Christelle Saint-Julien

Dr. Diane Culver is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa School of Human Kinetics and member of the E-Alliance scientific committee. Culver is a lead researcher specializing in disability in sports. She also directed the literature review on gender equity in sports for people with disabilities. Her latest research project, funded by E-Alliance, focuses on the intersection of gender equity and disability through a case study of Défi sportif AlterGo, a sporting event for athletes who have functional limitations.

Diane Culver’s passion for sports is nothing new. The former competitive downhill skier was a member of the national team before switching to coaching, a position she held for over 20 years. “I decided to go back to university to study sports psychology,” says the professor when discussing how her professional responsibilities became incompatible with parent life.  “Given my experience, I knew how important this topic was.”  Her specialization in sport pedagogy and psychology led to an interest in coach development using an equity framework―an interest that remains central to her work today.

“The sports world is very macho, and that’s really unfortunate,” the researcher says. Offering the example of the Tokyo Olympics, she explains that male and female participation was near parity and that the performance of female athletes surpassed their male counterparts. “Yet, when it comes to the coaches, there were still a lot of biases,” she highlights. “It’s not just about there being more women—men have to be aware of what women go through for there to be change,” says Dr. Culver, adding that we must strive for equity on all fronts, particularly when it comes to getting national sport organizations involved and imposing consequences. Participants who aren’t athletes, such as coaches and organizers, also have valuable experiences to share. “There needs to be a broader understanding of gender equity, one that goes beyond comparing the representation of men and women,” she specifies.

Dr. Culver privileges qualitative research methods in her work, with a focus on interviews, observation and action research. In line with these methods, social learning theory has become a passion for her.  “It’s about bringing people together who want to make a difference and working with them in their communities and at different levels to enact change,” she says. For the professor, humans are social beings above all, and learning is a part of our essence. “We’ve always learned through interactions with others and our environments. We could easily say that these interactions are innate,” she says. Knowledge is deepened when people get together to learn more about specific topics. “We learn by interacting with people who want to develop similar practices.”

Participants begin with this collective process of reflection, which leads them to their own individual reflections, with the goal of being able to incorporate these new teachings into their practice. “What’s important in these spaces is to always focus on each participant’s needs,” Dr. Culver specifies. “Participants tell us what they need.”

Diane Culver was the lead researcher for a literature review on gender equity and parasport, the first of its kind, conducted and published last year.  After analyzing 61 articles, she concluded that masculinity and ableism are alive and well. “Representation is different in the media. We’ll often see photos of men practicing their sports, but not women. The same goes for the non-parasport sector,” she describes.

The professor also noted how little research there is on equity when it comes to the experiences of children and teenagers. Among other failings, there’s a lack of analysis on the intersections of social categories, especially of participants who are already marginalized at some level while also living with a disability. “We need to have a better understanding of identity markers and how they interact and affect each other,” the researcher states.

Dr. Culver’s recent research included a case study of the Défi sportif AlterGo, where she looked into the intersection of gender identity and disability within a multisport event for athletes with functional limitations.  Drawing over 8,000 participants each year, it’s the largest sporting event in Canada. “The idea is to provide universal access so that participation is possible for all levels of ability,” Dr. Culver says. The event’s organizers don’t have direct control over participation—that responsibility falls on the sport organizations and schools who attend. According to Culver, this only further demonstrates why the entire underlying system needs to be transformed for real change to happen.