David Clarke: Why IBSA World Games is a watershed moment for those with sight loss
The blind and partially sighted community has won the battle for parity on the playing field, now the power of sport must be harnessed to replicate equality off the field too, says the British Paralympic Association’s first ever blind Chief Executive, David Clarke, who is also English blind football’s answer to Harry Kane, having scored 128 goals in 144 appearances for his country.
David’s comments come as the world’s largest ever blind and partially sighted sporting event – the 2023 IBSA World Games – arrives in the UK for the first time.
“Is that man blind?” I overheard a child ask his mother when I was walking through a train station the other day. “Shh!” I heard his mother reply, sounding rather embarrassed.
As a blind person I wasn’t offended – which is what the mother was trying to avoid. I was quite the opposite – I want children to let it out if they have a question about my disability because conversations such as this can lay the foundations for a generational shift in perception towards blind and partially sighted people.
Although I enjoyed a 24-year career in banking alongside becoming English football’s all-time record goal scorer across all formats of the game, I have lost count of the number of barriers I have had put up along the way outside of sport – from university and job applications, through to my guide dog being declined entry to places.
Sport aside, there are numerous aspects of daily life where the experiences of people with disabilities – including blind and partially sighted individuals – are simply not the same as their able-bodied counterparts – whether that is in education, employment, health outcomes and social interactions.
Covid is a classic example of why society needs to take stock of how it treats blind and partially sighted people.
It’s alright telling people to keep two metres away from each other, but how do you actually enable blind and partially sighted people to know what that is and operate safely? How do you enable them to navigate without having to touch railings and buttons?
Blind and partially sighted people are often neglected from a place at the table in society, and I think what drives this is a sub-conscious, widely-held fear around sight loss.
Because of this fear factor, I think that many fully-sighted individuals generally have a low expectation of those with sight loss – and I think that comes from fully-sighted individuals having a low expectation of themselves if they were to lose their sight. We need to change this now.
I’m not trying to promote sight loss as a good thing, but it really isn’t something to be feared.
The opportunities for blind and partially sighted people to participate in sport are vast – but there’s a disconnect between the two. People often think ‘build it and people will come’, but the reality is you’ve got to actively reach out and encourage them to come down, spectate and participate – and I think the 2023 IBSA World Games can help to reach these underrepresented groups – and change perceptions of the wider public, too.
If you can perform at the highest level on a judo mat, on a football pitch or on a goalball court, it seems entirely logical that that translates into the rest of life. What we need to show the general public is that if they are comfortable that what they’re seeing at the IBSA World Games is an elite performance, and you can see how the hours of training and the technical ability has led to that position, then why does that not translate to other areas?
Why do we still have kids in schools sitting out sport today because teachers can’t find a way of including them? I was at an event with Hannah Cockroft recently who said she sat out sport until she was 14! If that had continued, we wouldn’t have had one of the world’s greatest wheelchair racers.
The 2023 IBSA World Games will include more than 1,250 athletes from 70 countries competing in ten sports on our home soil, and it presents a terrific opportunity to involve all of these people who are going to mould how future generations think and act, so it’s really important that the Games reaches out to schools and partners with universities, as it gives the opportunities for students to get involved.
It’s also important that businesses have the chance to interact with the Games, because they will see a footballer or judo player performing at the highest level, and some of their thinking around “can this person do this job or that job?” will be challenged because of what they are seeing in front of them. This has the potential to be a watershed moment for blind and partially sighted people.
I have coached kids’ mainstream football for 15 years, and I have never had a single difficult incident with the kids I coach from a sight-loss perspective. They could not care less, and as long as they are getting fun, informative coaching they are happy. It’s this type of legacy that I want the 2023 IBSA World Games to leave across the country.