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The role of psychology in disability support – mental health support, improving performance and classification

02 September 2021 | by Guest

As the Tokyo Paralympics draw to a close, Professor Jan Burns, who is Head of Eligibility at Virtus: World Intellectual Impairment Sport, explains a little more about her work with elite athletes with intellectual disabilities.

For psychologists working within sport and disability there are a number of ways of being involved, including the role of supporting athletes directly to improve their performance, then the wider discussion about the mental health of athletes in sport, how to manage the stress, the profile and the demands their sport places on them, and then for myself, my role is working with athletes with an intellectual disability and managing the issues of eligibility and classification in Paralympic level competition.

I work with Virtus which is the global organisation that governs, advocates, organises and promotes elite sport for athletes with an intellectual impairment. When working on the classification of athletes in Paralympic sports, we ask two main questions - does the athlete have one of the eligible impairments and then does the impairment have an impact on the performance of the athlete’s sport? Each sport is different and different sorts of impairments have specific impacts on the sport being played. Finally classifiers then work to ensure the athlete is placed in the right class, depending on the level of their impairment so that athletes with the same level of impairment compete together on a level playing field. 

At the moment all athletes with intellectual disabilities compete in one class, but this is something we are working on. For athletes with intellectual impairments classification involves psychologists as cognitive assessment is required and an understanding of how intellectual impairment might impact on sports performance. This is where my role as a psychologist comes in. I manage the system which confirms the eligibility of athletes with intellectual impairments, which means I work with other psychologists around the world whose unique skills allows them to carry out these assessments.  My psychology background in neurological assessment, research, and clinical experience of working with people with intellectual disabilities has also allowed me to contribute to the research which led to the development of the Paralympic classification system for athletes with intellectual disabilities. This has led to a growth in opportunities for not only the athletes competing at the top but also at the grass roots level. 

It’s important that we focus not on the disability but about inclusion and as psychologists we work to apply the best science to ensure the fairest outcome for all the athletes. I’m excited about the future developments for these athletes and with colleagues and students our research programme is continuing to work with Virtus to develop more competition classes for a wider range of people with intellectual impairments. We are also looking at issues around anti-doping as currently there is no research on athletes with an intellectual disability and the issues of doping. This is a complex area, with many rules and procedures and at the moment we know very little about how athletes with intellectual impairments are managing this system. 

After the scandal of the Spanish basketball team at the 2000 Paralympics, (the team won gold but was later found to contain only two athletes who had an intellectual disability, with other players faking their disability to compete), athletes with intellectual disabilities were not re-included in the games until London 2012. This was after we put the new eligibility process in place and completed the research on developing the classification system and included only three sports: swimming, athletics, and table tennis. Virtus and the community of athletes with intellectual disabilities, their coaches, supporters and many other people have worked hard to rebuild the reputation of intellectual disabilities sport and it is fantastic to see the performance of these athletes since in London, Rio and Tokyo.  
The funding available to support these athletes is really tight, and it is easy to forget behind every athlete on a Paralympic podium are many others striving to reach these levels with no funding at all. The British Paralympic Association recently put a call out to qualified psychologists to get involved in eligibility, this is a great opportunity and I encourage people to get involved. 

As psychologists we have an important role to play to continue to grow the profile and standing of athletes with intellectual disabilities by ensuring rigorous eligibility and classification processes. In Tokyo there are 120 athletes with intellectual disabilities from 36 nations around the world and every time I see them compete it gives me a thrill knowing a little bit of their hard won story to get there. 


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