate for them – which could include the very highest national level.

Today (3rd December) is the UN recognised ‘International Day of Persons with Disabilities’ (IDPD) promoting equality and inclusion for all those living with a disability - which we’ve chosen as our starting point for getting people across the UK to #DiscoverDisabilityFootball. This week, thanks to BT, Para & Disability football content will feature on the back pages of national and regional print titles, websites, podcasts, social channels and across BT, Home Nation FA and Reach (Mirror group) media platforms. With this and more exciting projects to come, I hope there will be some interesting, surprising and inspiring things you might discover and share with your own networks.  

This is no ordinary sponsorship activation campaign for us. We hope it’s the start of something special for Para & Disability football and a building block added to the support and promotion of disability sport. We would love as many people as possible to lean in, take an interest and share the #DiscoverDisabilityFootball message – and if you have a voice and platform that could help it would be great to hear from you. 

So, to the 14 million living with a disability in the UK and all those already involved with Para & Disability football in some way, please know you are not invisible to us.