Lets talk disability classification in para sports

The IFSC (international federation for sport climbing) has recently stated they are moving to IPC classifications from 2021.

This separates athletes into the following 10 eligible impairments:

  • Impaired Muscle Power – Athletes with Impaired Muscle Power have a Health Condition that either reduces or eliminates their ability to voluntarily contract their muscles in order to move or to generate force. Examples of eligible impairments are paraplegia, a spinal cord injury, post – polio syndrome and spina bifida
  • Impaired Passive Range of Movement – Athletes with Impaired Passive Range of Movement have a restriction or a lack of passive movement in one or more joints. This may result from contracture resulting from chronic joint immobilisation or trauma 
  • Limb Deficiency – Athletes with Limb Deficiency have total or partial absence of bones or joints as a consequence oftrauma (for example traumatic amputation), illness (for example amputation due to bone cancer) or congenital limb deficiency (for example dysmelia).
  • Leg Length Difference – Athletes with Leg Length Difference have a difference in the length of their legs as a result of a disturbance of limb growth, or as a result of trauma.
  • Short Stature – Examples of an Underlying Health Condition that may lead to Short Stature include achondroplasia, growth hormone dysfunction, and osteogenesis imperfecta. 
  • Hypertonia – Athletes with Hypertonia have an increase in muscle tension and a reduced ability of a muscle to stretch caused by damage to the central nervous system. This may be as a result of Cerebral Palsy, a Traumatic Brain Injury or a stroke.
  • Ataxia – Athletes with Ataxia have uncoordinated movements caused by damage to the central nervous system. This may be caused by the conditions/events listed in hypertonia or by MS.
  • Athetosis – Athletes with Athetosis have continual slow involuntary movements. The examples listed by IPC here are Cerebral Palsy, a traumatic brain injury and stroke.
  • Vision impairment – reduced or no vision caused by damage to the optic nerves or optical pathways or visual cortex of the brain.
  • Intellectual impairment – Athletes with an Intellectual Impairment have a restriction in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour in which affects conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills required for everyday life. This Impairment must be present before the age of 18. 

It then goes to list a number of categories of health conditions that are not underlying health conditions. These are as follows:

  1. Conditions that primarily cause pain (fibromyalgia, CRPS, Myofascial pain syndrome)
  2. Conditions that primarily cause fatigue (ME/CFS)
  3. Primarily cause hypermobility or hypotonia (EDS)
  4. Primarily psychological or psychosomatic in nature (Conversion disorders or PTSD)

So what are the problems with this?

a) Using the same basic criteria for a range of sports excludes people who can’t run due to pain/fatigue/joint instability can and has excluded people from wheelchair basketbal, tennis and other sports that rely on either being able to run or use a wheelchair.

b) It’s completely misunderstanding ME/CFS. Take me for example. I have reduced sensation in my legs, feet and left hand often. But unless I get scans and lumber punctures to see if it’s something brain/cci related and they come back with something I’d probably be excluded from para-sports purely because the IPC thinks my condition is primarily fatigue when fatigue is the tip of the iceberg. It’s unbearable pressure in the base of my skull, dizziness, difficulty with positional changes, reduced sensation, extreme muscle weakness and reduced power in my legs and I’ve always had poor proprioception and co-ordination. Although this isn’t an issue for me right now. I’m not well enough to compete in any sport and do my very intense masters course it would be nice to have the option and it hurts that yet another organisation is failing to properly understand ME/CFS.

c)Expressly excluding EDS (unless the athlete also has an eligible impairment + EDS) is wrong. Yes it fluctuates and athletes with EDS may need regular evaluations and some wouldn’t even fall within para categories if they were amended but EDS impairs ability to perform in a variety of ways. Our hyper-mobile joints means it takes more power to do what a non hyper-mobile person can, we often have issues with fatigue, brain fog and positional changes. We can have poor proprioception and get frequently injured.

d) It’s not considering everything else that can impair ability to perform that comes with a “Non-eligible” underlying health condition. The fatigue, brain fog, inability to concentrate, the pain, slow healing, dizzyness. These are all real issues and I know they can be hard to quanitify but nevertheless there should be an option for those who fall outside the 10 categories that doesn’t make the competition unfair for people within the 10 categories.

e) For an organisation that preaches accessibility and inclusivity in sports it just doesn’t feel right to have this list of non eligible impairments.

f) People who have worked for years to get to where they are, are now being exlcuded from competing. Their career ending prematurely due to some critieria.

So? What should change? I understand the need for strict measurable criteria to ensure the competition is fair for everyone. Especially in sports where it comes down to a tenth of a second or point. It’s definitely hard to find the balance. But I think there is a way to include everyone whose disability impacts their sport and wants to compete and is able to get to the required standard.

I think different sports should be able to have different criteria and still be able to make a bid to be a Paralympic sport if not already one. Honestly, all wheelchair sports should be accessible to anyone who can’t do the able bodied equivalent because they can’t run or stand for a long period of time. It may mean playing around with the categories to ensure it’s fair but the pay off is accessibility for all. Secondly, we need diverse teams making these decisions. We need people with a range of disabilities and from a range of ethnic, gender and socio-economic backgrounds in the room. This will mean any blindspots will be pointed out and considered, hopefully leading to less unfair exclusion. Assessors also need to have proper education about lesser known impairments that athletes may present with. To ensure a full, fair and non biased evalation.

As a climber. I really want all aspects of the sport to be accessible to all. Yes I may be climbing like a beginner right now because I’ve been so sick this year and I still love climbing regardless of my grade and limited ability. But I also enjoyed competing when I was younger and in the beginning part of this year. If our disability impacts our sport we should have the option for both. Regardless of the underlying health condition.