Canadian universities need to be more inclusive for Para athletes, says Paralympic Athletes' Council chair
There's a yawning chasm between committing to inclusion and acting on it.
That's the assertion of Erica Gavel, a Paralympic athlete and the new chair of the Canadian Paralympic Athletes' Council. In particular, she's concerned that true inclusion for Para athletes isn't happening at the university level in Canada.
"I feel as Canadians we really pride ourselves on being inclusive," said Gavel, who competed first as an able-bodied basketball player at the University of Saskatchewan, and after seriously damaging her knee, as a Paralympian. "But in order for a Para athlete to actually participate in a university Para sport athletic program they either need to go to the United States or they need to move overseas to the U.K."
What does inclusion at the university level look like to Gavel? It starts with something as seemingly innocuous as a post on a website. Or a welcoming note to disabled athletes on campus that details how to access some level of athletic support at least approaching that available to their able-bodied brethren.
What's missing at most universities in Canada, she says, is a true student-athlete experience for Para athletes. She says they need a professional training environment and a formal competitive framework within university conferences. And at least in some Para sports, there needs to be official sports championships.
For Gavel, a 31-year-old native of Prince Albert, Sask., it's been a rocky road of discovery. Gavel's world changed during the long weekend in August 2012 when, as a starting guard for the University of Saskatchewan women's basketball team, she moved to catch the ball off a skip pass during a two-on-two drill and tore the cartilage off the femur and tibia of her left knee.
Landed U.S. scholarship
Gavel went from being an elite recruit coming out of high school, to a spot on a university women's team, to being told she would never play elite-level sport again.
And then a glimmer of hope. Four months after the injury she was pointed toward Canada's Paralympic basketball team. She headed to the University of Alabama for a developmental camp with the national team, and while there landed a sports scholarship for Para sport basketball at the school for her fourth year of university studies.
By 2016 she was a Paralympian playing basketball for Canada in Rio de Janeiro.
"It was the most weird, intense, exciting year of my entire life," she says, noting that her experiences on both the able-bodied and Para sides of sport have equipped her for her new role as Athletes' Council chair.
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According to Gavel, Canadian universities need to make it a priority to provide Para athletes with better access to facilities, sports science, therapy, coaching, accommodations and tutors for academic support. And she says those services need to be formalized programs based on the athletes' training schedules.
"When I was on the [University of Saskatchewan basketball team], it was the most incredible experience of my life," Gavel said. "If I had had a disability earlier in my career I would never have had that experience."
Universities in Canada don't have to provide training opportunities for Para athletes. According to Matthew Davies, chief operating officer for Ontario University Athletics, the OUA provides experiences and opportunities to Para athletes at OUA championships in four sports: track and field, swimming, rowing, and Nordic skiing. There are no university championships for these sports, and the number of people who compete in the events varies year over year.
"And we will continue to listen to members about exploring future opportunities as they present themselves," Davies said.
But those opportunities don't typically compare to what Gavel experienced, both as an able-bodied basketball player and during her year as a Para athlete under full scholarship.
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Gavel said she had to push to get the support she needed in Canada, going to the athletic director and making a case for some sort of accommodation, access to physiotherapy, strength and conditioning, and the gym.
Gavel suggests her experience helped her advocate for services as a Para athlete, but that many other Para athletes accept the status quo. She says it's not so much a reluctance to advocate for themselves as it is a lack of understanding of the extra steps needed to get access to equitable treatment as an athlete.
"Given that the resources are typically not posted, navigating the system can be a very cumbersome process," she said.
Student athletes who feel they don't have the proper support often have to choose between school and sport. Gavel says that's a decision compounded by the challenges people with disabilities face in trying to find a job post-graduation.
Several universities defend their Para athlete programs, however.
Shawn Burt, director of the department of athletics and recreation at McMaster University in Hamilton, says the university makes a point of being "very supportive" of training and other support opportunities for Para athletes, both at the elite and recreational levels. That includes access to the school's Pulse Fitness Centre, which has equipment designed to accommodate members with disabilities, and access for disabled students who want to participate in intramurals.
Universities say support is available
"Para athletes have access to McMaster facilities and services," Burt said. "In some cases, national level athletes [able-bodied or Para] can receive funding from their national sport organization to access physiotherapy, strength and conditioning services, sport psychology, and/or professional training services, etc. to ensure athletes are well supported while pursuing university studies. We have supported prominent Para athletes in their training endeavours in the past and will continue to do so."
A spokesperson from the University of Toronto says students who are Para athletes are offered the same supports as all other student athletes at the university, regardless of whether they are on one of the 43 Varsity Blues athletic teams or are pursuing a sport outside of the intercollegiate program.
In addition, the U of T's high-performance mandate provides provincial and nationally identified athletes and Para athletes with access to enhanced strength and conditioning programs and coaches, training facilities, sport medicine and assistance with academic support within the university. Programs and services are available to all high-performance athletes at the U of T who pay student ancillary fees.
Gavel still sees a gap in the sport system, including a lack of knowledge of Para sports from a professional perspective. Lack of space and budget restrictions are the excuses she says she hears most often in the conversations she has had with multiple Canadian universities. She says support systems need to go beyond just providing space for intramurals or telling someone there's open gym time.
"Part of my student fees includes paying for the athletic program," she says. "So you're telling me you have practice time and individual skill time for all those university teams but you can't accommodate adaptive athletic programs?"
In th U.S., the board of directors for the Pac-12 Conference recently approved a new policy to support student athletes who train to compete at the Paralympic Games or other elite Para athletic competitions. That includes access to athletic department facilities, services, coaching and other supports to further their training. It's a policy first developed by the Pac-12 Student-Athlete Leadership Team as it pushed for a commitment to equity and inclusion.
Jeremy Hall is a Canadian Paralympian in rowing, and a graduate of the University of Alberta, who serves as vice-chair the Athletes' Council. A competitor at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020, Hall says he's also making it a priority to get more disabled athletes to push for more equitable treatment at the university level.
Hall recalls needing to lobby the Edmonton Rowing Club to allow him, as a Para rower, to get on the water with the club.
"People may hear the word disability or impairment and they're like, no we can't do it, and then they turn the athlete away, and that athlete is missed," he said. "So I think we're really doing ourselves a disservice by not having that inclusive environment. It would do wonders for Paralympic sport in Canada if we had programs at the university level where you can develop a pathway."