We spoke to Paralympian Heather Jameson about her work with the FAI Football for All programme, as well as how important it is to make people aware of the many opportunities that await in the world of sport.
The joys of being involved in a sport, particularly a team sport such as football, are quite simply impossible to replicate. Both in terms of the physical benefits of maintaining a certain level of fitness as well as spending time with likeminded individuals, it can so often play a tremendously important role in our lives.
Making sure football is as accessible for as many people as possible is not a transformation that can happen overnight, and neither is it something that happens by chance. Both in individual clubs all over Ireland and at an administrative level within the FAI itself, accessibility is quickly becoming one of the most crucial aspects of the sport’s development.
Sometimes, life places a ball at your feet purely by chance, and that sport is what you run with. That wasn’t the case for Paralympian Heather Jameson, who says that sport has been a passion of hers for as long as she can remember.
Growing up with cerebral palsy brings with it its own set of challenges, but Heather and her family were determined that not being able to play sport wasn’t going to be one of them. On the contrary, her early passion for sport forged a career that only continues to go from strength to strength in her role as Development Officer of the FAI’s Football for All programme.
“Sport has always been a part of my life, we were a very sporty family and my dad was a big footballer, as was his dad and all of his brothers. Since I could walk I had a football at my feet so that was always natural and I didn’t know any different growing up with cerebral palsy.
“My mam and dad never let it get in the way, never allowed me to see it as a negative. I could compete and I was the same as all those around me.
“I’ve never seen it as an obstacle or had any difficulty with it. Now I am very lucky in that sense, and I understand other people have difficulty in some walks of life and it can be more difficult but for me sport was everything.
“I would have done all kinds of different sports as a kid as well, obviously football being the main one. There was athletics, I would have played Gaelic, I would have played camogie, basketball; I played everything growing up.
“It’s certainly been such a staple in my life that I don’t know where I would be without sport or without football,” she says.
Football for All was created to provide access to football for people who may not ordinarily have a chance to play the beautiful game. To learn more about the programme, click here.
The level of commitment it takes to succeed at any given sport is not something that should be taken for granted. Heather is also currently coaching with the Republic of Ireland Cerebral Palsy Football team, and says it could be time for us to change the way we perceive disability sports as a whole.
“As a country, we have a very empathetic attitude towards disability sport and a very Irish way of saying ‘isn’t that great?’ or ‘isn’t that lovely that they get to do this?’
“But I think people forget that these people can be international athletes. I’m currently at the IFCPF World Cup for cerebral palsy football and the lads here are international footballers, they’ll all receive their cap at the end of the year.
“Whether it be recreational or getting to that elite international level, I think society, and Ireland as a whole, needs to put away that ‘isn’t that great?’ attitude and see these players as they do every other player and every other person,” she says.
The solution to this, Heather says, is quite a straightforward one. An increased level of exposure would not only add to the excitement, but it would also make people become more aware of the incredible opportunities that are available to people with disabilities to play the sport they love.
“People just need to be exposed to it a little bit more. It’s always said, around cerebral palsy football anyway, that you don’t get it until you see it,” Heather says.
“Even here, we’re staying in the Cambrils Park Resort in Salou, and there are a lot of Irish families in the resort as well. Every time we go by one, they stop us and say, ‘you’re in the [FAI] gear, what are you doing here?’
“A lot of them have come down to see the match. We’ll see them again in the resort afterwards and they say that they were absolutely blown away, that they didn’t realise the standard of football.
“They didn’t realise what it actually was and what it meant to these players or what the possibilities were for people with cerebral palsy or disabilities. I think being seen and being heard, and people actually exposing themselves to these different ways of life and the disability world will help with the shift from ‘isn’t that great?’ to ‘wow, these are athletes,’” she says.
The addition of new facilities or any efforts to make a given sport more accessible are always welcome, but Heather says awareness is top priority for now. Many people simply aren’t aware of what opportunities are out there, so promoting the game is something she puts a great deal of focus on in her work.
“There are definitely enough options, but whether everybody knows about them is a different thing. There’s still a lot of work to be done around letting people know these opportunities are out there; to signpost where these opportunities are and how you can get involved.
“We can keep growing and pushing that aspect of it and letting people know that we are here and that we have these options. Yes, you can play football, you can do swimming, it’s just about how you access it.
“I do think we have improved massively over the past five or 10 years in those opportunities being available. It’s just about finding them, and letting people know that they are out there,” she says.
Ireland is quite a small country, and word of mouth can be a powerful tool in enacting nationwide change. Similar to the chance encounters with Irish families in Salou, one brief encounter can open up the door for someone to become part of something special and enjoy the endless benefits of taking up a new sport.
“It’s funny how people crop up. Even on the plane over here, the woman who was sitting next to myself, her daughter actually has CP [cerebral palsy]. We exchanged numbers and we’re going to get her down to hopefully play a bit of football, so it’s crazy how you just come across people at random.
“That’s the biggest thing with disability sport; word of mouth. That’s how it gets around,” she says.
As the Official Snack Partner of the Republic of Ireland Women’s National team, at Cadbury they believe that a Player and a Half deserves Support and a Half and are dedicated to supporting Irish women’s grassroots football. Visit your local SPAR to see how you can help Cadbury donate up to €50,000 to grassroots women’s football clubs to make upgrades to facilities where they’re needed most. Visit Cadbury.ie