Towards Mainstreaming: A Principle – Practice Gap in the UK Sports Sector

  • Matej Christiaens

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


In the UK alone, over 13 million people have some form of disability which is set to increase in the future as a result of an aging population (Department for Work & Pensions 2018). While disability is extremely diverse, PWD have historically been marginalised and excluded from the rest of society based on the perception that they are, as a result of their impairment, different from the norm (Oliver and Barnes 2012). This is particularly true for the sport sector where sports for people with disabilities have traditionally been organised in a segregated manner from mainstream sport provision. Moreover, PWD remain the biggest underperforming group in terms of sport participation with 16.8% compared to almost 40% of the nondisabled (Sport England 2018).
Contemporary policies attempt to address this gap through mainstreaming, which is the inclusion of people with disabilities in a nondisabled environment and the provision of services for people with disabilities by nondisabled organisations. However, people with disabilities continue to participate less than other sections of the population and seldom find their way into the mainstream sport sector as the survey conducted for this research show that less than 2% of sport club membership is someone with a disability, it can be argued that contemporary mainstreaming policy has failed. Therefore, this thesis explores the principle-practice gap that exists between the ambition of mainstreaming policy and action in the field.
To gain a better understanding of the components underpinning the principle-practice gap, a conceptual framework was developed. This conceptual framework uniquely introduces the concept of ableism and integrates the target audience. Furthermore, this research adopts a dual method approach that utilises both a survey and in-depth interviews. The survey was conducted with grassroots sport clubs of both athletics and swimming. The Interviews were informed by a stakeholder analysis that identified the key actors of the implementation of mainstreaming policy in the sport sector.
Aided by the conceptual framework, this research shows the difficulties faced in relation to the implementation of mainstreaming policy in the UK grassroots sport sector. One key finding is the limitation caused by disability illiteracy in the sport sector and broader society in general. It is assumed that the historical background of disability in combination with disability illiteracy are important underlying causes of the prevalence of ableism in society. This is heavily evidenced by the prioritisation of nondisabled sport over sport for PWD in addition to a lack of understanding in what constitutes accessibility and a lack of knowledge and experience of coaches with coaching PWD. Furthermore, this study highlights the differences between policy intent and the expectations of the target audience. However, the study also highlighted a positive change in attitudes towards disability and mainstreaming, in particular the ideas of creating a mutual identity based on sport rather than on the distinction between being disabled or nondisabled and the establishment of hybrid sport clubs are promising for the future.
This thesis attempted to bring together the socio-political fields of sport and disability studies. Through the combination of these fields, and by grounding them in a robust conceptual framework, it is hoped that this research will add positively to the literature and raise awareness regarding the issues faced by people with disabilities seeking to participate in sport.
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
SponsorsCoventry University
SupervisorIan Brittain (Supervisor), Benoit Senaux (Supervisor) & Donna Wong (Supervisor)


  • Mainstreaming
  • policy implementation
  • sport policy
  • disability sport
  • grassroots sport
  • United Kingdom
  • athletics
  • swimming
  • ableism

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