Things change when they are changed

Experiences Erasmus+ Erasmus+: Sport
A story about how a small wish to improve the life of children and young people with disabilities through a physically active hobby can lead to changes across Europe.
Two people smiling

This story begins from a wish to improve the life of some children and young people with disabilities through a physically active hobby. Then it expands to one in which hundreds of children and young people find hobbies and dozens of students gain experience of encounters that might not have been possible without the small wish that started everything.  In this story, dozens of educational institutions and sports clubs also begin to engage in work that increases social inclusion and permanently changes people’s attitudes. And the change does not take place only here in the far north: actors across Europe realise that the partners in Finland have come up with something so valuable that it is worth them copying it. Before we notice, even the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has a role in the story and its Articles become alive.

A guest from the Netherlands

A few years ago, a Dutch university of applied sciences contacted the Finnish Sports Association of Persons with Disabilities (VAU), the predecessor of the current Finnish Paralympic Committee. “We have an idea. Could we come and talk to you about it?” Even the slogan for the project – Sport Empowers Disabled Youth – sounded just like what people at VAU wanted to work with.

The Dutch university had decided to apply for an Erasmus+ grant that would enable some European countries to conduct experiments compatible with the title of the project. The staff at VAU came up with an idea: based on their long experience, they knew it was often difficult for children and young people with disabilities to engage in physically active hobbies, especially in hobbies intended for everyone, not only for persons with disabilities. They proposed that they could develop an operating model in which volunteers would be supporting children in starting a new hobby. A careful estimate that 30 children could perhaps be supported within the project was recorded in the plan.

A positive grant decision was made on the project application and the SEDY project was launched. VAU drew up a Webropol survey and started to disseminate it in its social media channels and in the channels of its cooperation networks. The survey was also conducted in Swedish because of concerns that they might not find the 30 children they had promised.

In a couple of hours, 60 children wishing to start a hobby had contacted VAU. In one month's time, approximately 400 children had contacted them. Such a surge of interest caused the staff at VAU some trouble as to where they would find the required number of volunteers.

All of Finland was immediately determined as the operating field. It felt important to start the trial everywhere, not only in a few larger cities, as it is often customary in pilot projects.

A decision was made to start extensive cooperation with educational institutions. The organisation already had well-working cooperation relationships with a large number of teachers of adapted physical activity who taught students of social services, physiotherapy and sports instruction at universities of applied sciences (UASs). A message enquiring whether the new activity could be included in the curricula was sent to the teachers. As a recommendation, it was assured that the operating model would have a strong working-life orientation and would definitely benefit the students. Twenty UASs across Finland joined the project. People from VAU travelled across the country holding information briefings.

Support persons start working

Support persons were designated for the children and young people. One support person sometimes had several persons to support. The grant was also used to employ 15 coordinators to support and encourage the support persons.

The support person contacted the family and interviewed the child to find out which sports the child might be interested in. Then they found out what sport opportunities were available in the area and went to try them out with the child. After the try-outs, they evaluated the sport. After having tested everything, they drew up a further plan for more independent engagement. As a side product of the project, the support person sometimes became a permanent assistant for the child.

More than one half of the children and young people who participated in the trial felt that they got more physical activity in their life, and studies show that more than one half of them still continued the hobby at least 12 months later. Although the grant for the project was relatively small, proof of this kind of long-term effects was obtained as a result of several theses that were written on the project.

Other kinds of realities

Of the 400 children and young people who originally contacted VAU, approximately 250 finally participated in the programme. Some of them lived in sparsely populated areas where support persons could not be found for them. For some of them, the worst happened – the child had passed away. This was one of the reasons the regional coordinators had an important role in providing support. Aija Saari, Research Manager at VAU, supported the coordinators. During the project, many students gained extremely unique experience by getting to know the life of a child with disabilities and their family and all their joys and sorrows.

