“What if the tables were turned?”

I borrowed this title from Joan’s Facebook post. Joan’s a visually impaired athlete and the top scorer for the women’s national Goalball team. She was reflecting on a 1 v 3 modified Goalball game where she competed and won against three sighted athletes. This happened just before the circuit breaker.

She was pondering about who would be considered “disabled” should the tables be turned – in a context where the sighted athletes had to operate in a “blind” environment instead. You can read about her thoughts and watch the game here. While you are at it, do send her a friend request!

“Is disability a result of one’s condition, or the result of the physical and social environment?”

I thought that Joan’s sharing connected really strongly with the Social Model of Disability and there is an important message here to be shared with my fellow coaches and the public.

What is the Social Model of Disability (SMD)?

The SMD views disability as a relational concept, specifically, the amount of actual disability experienced by a person, will depend on the nature of the environment which the person lives in. The environment can either facilitate or restrict one’s functional activities.

For example, a social environment where public spaces can be accessed by ramps and tactile indicators, and where the general public has a good understanding about how to interact with Persons with Disabilities (PwDs), will be considered enabling rather than disabling.

“From perspective of the social model of disability, disability is not so much a medical problem as it is a socially contrived one. Society has created an environment for individuals with disabilities filled with both physical and attitudinal barriers.”

People with Disability Australia (PWDA), 2018. ‘Social Model of Disability’. Retrieved from https://pwd.org.au/resources/disability-info/social-model-of-disability/

In contrast to the SMD, the more deterministic medical model of disability does not differentiate between pathology and disability. It also excludes the consideration of the environment.

What do you think is the dominant perception of disability here in Singapore? Does it lean towards the social or medical model? More specifically, do we perceive that the negative effects of disability are due to an individual’s condition rather than environmental factors?

A Reflective Tool…

I am not proposing that the SMD is more relevant than the MMD. The SMD does have it’s own shortcomings. For example, it does not address the evident reality of illness, bodily pain and dysfunction that prevents PwDs from not only taking part in sport, but to find a job too (Martin, 2013). I do think that the SMD is a particularly useful reflective tool to help identify the barriers and constraints that both athletes with impairments and disability sport coaches face, and how we can overcome them.

Research points to disability sports coaches having to manage numerous constraints such as limited financial support, support staff and a much smaller talent pool (Taylor et al. 2014). In addition, the coach often has to communicate more often with the athlete’s families, caregivers and social support workers. Despite having more responsibilities, they are often compensated less.

The SMD can help policy makers and coaches to reflect on coaching in such a way
that considers the athlete and the coaching environment in relation to
exclusion (Townsend et.al. 2018) . The focus is then on the coach and coaching – not the ‘problem’ of impairment.

The Inclusive Coach

Most coaches adopt an inclusive approach to coaching which is strongly aligned with the SMD. For example, they would modify and adapt the environment (rather than exclude participants based on their abilities) to enable participants of different skill levels to take part in sport together.

Ironically, coaches typically practice this only with able-bodied participants. When asked to coach someone with a disability, most coaches are apprehensive and would be reluctant to include the PwD in his or her session. This is even though there are very few disabilities or conditions that completely preclude participation in sport.

Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of various government organizations, socially-driven enterprises and individuals, things are beginning to change for the better. More coaches are beginning to realise that they already possess the skills and knowledge required to coach persons with a disability. The only piece missing in their coaching “toolkit” is a basic understanding of a few key aspects that are unique to PwDs.

To help you with this, here’s a link to a “toolkit” developed by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS). It provides you with the basic information, guidelines, and tips to interact with PwDs. You can also check out this link to learn how the TREE model can assist you in creating conditions for effective participation and inclusion.

In a nutshell….

  1. As demonstrated by Joan’s game against the three sighted athletes, in an enabling environment, PwDs may not necessary be less capable than their able-bodied peers.
  1. The Social Model of Disability serves as an reflective tool for removing physical and attitudinal barriers faced by PwDs and their coaches.

  1. Most coaches already possess the necessary technical skills and knowledge to coach PwDs.

Coach Hansen


People with Disability Australia (PWDA), 2018. ‘Social Model of Disability’. Retrieved from https://pwd.org.au/resources/disability-info/social-model-of-disability/

Martin, J.J. (2013) Benefits and barriers to physical activity for individuals with disabilities: a social-relational model of disability perspective, Disability and Rehabilitation, 35:24, 2030-2037

Shakespeare, T. (2006). Disability rights and wrongs. Abingdon: Routledge.

Taylor, S. L., Werthner, P., & Culver, D. M. (2014). A Case Study of a Parasport Coach and a
Life of Learning. International Sport Coaching Journal, 1, 127-38.

Townsend, Robert & Cushion, Christopher. (2018). Athlete-centred coaching in disability sport: A critical perspective.

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