This summer, the Sunday’s Well Rebels, hailing from Cork, Ireland, won the Mixed Ability Rugby World Cup for the second time. This was the third installment of the tournament since its inception in 2015 and was the largest to date with over 1100 players from 28 teams, representing 14 countries in the week-long event. Being a part of this team and sharing in this victory has truly been an eye-opening and life-affirming experience.
Built on an ethos of diversity and inclusion, the mixed ability model—championed by International Mixed Ability Sports—encourages social inclusion by removing participation barriers for people who feel unable to join mainstream grassroots clubs or groups due to physical or learning disabilities, mental health challenges or a perception of “not being good enough.” The mixed ability rugby sports club is an amazing example of what this inclusion looks like in action.
Genuine inclusion isn’t just about what happens during practice or at games, it’s about the bonding time and socialization afterwards as a team. In these off-field moments, it becomes apparent how impactful disability inclusion is and what it should look like. Players with and without disabilities socialize seamlessly and build connections the same way any other team would. Sadly, this type of bonding is not frequently represented or welcomed in mainstream society. Research recently published by the US National Institute of Health documents that adults with intellectual disabilities are especially vulnerable to stressful social interactions, and, as a result, may be less comfortable joining them.
Accessibility Enriches Everyone
I have seen the benefits of the mixed ability model and socialization among my teammates, especially those on the autism spectrum. At first, they may have struggled to make or hold a conversation, but now they can be seen chatting and laughing with teammates before and after matches. Those with ADHD have also expressed growth and happiness. This rough-and-tumble contact sport provides a place for their physical expression and helps to improve concentration by focusing on the individual skills and roles required, which boosts overall wellbeing. Many of our players would never have joined rugby, or any sport for that matter, without the mixed ability model because they would never have felt comfortable enough to join a mainstream sports club.
As for the players without disabilities, they keep coming back, week after week, season after season. The key factor is that these players are never categorized as volunteers because they, too, are getting what they want from the experience. This could be the opportunity to stay fit and healthy, to learn to be a better player or coach, to socialize with friends or to rehabilitate an injury before returning to a mainstream team. Because abilities and disabilities are not categorized or differentiated for playing purposes, every member of the squad is just a player, making the Sunday’s Well Rebels just another team within the club. This sends a powerful message to everyone and showcases what real social inclusion and accessibility can achieve.
Inclusion is a Basic Human Right
I’m sharing this story to illustrate a simple point: the success of the mixed ability rugby model is a testament to the importance of sports in our lives and its power to serve as a model for social inclusion and diversity. If we want to live in a more inclusive society and if we truly want to accomplish what we discuss, then we must create real opportunities for people of all abilities to engage equally in all forms of social, cultural and economic life. It is, after all, a basic human right.
To learn more about mixed ability sports, click here.