International Women’s Day: Disabled Women

Helen Black began her fulltime, funded PhD Studentship in January 2023 as part of the University of Worcester’s doctoral Programme. Helen is situated in the School of Sport and Exercise Science and a part of the Inclusive Sport and Physical Activity Research Group (ISPARG). The ISPARG works towards the development of meaningful, ethically responsible and high-quality interdisciplinary research within the broad area of Inclusive Sport and Physical Activity. Helen’s PhD research closely links to these areas, in particular intersectionality and marginalised groups within physical activity. As part of her doctoral studies, Helen will work closely with physically disabled women with multiple marginalised identities that regularly access physical activity spaces, and employees that work in those spaces, to maximise the real-life impact of her research, with communities involved in the study.

As it is International Women’s week it is important to note that my proposal places disabled women at the centre of the study, amplifying the voices of disabled women; voices that historically have been silenced or ignored due to various cultural, political and social inequities. My hope is the women in the study, as well as disabled women that may read or experience applied effects of the project in the future, feel empowered through validation of their experiences, and being a part of social justice movements resisting ableism within public physical activity spaces. I have hope that this study embraces the various intersectional identities of disabled women and will contribute to reducing discrimination and exclusion of women from activity spaces by creating excellent inclusive practitioners and enhance wellbeing throughout many disabled women’s lives.

Helen’s summary of her doctoral research focus:

Individuals with physical disabilities are one of the most inactive populations in the UK due to a lack of inclusive facilities and cultural stigma. Cultural stigma is formed by the dominance of ableism ‘the ideal way of being,’ which marginalises anyone with ‘other’ bodies and identities, such as individuals that look, think or act differently to cultural norms. Combating inequalities in society relating to inclusive physical activity is complex due to the many different ‘ways of being’ that are typically excluded from mainstream spaces. For example, people with physical impairments, communities with faith-based needs that require female only spaces and people whose first language is not English can experience multiple, complex, and intersecting socio-cultural barriers to equitable physical activity. Intersectionality recognises that identity markers (e.g., women, disabled, person of colour) do not exist independently of each other. Rather each is an important part of a person’s identity that creates a complex whole, which can lead to oppression if a part of that person’s identity is different to mainstream society. In the UK, for example, the ‘norm’ is nondisabled, white, Christian or atheist, and English as a first language. For individuals not fitting this image or these identities, they may experience discrimination. Intersectionality is therefore used to understand how barriers are produced as a result of someone having one or multiple different identities to a ‘norm’. Applying an intersectionality-informed perspective in research allows us to deepen our understanding and appreciation of diversity, and nuance in regards to who holds power, why, and how this can be challenged. In essence, intersectionality encourages understandings of identity as a complex whole rather than identity characteristics explored in isolation.

I will be using intersectionality as the central framework for my thesis. Among the most excluded groups in UK society regarding physical activity are disabled people, women, and people from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Therefore, a framework that embraces, potentially marginalised groups in relation to sexuality, gender, race, nationality, low socioeconomic strata, and disability is pertinent to explore the experiences of disabled women with multiple minority identities, and thereafter design interventions to increase equitable physical activity of this group. I will work closely with members of the selected community/communities to explore their complex web of identities and how those identities connect to physical activity related exclusion and inequality. At this early stage of doctoral research, I am still exploring relevant literature and theoretical pathways regarding intersectionality, intersectional identities, and feminist perspectives linked to critical disability studies; all of which may provide insightful perspectives to the research. Nevertheless, I recognised that at this stage what is most important is to keep an open mind regarding possibilities around theory and methodology and to broaden my horizons in this regard.

Sport England

So, what does this all really mean? My doctoral research will run alongside Sport England’s (2021) 10-year strategy ‘Uniting the Movement’ which calls for strategies that serves marginalised groups’ equitable physical activity access (very cool, I know!). The strategy ‘Uniting the Movement’ is focused on inequalities among women, those from ethnically diverse communities, living in deprived areas and disabled individuals with long term health conditions; hence the reason for focusing on disabled women with multiple minority identities. Aligning my doctoral research to Sport England’s strategy enhances the likelihood of successfully developing a new line of applied research by (1) situating disability within wider understandings of intersectionality and (2) informing the creation of resources to support physical activity employees facilitate more equitable physical activity opportunities. My thesis will place disabled women at the centre of the project, by working collaboratively with them, listening to their lived knowledge, with the aim to hopefully create further opportunities for disabled women to access inclusive opportunities.

Aims of the Research

The aim of the research is to reduce physical activity inequities among disabled women with multiple minority identities by creating and implementing resources to support physical activity employees (e.g., gym workers, fitness instructors, coaches, etc.). At this early stage of my doctoral research project, I have discovered that employees can be useful interactive representations of the physical activity spaces and can be powerful facilitators of inclusive practice. However, though intentions are often good, they lack confidence, knowledge, and experience fear when approached to work with individuals different to themselves. By working with disabled women with multiple marginalised identities and physical activity employees, together we will identify barriers, gaps in knowledge, concerns and desires of both groups that will become the foundation for creating resources to facilitate equitable physical activity to a diverse and nuanced UK population. I am excited to see how this applied research will continue to develop during the project and see first-hand how employees can be impactful inclusive facilitators.

Though I recognise I will not be able to ‘fix’ ableism singlehandedly or stop physical activity exclusion happening in more wide-reaching settings (I wish I could!), I’m excited at the prospects of addressing the physical activity inequalities experiences of disabled women with multiple marginalised identities as those relate to physical activity employees in the current doctoral research project.

Thus far, the methodology is in the forming stages. It is clear that a qualitative, coproduction design will be facilitated by working with members and employees at 3-4 community-based leisure centres across England (each with different demographics). These will form studies to allow for an appreciation of different cultures and microcultures across various areas of England. Personally, the ‘living knowledge’ aspect of this doctoral research is particularly important, as I hope to provide a platform to highlight and amplify the powerful, informed voices of participants in those communities; where they feel heard (this may be the first time they have felt heard or been genuinely listened to). These authentic real-life experiences will be further developed through creative methods, such as ethnodrama, to produce academic and translational knowledge. Further, we will create tangible resources that support employees’ work with diverse groups of people in physical activity settings, sharing and disseminating these widely through the University of Worcester and Sport England. I have hope that this research overall will meaningfully contribute to studies that seek wider sociocultural impact towards social justice, but more importantly impacts the communities most disadvantaged in physical activity.

My doctoral research will therefore not only have a significant impact within academia, but will also directly serve and address excluded communities, with plural identities, from various physical activity spaces and the wider community. I am really excited to start this journey and positively impact lives through an intersectional approach!

If you are interested in becoming a part of my study or have any questions, please get in touch –

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