No new sports groups were founded during the project. Instead, the children and young people joined already existing groups. When the SEDY project contacted the sports clubs, none of the clubs said the child would not be welcome. The presence of the support person was undoubtedly an important reason. If the person called to ask whether it would be possible to come and try out a boxing session, they also assured that they would find ways of applying the training to make it suitable for the participant with disabilities. The main reason for sports clubs to refuse to include a child or young person with disabilities in their activities is probably worry and uncertainty about their own skills in a new situation.

The project continues

VAU and the Finnish Paralympic Committee merged at the beginning of 2020. One of them had focused on competitive sports and the other on the promotion of equal opportunities in other fields of a physically active life. Together they became more.

The project that started as a relatively small and bold experiment proved to be so successful that it paved the way far into the future. VAU, or the current Finnish Paralympic Committee, also decided to apply for the funding for active lifestyles from the Ministry of Education and Culture to support the activity. The activity has been recorded as a permanent part of the Committee’s operation.

A further application for funding from Erasmus+ for Sport was submitted with the Dutch and some other partners. Finland's activity was found so successful that the other partner countries also wanted to implement it. The support persons were given the international name PAPAI (Personal Adapted Physical Activity Instructor). The SEDY2 project will spread the operating model developed in Finland across Europe between 2020 and 2022.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was drawn up in 2006, but Finland did not ratify it until 2016. Article 30 backs the Finnish Paralympic Committee in all of its activities. It outlines the right of persons with disabilities to physical activity and social inclusion. The Committee is thus working to reach two goals: it needs to both develop the peer activities aimed at persons with disabilities and promote social inclusion by creating opportunities to join general club activities. Persons with disabilities have the right to themselves choose the operating environments that are the most suitable for them.

Come along!

It is without doubt a good idea to join Erasmus+ projects. If your role is to be a partner, you have an excellent opportunity to concentrate on the actual content of the project while the others take care of the project management. Even managing a project is not likely to be impossible. You should invest in learning to know the partners during the initial preparations so that everyone knows where they are going and what kind of expectations and resources each of them has. The plans may change along the way, but at least in the SEDY projects, reporting and agreeing on changes has been very easy.

The Finnish Paralympic Committee has used the projects to implement its own vision and goal. At the same time, networks have been formed with other actors in Finland and elsewhere in Europe. The Committee believes that the opportunities of persons with disabilities to engage in physical activity and sport could not have been promoted to this extent without the projects.

A story that doesn't end

Let’s have another look at how many different reference groups were exposed to the support activities and undoubtedly have had new content in their life.

The most important target group is of course those hundreds of children and young people with disabilities who have received a support person and a new physically active hobby. Their parents have had experiences that their child can engage in a variety of hobbies in spite of their disability. The support person has reduced the parents’ workload in arrangements related to hobbies.

The support persons, who are mainly students of health care and social sciences or sports have gained invaluable experience of the life of a child with disabilities and their family and of the interaction between families and sports clubs.

Sports clubs have gained new courage to start to implement genuine inclusion in which every child and young person is welcomed to do their preferred sport in their home locality.

Educational institutions have also benefitted as their curriculum has been strengthened with an excellent working-life oriented operating method and several theses have been inspired by the project. The theses have naturally also benefitted the Finnish Paralympic Committee and its future projects.

The Finnish Paralympic Committee hopes that Finland will in the future be a country where people can engage in a hobby they want, where they want. The change is driven as a joint effort of the entire society by creating positive opportunities.

The SEDY projects and the support persons have opened a door which has now been left open.

Sport Empowers Disabled Youth (SEDY)

  • Project type: Erasmus+ for Sport, Collaborative Partnership
  • Coordinator: Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
  • Project period: January 2015–December 2017
  • Partner countries: Lithuania, the United Kingdom, Sweden, France, Portugal, the Netherlands and Finland
  • Funding: EUR 461,826 

Author: Hanna Niittymäki