Opening the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All, the Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimír Špidla said that equal treatment and a life free of discrimination are "two of the basic principles underpinning the Union".
Brigitte Degen from the Commission's DG Employment explained that even though "sport as such is not a special subject for the year 2007, several member states have indicated that they will be using sport as a means to spread the message on diversity and promote equality."
The European Parliament, in its report on people with disabilities, stresses the importance of sport as a factor for improving quality of life, self-esteem, independence and social integration. The report calls on member states to make sports facilities more accessible, remove obstacles to the participation of young people with disabilities in sports activities, provide incentives for their greater involvement in sport and promote sports events and competitions for people with disabilities, such as the Paralympic Games.
The Committee of the Regions (CoR) has called on the EU to establish a benchmark for local and regional authorities in promoting equal opportunities in sport. It also calls on local and regional authorities to monitor the recruitment of people with disabilities as sports administrators and coaching staff, and "to accord equal value to the less vigorous and non-competitive sports which are more accessible to people with disabilities."
The European Paralympic Committee (EPC) is concerned that children with disabilities do not enjoy the same opportunities to do sport as their able-bodied peers, particularly in physical education classes in schools and, consequently, do not pick up the healthy habit of doing sport at an early age.
"There is chronic underfunding in the provision of physical education for pupils with disabilities, leading to overall time reductions in their physical education (PE) in schools across Europe," said Professor Ken Hardman from the UK's University of Worcester, as he presented the findings of his study on EU physical education in February 2007. He also highlighted differences between Eastern and Western European countries with regard to disabled children's access to physical education in school.
According to Hardman, all member states have laws on disabilities, but not regulations on the obligation to provide physical education for disabled children, who are simply 'excused' from PE lessons either for medical reasons or lack of appropriate teacher knowledge, infrastructure or specialised curricula. "Current school PE curricula are totally inadequate for the disabled," he said, highlighting the importance of providing teachers with quality training so that they can understand the physical exercise experience of disabled pupils in mainstream PE lessons.
"Handicapped people's access to physical education in schools must be improved as physically disabled people often go to normal schools but are obliged to skip the physical education lessons, due to lack of appropriate infrastructure and because teachers lack special knowledge," argued MEP Ljudmila Novak (Slovenia, EPP-ED).
"Sports for disabled people represent an important social aspect of their lives, as a social activity that develops their abilities, which can then lead to the individual's maximal participation in social life," said Yannis Vardakastanis, the President of European Disability Forum (EDF).
Professor Ken Hardman added that physical education needs to be better adapted to the disabled individual's needs and that competition and winning should be given lesser importance.
However, 11-time Paralympic gold medalist, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, argued that sport ministries should understand that disabled people want to compete as well.
In this regard, she highlighted the need for more Paralympic funding. Asked what the EU can do to improve disabled access to sport, the gold medalist said that "it is about national governments' sport ministries understanding that disabled people should be competing. It is about access to sport. It is about people doing sport to be healthier. Physical activity can be used in so many ways to target government agendas – it just needs to move up the priority list. The EU can influence national governments by sending out the right messages. Governments need to spend more money on accessibility."
Her wishes were echoed by EU Commissioner Jan Figel who highlighted the importance of events such the Paralympics with regard to sport helping disabled people to become better integrated into society.
MEP Christopher Heaton-Harris also stressed that both supporting talented athletes in their ambition to compete and offering opportunities "at the grass-roots level in the local community and through schools" were equally important.
Asked why Visa sponsors Paralympics, Colin Grannell, executive vice president of Visa Europe, said it does so for the same reasons it sponsors the Olympic Games. "It is about elite sport," he said. "Of course, the question at the beginning was to know whether we would get a good return for our business investment by doing it, because the media attention for the Paralympics is a lot less than for the Olympics. However, we decided to do this over the long term and I think that in the future we'll see the Paralympics become much bigger."
Grannell also explained that there is a change operating in sponsorship. Before, companies were happy to see their brands displayed in events, but now, "competition in business means that your brand and your business need to stand out and mean something to the general public. One has to see these large corporates do something real in terms of supporting society. Brand exposure alone is not enough."
However, he believes it is very complicated for corporations to get involved in sport sponsorship, because in order to do so, "you need to understand the hierarchy of sports politics, the sports governing bodies, the issues they manage and the committees and bodies that generate the athletes and the sport".
According to a Commission-supported thematic network entitled "Educational and Social Integration of Persons with a Handicap through Adapted Physical Activity (THENAPA)" (1999-2001), the European education system is unprepared for meeting the needs of people with disabilities in an integrated setting. The network recommended promoting inclusive education not only to people with disabilities but society as a whole, in order to adequately prepare it to live with people with disabilities.
Regarding legislation, the network proposed that Adapted Physical Activity (APA) be covered in the basic education act, as most countries have laws for special education, but only in some of them does educational law include physical education. Other recommendations considered concerned adequate education and training of professionals and co-operation between non-disabled and disabled sports.