‘Is your Club an accessible Club?’ -11 years on.

11 years ago, an article was published in the popular Canadian soccer magazine Inside Soccer. To put the timeline in context, the Women’s National Team had just finished the World Cup without a win and scoring only 1 goal despite being a tournament favourite, Aron Winter was Head Coach of Toronto FC and finished the season 3rd from bottom in the league while the Canadian Soccer League still existed, sanctioned by Canada Soccer. The article was titled ‘Is your Club an accessible Club’ and looked specifically at the areas of AODA (accessibility law), the current Ontario Soccer Association rules review that was under an extensive assessment, Long-Term Athlete Development, and finally, the location of current accessible programs across Ontario.

11 years on from that article it’s worth looking to see what progress has been made. SPOILER ALERT: there is good and bad in this review.

The first area focused on accessibility in terms of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act or AODA which came into law in 2005 and is planned for full completion by 2025. The introduction of the law has met with certain challenges including its enforcement and compliance from businesses of all sizes. The first step in compliance was focused on customer service, arguably the easiest step for grassroots clubs to be compliant as it doesn’t require capital investment for projects such as ramps or automatic doors. At the time of writing the article talked about a partnership with Ontario Soccer and Active Living Alliance based in Ottawa. Ontario Soccer’s Club Development staff hosted workshops on AODA and printed guides to help clubs become compliant. Activity in this area didn’t continue much past 2012, however in 2015 Ontario Soccer did acquire a small grant through the Enabling Change Fund of the Ontario Government. This enabled a team of accessible soccer experts in the province to develop a resource that would bring AODA to life and put it in the context of grassroots soccer organizations. This guide was launched in February 20 17 at the Ontario Soccer Summit and we’re pleased to say the document, Achieving Accessibility, resides on the Ontario Soccer website as a resource.

The second component of this article was the Ontario Soccer Association rules review that was successfully completed under the leadership of former President Ron Smale. Two specific components of these new rules enhanced the ability for clubs to support disability soccer. The first was reference to, and recognition of, international governing bodies for disability soccer. Previous formats had only referred to FIFA or the International Football Association Board who oversee the Laws of Association Football. This meant that the clubs wanting to start an accessible program were handcuffed by the rules of 11-a-side or even small-sided football, so the new references were empowering. The second was a Dispensation Policy which empowered club technical directors to assess a player’s ability and move them up or down in age or competition category in order to suit their particular needs at any given time in their development. We are happy to share that Ontario Soccer is currently undergoing a full assessment of their current strategic plan for 2022-2026 and that includes a deeper focus on inclusion and accessibility in soccer. An Ontario Soccer board member has been specifically tasked with review of the current disability soccer stream and how we reduce barriers of people participating in the sport.

The third component of this decade old article was Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD). At the time of the original article clubs were being introduced to the implementation of this new philosophy from a newly appointed technical director. Disability soccer was not explicitly addressed as part of the LTAD roll-out by either Ontario Soccer or the Canadians Sport for Life group who devised LTAD. However, the underpinning philosophy of long-term athlete development is an athlete centred system and ensuring the player participating is in the correct environment for their development and this can be extended to disability soccer. In fact, you could argue that disability soccer has been further ahead (living) this philosophy forever – much more attention has been paid to the needs of the disabled athlete from the get-go. While the article doesn’t specifically mention the role that LTAD plays for athletes with a disability there is mention of the role of Special Olympics Canada and Parasport Ontario in general and their role in long-term athlete development as they have their own LTAD plans. This suggests that an opportunity was missed for cross-pollination between soccer and these organisations to build a piece of coach education that could help grassroots clubs. In 2013 Canada Soccer did release their LTPD-Players with Disabilities guide that did bring national level organizations together. This document is ready for a much-needed update.

The final piece of the article highlights the clubs and associations where accessible soccer was already happening. Looking down that list there is representation from South Windsor, Pickering, Newmarket, Russell, Sudbury, Aurora, York Region and Mississauga. An estimated 50% of those programs still exist after a decade which is fantastic, and a huge credit to the staff and volunteers of those organizations. The even better news is that we’ve expanded well beyond that with almost 20 club programs in Ontario alone (and there’s an appetite for more). At the time the article went to print it was stated that ‘Ontario Soccer Association is committed to the growth of soccer and supported by its district associations a database of opportunities to participate and the development of resources for club coaches will be established’. On reflection, the resources for club coaches are more critical now than ever before but growth won’t come from district involvement. These programs need to happen within the Canada Soccer National Youth License system across the province and across the country. These organizations have the resources and/or the network of collaborative partners as well as a catchment of players in their region or in the city.

Since this article was written in November 2011 positive advances have happened with disability soccer;

  • Growth of blind soccer programs in two clubs with a third coming in Jan 2023
  • Hosting of three provincial championships in blind soccer (Brantford, Pickering, Mississauga)
  • Delivery of a specific blind soccer course in May 2022 in Muskoka
  • Sanctioning by Canada Soccer of national blind soccer teams for men and women
  • Partnership of Special Olympics with Major League Soccer teams
  • Introduction of accessible soccer content in both Canada Soccer Children’s and Youth Licenses.

The reality is that this isn’t good enough and a lot more still needs to be done at all levels of the game from the upswell across grassroots clubs to the support of provincial programs in driving coach education and competition development. A review of this article was a great reminder of where we were ten years ago and it’s probably a sadder reflection of how slowly we’ve moved in those ten years. In the context of a world disability soccer, when it comes to disability soccer, we are arguably moving backward and not forward.

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