Empowering female athletes in disability sport during challenging times

Anita Choudhrie, founder of Path To Success, a female sport charity dedicated to supporting GB Paralympians and empowering female athletes in disability sport talks through challenges leading up to the Paralympics in the wake of Covid.

The 2012 London Paralympics were a defining moment for disability sport in the UK. However, nine years on, there is much more that needs to be done to encourage more uniquely able-bodied people across the UK to remain active.

Of England’s population of 53 million, 18.4 million, or almost 35%, have a long-standing disability or illness, and almost 20% of this group have a long-standing limiting disability.

Unfortunately, women with disabilities are among the highest-risk groups for not partaking in physically-active hobbies, and participation in disability sport has fallen by 10% since the London 2012 Paralympics. For young women, the associated health risks of long-term inactivity could have irreversible effects on their quality of life.

The past 18 months have been an extremely challenging time for everyone. However, whilst exercise has proven to be a lifesaver for many, the restrictions placed on interactions with others and the lack of access to specially equipped facilities, has made it harder than ever for women with disabilities to partake in physically-active hobbies.

Now, with Tokyo 2021 happening as we speak, it is crucial that we seize this opportunity and encourage more people into disability sport.

At Path To Success, our mission has always been to secure the legacy of disability sport in the UK and to inspire a new generation of British female Paralympic stars. Today we support twelve female Paralympic athletes across four major disability sports. Four of these athletes have recently had their place to compete in Tokyo confirmed, including wheelchair tennis athlete Lucy Shuker and para powerlifting champion Louise Sugden.

Whilst this is an amazing achievement, the global health crisis has had a significant impact on the running of the charity. Traditionally, our fundraising efforts have centred around two key annual events; the flagship indoor wheelchair basketball tournament and a fundraising gala. As with many charities, the pandemic has prevented us from pushing ahead with these activities and so we have become largely dependent on the generosity of individuals to help try and meet our £200,000 annual budget.

In addition to this, we applied for a number of grants and thankfully Sport England awarded us a grant from their Community Emergency Fund which provided crucial support during the early days of the pandemic. We have also tried to leverage the power of technology by running an online initiative on EasyFundraising, AmazonSmile and joining the nation in the 2.6 Challenge, and have also taken a salary reduction to prolong the charities life. However, whilst these activations have helped, without celebrity ambassadors or corporations behind us, our fundraising activities and events are essential to enable us to carry on.

In light of this challenging situation, we have shifted the support we offer these brilliant athletes, focusing on helping them to build their profiles and source sponsorships partnerships, alongside offering access to sports psychologists.

Whilst society may now be starting to look ahead to a “post-Covid” world, the harsh reality is that many smaller charities are still facing extremely challenging times. At Path To Success, we will continue to work to raise awareness in order to be able to carry on offering crucial support to female para-athletes, but we desperately need greater government support in order to continue to operate.

We have always been deeply inspired by the skill, determination and positive attitude of all the athletes we have supported, yet unfortunately, able-bodied athletes often take centre stage. The athletes we support train just as hard, if not harder, and are at the top of their specifications, yet sponsorship deals are harder to cement and funding allocations are significantly smaller. At the end of the day, athletic organisations can only take these athletes so far and it is the support of charities which are keeping them afloat during this time.

Now, amid ongoing funding cuts, it is vital that society pulls together to provide the crucial support these athletes need and ensure that participation in disability sport doesn’t continue to fall.

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