Gold standard lessons from the Paralympics

An elated Kurt Fearnley finally wins a well deserved gold medal in his final Beijing paralympic event, the men's Marathon (T54 wheelchair class).

On the eve of Tokyo2020 Paralympics next week, the nation is ready to witness our 179 elite athletes’ fierce determination, as they proudly don green and gold to represent their country.

They will join 4400 competitors from 160 nations, to compete across 18 sports – after years of preparation and anticipation.

These games should be no different despite the unusual challenges and disruptive training in a tumultuous lead up to Toyko2020, according to Darren Peters, Program Director for Undergraduate Business and Masters in Sport program at Torrens University.

“Right now, they'd be excited, quietly confident and a little trepidatious about what's going to come,” says Darren of our athletes.

“They'd be worried about how they're going compared to everyone else.”

Darren should know.

He was the CEO of the Australian Paralympic Committee (now, Paralympics Australia) from 2003 to 2009, and the Chef de Mission at 2006 Turin Winter Paralympics and 2008 Beijing Summer Paralympics.

So, it is no surprise he’s looking forward to seeing our athletes in action and excelling in Tokyo, saying “we’ve always punched above our weight.”

Darren Peters, Chef de Mission, leads the Paralympic team into the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Paralympics

Darren Peters (standing), Chef De Mission, leads the Australian Paralympic team onto the arena at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games opening ceremony (Photo by Serena Corporate Photography)

The pinnacle for anyone with a disability who plays sport

In the lead up to this year’s Paralympics, athletes have largely trained in isolation with their coaches’ instructions via Zoom, for an event that will be missing a major element – spectators. This week, Paralympic organisers confirmed that spectators will not be allowed at the Games.

The Australian athletes carry the hopes and aspirations of their team, coaches, friends and family. And on top of that, the nation’s expectations of finishing as one of the top five nations, which we have done since 1996.

Darren says there is a huge momentum of widespread support and respect for Paralympians in Australia, and a great appreciation of their skill and ability. Not surprisingly, this will be reflected in the increased coverage of the Paralympics on Australian television and online with 16 Paralympic livestreams.

One major contributing factor in recent years has been the growth in government funding for Paralympians which allows them to put study and career on hold, afford the best coaches and generally ease financial stress in the lead up to the Paralympics. In addition, sponsorship opportunities can help catapult an athlete into the realm of ‘household name’. One of the best known examples is Australia’s favourite Dylan Alcott.

“Athletes are getting more recognition. They’ve trained as hard as anyone going to elite level in sport. Harder really if you think about things they've got to overcome,” says Darren.

“So, that excites me a lot.”

“An athlete is an athlete, is an athlete”

Australia has participated at every Paralympic Games since the first one in Rome 1960. It has since established itself as a leading Paralympic nation.

Over the years, significant advances in technology and resourcing in ‘Parasports’ have provided new opportunities. Nowadays the athletes engage scientists, nutritionists and some of the country’s top coaches to help reach their pinnacle.

“This wasn't the case 20 years ago, and 40 years ago. It was a hard struggle,” Darren says.

But over time, the engagement of experts and technology, as well as significant organisational changes focussed on inclusivity, paid off.

When Darren was CEO of the Australian Paralympic Committee, ’mainstreaming’ was introduced to merge various sporting bodies that separately managed athletes with and without disabilities. Integration took place from grassroots to championship level. It was an inclusive initiative which sent a powerful message to society.

“An athlete is an athlete, is an athlete,” is how Darren puts it.

“That [mainstreaming] was one of the biggest shifts we did. That's what happened with the twenty sports that I had at the time. Every one of them one by one,” Darren emphatically adds.

“An absolute game changer”

The Paralympics do not just serve a pinnacle event for the Paralympians. Its magic reverberates and inspires the next generation of sports loving aspirants.

In recognition of this, new initiatives have been introduced encouraging the freshly inspired athletes.

“Families talk about it, kids talk about it, adults talk about it. People who've recently acquired an injury they then start thinking, ‘okay, maybe I can do it’.”

