With conversations about toxic sport cultures, athlete maltreatment and mental health on the rise, many Canadian institutions and leaders are looking for solutions to create safer sport environments.  University of Toronto’s Safe Sport Lab researchers – E-Alliance Co-Director Dr. Gretchen Kerr and three-time Paralympian and MSc candidate Stephanie Dixon – with Karen O’Neill, Chief Executive Officer at the Canadian Paralympic Committee, are working to ensure that experiences and stories from members of the parasport community are heard and that their vision for a safe, more inclusive and welcoming sport culture is realized.

To get there, the research team has launched a para-centred project designed to elicit parasport participants’ visions of safe, inclusive, and welcoming sport experiences. The driving questions included: what do safe, inclusive, and welcoming experiences look like; how do you know these when you see them; and what will it take to realize these experiences?

Para-athletes (current and retired National Team para-athletes and next generation athletes), parents, coaches, administrators, sport personnel, classifiers, and administrators were invited to participate in the study. The team was keen to get a diverse range of perspectives allowing them to work towards solution-oriented outcomes. “There is a lot of literature and current research examining the prevalence of harm in sport and the barriers to realizing safe environments, “Dixon explains. “Of course, we need to know what the problems are if we’re going to tackle them. But also, once we do have a grasp of the scope of unsafe sport in Canada, we need to know what we’re striving towards.”

All athletes participating in the project are disabled athletes. But Dixon points out that “some of their experiences might also be impacted by multiple systems of oppression around gender, racialization, Indigeneity, and sexual orientation.” This intersectional approach echoes the E-Alliance framework and approach to research.

“It was important to focus on the direct experience of sport stakeholders,” O’Neill explains, acknowledging that as a white, CIS, female CEO, there is extraordinary value in keeping the research participants engaged and immersed in this conversation.

As one of the most prominent para-athletes in Canada, Dixon adds incredible first-hand and lived experiences to the project. When members of the parasport community gathered earlier this summer, she shared the following priorities that were most consistent in the findings:

Values of the Sport System – Being intentional about building a community based on values that prioritize equity, inclusion, transparency, collaboration, and the provision of lifelong opportunities.

Education – Increase disability and intersectionality awareness across the sport system, challenging assumptions, and providing stakeholders with skills of inclusion.

Representation – Ensure para-athletes’ voices are incorporated into program design; that they are in positions of power and influence and that consistent evaluation is built into these programs.

The team acknowledges that the current focus on safe sport in Canada is not new. A similar trend emerged in the 1990s. But the momentum faded and many of the problems prevailed.

“I’m hopeful that it’s different this time,” Dixon says. “I’m hopeful that we have a greater understanding of different types of harm, that we have a greater understanding of how it affects different types of people. There’s a greater conversation happening in and out of sport about inequities and harm. And it can be overwhelming for people who want to be part of the change. Where do we go from here? I think step one is just listening to the experiences of athletes and those who are under threat of experiencing harm. The athlete voice is incredibly important and the initiatives moving forward to address maltreatment and inequities in sport need to be informed by the actual experiences of athletes. That is the hope behind this research project.”