Loughborough University is famous for its sport: it’s been ranked first in the world for sports-related subjects since 2017. In 2019, Loughborough announced their Parasport strategy, which aims to provide opportunities for all students, disabled and non-disabled, to get involved in sport.

“It goes beyond just the playing of sport,” Anna Taylor, Loughborough’s Recreational Sport and Physical Activity Coordinator, told me. “It’s more about creating opportunities for those students with disabilities to actually be a part of the whole culture. It’s about social connection as well. We know that sport brings people together and actually it can break down barriers.”

Anna Taylor

She’s talking about the university’s Boccia programme, which is one of the two inclusive sports the Loughborough Parasport strategy is initially focused on. Boccia is a Paralympic sport similar to boules/bowls, where you throw coloured balls as close as possible to a white target on the ground. It’s an incredibly precise sport and is hotly contested. It’s also a brilliantly inclusive sport that can be adapted to enable anyone to play, and for everyone, of all abilities, to play together.

“I want to emphasise the word community, because that’s what we’re looking to do,” Anna said. “We’re looking to create that community around Boccia.”

Loughborough started their Boccia programme just before the pandemic struck, running weekly sessions, and by the end of the first month, a regular community of players was building up. A one-day inter-halls Boccia competition (known as intramural sport, which is a very highly regarded programme at Loughborough, with fierce rivalries between the halls of residence) was also being planned, but due to the pandemic, had to be cancelled. Anna hopes it will take place once the pandemic has passed.

The week I spoke to Anna and Nik, they had just restarted their indoor programme, including a Tuesday night Boccia session. Anna told me that two international students came to Boccia for the first time back in October, having never heard of the sport. “They just came along because they were intrigued,” Anna said, “and they loved it. And importantly, they’ve came back.”

Loughborough is a world-leading university in its promotion and support of inclusive and disability sports. Nik Diaper, Loughborough’s head of Parasport, reckons the university is possibly the first in the world that has such a full parasports strategy. It focuses on both elite level sports (such as the Lightning wheelchair teams) and social sports.

“The typical university experience for a student is not just the academic experience, it’s the social experience, which sports makes up a massive part,” Nik said. “The Parasport strategy is our effort to address some of those issues and really push it up the agenda, so that we can do more for disabled students.”

I asked him why Loughborough chose the term ‘parasport’ for their inclusive sports strategy. “I think Parasport is now being used as a replacement or even a more current, modern term for disability sport,” Nik said. “Disability sport in itself isn’t necessarily inclusive sport, because it’s sport for disabled people rather than sport for all, whereas ‘parasport’ is not necessarily synonymous with being only for disabled people. So we’re using it as a broad term for inclusive sport, disability sport, adaptive sports. It’s a bit of a catch-all term but it feels more current than ‘disability sport’ or ‘inclusive sport’.”

Nik Diaper

This modern way of thinking is reflected in the longevity of the approach the Parasport team are taking in providing sport to all. Loughborough has incredible gym facilities, and the team are working hard to make the building and everything it provides as accessible and approachable as possible. They worked with colleagues at the gym to think about what the environment is like for people both with physical impairments and those who have a hidden disability, and they asked students who are wheelchair users to go to the gym and offer feedback on its accessibility and layout. They want everyone to be able to navigate the space safely, calmly, and confidently.

Another key part, for Anna and Nik, is equipping staff with the confidence to engage with students who have a disability. “We’re providing some training around disability confidence, and that covers things like understanding what we mean by disability,” Anna said. “It’s how to engage, how to use the right language. And most importantly, it’s about not assuming, not immediately thinking about what a person can’t do, and asking questions about what they can do.”

This approach of providing options to all students at Loughborough is essential to how the team think about what inclusive and parasport means. “If I put myself in the position of a student coming to Loughborough, inclusive sport to me means, whether I’m disabled or not, that whatever sport I want to do I’ve got the opportunity to play,” Nik said. He emphasised the importance of this at both recreational and elite levels: “if I were a student who wants to pursue an elite sport pathway in one of the typical Paralympic sports, then I have the same opportunities as my non-disabled peers who can get access to scholarships, coaching, world-class facilities, and all the stuff that Loughborough is known for.”

It’s something they hope will be a model for other universities across the UK and internationally. “I feel we actually have kind of a moral responsibility here as arguably a university that has a lot of influence, particularly because of our association with sports,” Nik said.

Both Nik and Anna emphasised that they’re at the start of a long, but exciting, journey, and they’re building something that will grow and grow over the years. It’s spreading across disciplines already: engineering students tasked with creating a solution to a problem within parasport designed an automated boccia ball picker for one of their modules. “It’s a great example of non-disabled students studying sports engineering having the opportunity to apply their skills and solve a problem in a sport like Boccia, and in doing so, opening their eyes to a different world of sports,” Anna said.

Everything about the parasport strategy comes back to student experience. “Involvement in sport is just an opportunity to connect to the wider student community” Anna said at the end of our conversation. “Even if we just touch on one or two students, and it has a positive impact on them, that’s great.”

Inspired? Then Get Involved!

If you would like to support us in our mission to “embed inclusive sport in the sporting, education and community landscapes” then we would love to hear from you. We are always looking out for people willing to fundraise for Power2Inspire through their own inspiring means. Or, you could volunteer at one of our events, or you could give to the ongoing work of Power2Inspire. Click the button here to find out more.

Anna Willis

Freelance journalist and story teller; on Twitter @annawillis101