Immediately after each Paralympics Darren says there is always an increase in youth with disabilities signing up to the nationwide Paralympic Education Program which showcases Paralympians in action at schools.

“You give a kid a racket and Dylan Alcott showing them how to actually move around tennis court and hit a ball. It’s an absolute game changer,” Darren says.

“Get any kid in a wheelchair, on a court, and they just love it. Everyone then has a sense of how hard it is, and how much fun it can be as well.”

Levelling the playing field in the classroom

Darren believes the world has significantly changed its view on people with disabilities, and Paralympians have played an important role in this. But he adds that while we are generally doing well in Australia, there is still work to be done – including in the critical area of education.

An estimated 15%, or 1 billion, of the world’s population have a disability. According to the United Nations they are at a disadvantage regarding most Sustainable Development Goals. They continue to face significant challenges to their full participation in society in areas such as education and work.

Global studies have shown that people with disabilities are less likely to attend school, less likely to complete primary or secondary education and less likely to be literate.

Yet, research into students with disabilities has shown that inclusive education provides superior social and academic outcomes often leading to post-secondary education, employment and living independently – all important sources of pride, dignity and empowerment.

Darren reached a very similar conclusion when he researched, collaborated and co-authored - ‘Exploring the Development of Passion in Paralympic Sport’ which explored the links between passion and identity leading to peak performance.

But he argues that while Australia has a reasonable record with 89% of school aged students with a disability attending mainstream schools, (with 71% attending mainstream classes), there is still work to be done in higher education, where Darren says lecturers may struggle somewhat meeting the diverse needs of all learners.

With learnings from his own research into participation, identity, belonging and how they contribute to peak performance – Darren feels strongly about ensuring an inclusive supportive learning environment in higher education for students living with a disability.

For him, awareness and continued support around what’s on offer for students with disability is critical. With his experience and insights Darren is bringing in lessons from sport into his own classroom.

“I'm the coach of the sports squad with three or four people with disability, as well as seven or eight who don't, which is the ratio of Australia.” Darren says he modifies his training routine and schedule, to fit the individual needs of his athletes with disabilities.

Similarly, when Darren has students with a disability, he makes it his responsibility to consider their needs. This ranges from providing assignment extensions to providing specialised equipment to assist facilitate learning. But he concedes that more is needed raising awareness among teachers and lecturers about specific needs of students and how meeting their needs impacts their performance.

“We need to make sure they [teachers and lecturers] get the help they need to help a student with a disability. And the students need to know they can expect those types of supports that we provide,” he says.

Stepping into work

Education is fundamental for participation in the labour market.

In October 2020, 48% of working age Australians with disability were employed, compared to 80% without disability. Add to this disparity, working-age people with disability often earn lower wages. So what needs to be done to increase opportunity in this space?

Darren says that while many Australians with a disability do have the capacity and indeed qualifications to work, they are still unable to secure work because perceptions of disability override an understanding of capability. 

“We need more employers to actually look at the person first, and not the idea that they are disabled.”

Darren looks to the future and sees that we can play an important role ensuring opportunities. "I would like to see a future where anyone with a disability feels supported and 'able' to apply, secure and attain work - after they have participated in and completed some study of choice.”

He points to Torrens University’s high school pathway experience, or our short courses, as examples of what we are doing to ensure inclusivity.

No doubt, our work in this area will continue.

At Torrens University, we want to become the university of choice for people with disabilities. We want to be a trusted partner and collaborator with the disability community. This is no small vision and one that will require significant energy and focus.

Join the official cheer squad of the Australian Paralympic Team here.


Lead image: An elated Kurt Fearnley finally wins a well deserved gold medal in his final 2008 Beijing paralympic event, the men's Marathon (T54 wheelchair class). (Photo by Serena Corporate Photography)

Darren Peters will be speaking at the 2021 Australian Disability Service Conference and Awards on 25 November on the topic of NDIS of the future.

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