Opinion - Women under-represented in Paralympic sports

CanWest News Service
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WHISTLER, B.C. - With all the risk-taking, young men in the world, it's hard to believe that there are actually more women than men with disabilities.

Of course, you wouldn't know that looking at most of the Paralympic teams - including Canada's.

Nearly five times as many men are competing at the 2010 Games. It's skewed by sledge hockey, which is a male-only event. But subtract the 118 hockey players from the 506 competitors and women are still outnumbered by more than three to one.

Overall, the percentage of female Paralympians - summer and winter - averages only 27 per cent, according to Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee.

It's something the IPC is trying to change, starting with the requirement that national committees must nominate at least one woman to the IPC.

Canada does better than the IPC average. And it too is doing what it can to attract and develop more elite female athletes.

Yet subtract the hockey players from Canada's 53-member team and it's still 55 per cent men. And it's not just a winter thing.

At the last Summer Paralympics in Beijing, only 30 per cent of Canada's team was female. Still, they won the majority of the medals.

So, why aren't there more women competing at the Paralympics?

There is no simple answer.

It's not even easy to figure out why there are nearly 50 per cent more Canadian women with disabilities than men when worldwide the ratio is closer to 50:50. Even the American numbers are nearly equal despite having more than 300,000 disabled and mostly male soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

By Statistics Canada's last count in 2006, there were 1.67 million girls and women with disabilities in 2006 compared with 981,000 boys and men. And, despite what we think we know about risk-taking young men, that gender bias runs through every age category.

Carla Qualtrough, president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, believes the numbers are skewed by the way the data is collected.

"Wearing my human rights lawyer hat, we know that more women than men self-identify as disabled," she says. "I suspect that the real ratio is probably closer to 50:50."

Women are likely to self-identify because Qualtrough says they're more vulnerable both financially and socially. They're even less likely to have someone to look after them.

But she doesn't deny that much more needs to be done to achieve gender parity on Canadian Paralympic teams and get more women with disabilities into sports.

Unlike some developing countries, Qualtrough says there is no systemic discrimination. Women do have equal access to health care, rehabilitation and even sport but "still we're struggling."

The CPC wants more women involved at all levels - athletes, coaches, trainers and administrators.

"The gender bias in mainstream society is probably magnified with a disability," says Patrick Jarvis, the former CPC president and a member of the International Paralympic Committee's governing board.

In addition to any discrimination women face because of their disability, they are lumbered with all the problems that other women face from body image issues to societal restrictions that range prohibitions on playing sport to limited or no access to education, health care and housing.

Even in Canada, women with disabilities are among the poorest in the country and even without needing customized and specialized equipment, sports are expensive.

But there's also self-selection. Women generally don't participate in sports in as large numbers as men. They also are less likely to engage in risky behaviours and, as a result, fewer disabled women acquire their injuries. Qualtrough says most women are either born with disabilities or have had cancers that required amputations. Plus, there's the whole issue of children and families.

Muffy Davis is a former American sit-skier and a member of the IPC's women's committee. She quit competing after the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 because she wanted to have a baby.

Now that her daughter is nearly two, Davis is balancing two conflicting desires - have another child or take up hand-cycling and try to qualify for the 2012 Games in London.

Qualtrough said one change that would make it easier to attract more female athletes, coaches and sports administrators at all levels is to have more flexibility in the sporting system.

"We have to be more creative. If the only time available for training is between 5 and 7, women are going to be home feeding their kids."

Jarvis, who sees the Paralympics as both a sporting event and a social movement, agrees there needs to be change, especially in countries where women face the greatest discrimination.

But he has the counter-intuitive view that because people with disabilities are already so far outside the mainstream in many countries, gender doesn't matter.

In the most misogynist societies, Jarvis believes that people's natural empathy toward the disabled may actually make it easier to build support to allow women with disabilities to participate in sports than it would be for able-bodied women.

Take that a step further and it could be that it's women with disabilities who are best able to break down gender barriers.

Now, that's revolutionary thinking.

Vancouver Sun

Organizations: International Paralympic Committee, Canadian Paralympic Committee, Statistics Canada

Geographic location: Canada, WHISTLER, Beijing Iraq Afghanistan Salt Lake City Games London Vancouver

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