Football for All

Me at the SLSL tournament.jpg

My name is Jade Hall-Smith. I’m a 28-year-old dyspraxic and autistic footballer, disability advocate and Incredible Hulk enthusiast.

For those who might not know what dyspraxia is, it’s a neuro-developmental spectrum condition that makes the messages that go to your brain a little jumbled, causing problems with co-ordination, especially with fine motor skills. Some dyspraxics may also have processing difficulties and short-term memory issues, so thinking fast or remembering something may also prove to be difficult. Summarised, Autism is also a neuro-developmental spectrum condition that affects your communication skills, understanding and processing language. It is very common with people who are on the spectrum to have high amounts of anxiety due to having high sensitivities to noise, light, smell, touch and taste.

I have been playing football since I was 8 with my friends. My mum was reluctant at first because of my coordination issues that often led to frequent injuries, but she allowed me to join the football club after school once a week in year 6 which helped me to learn how to run better without falling over. Unfortunately, I stopped playing football for a long time during secondary school, but resumed at university, when I began my masters. University life was proving quite a challenge for me.

I found it hard to navigate the large buildings and It was very noisy for me sensory wise. I rarely spent any time on campus apart from going to class. But, in my second year, I joined the Goldsmiths Women’s football team, were I met Beth Lowe, 21, the football coach.

Beth has been playing football since she was 6 and coaching since she was 14. She is now currently the President of Goldsmiths Wxmen’s Football and plays with them twice a week:

“We are a super inclusive and lovely bunch of people who are passionate about getting as many girls* (trans-inclusive) playing football as possible. We believe that nothing should stop you from playing if you want too, whether that be financial reasons, disability, sexuality etc. I personally think the key to inclusive coaching is understanding that everyone’s lives and experiences are completely different and that there is no fixed training method that works for everyone.

Beth also suffers with a chronic pain condition which is often misunderstood in society due to the lack of ‘physical evidence of disablement.’ Being on GWF team has meant that she is able to enjoy football without being judged:

“I have an invisible chronic illness, and this means that some training sessions I will not be able to perform at my best, or even show up at all. If my manager and other team mates weren’t aware of this or weren’t inclusive, then they may just think that I am slacking or not trying and even drop me from the squad. Instead, they are all aware of my illness and support me through bad patches.”

Playing football at university reignited my interested in playing. During my last term of university, I found The Long Lane Terriers, a women’s disability team. Antonia Barnes, 32, has been the assistant coach since 2011 and has also coached the Terrier’s under 16s and the Greenwich powerchair football. She’s been coaching football from 2005 and playing in a team since 2007. “(Football) helps me with my confidence being dyslexic, dyspraxic and having a long-term injury from playing football. playing, captaining and coaching the Long Lane Terriers a disability team has meant I can continue doing what I love at another level and continue winning trophies.”

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Disability football has started to become more common than before, although there are still many issues with funding and gathering enough teams to make regular matches. There is still a vital need for inclusive practises in non-disabled teams to make it more neuro-diverse and disability friendly for players with additional needs. When asked how about the issue, Antonia replied:

“I think coaches could do with learning the needs of disabled players whether it is physical, learning or even mental disabilities. A lot is now being recognised and that’s great, but so much more needs to be done. So many players don’t realise there’s teams like Long Lane Terriers out. There and a lot of coaches don’t either. So many players who might struggle in a semi pro team don’t get matches when they should.”

It is imperative that players with disabilities and mental health conditions can play football without feeling anxious or worried about how they are playing. I was lucky enough to be a player in two great women’s football teams and now I also play for Millwall’s mixed pan disability team too where once a month during the season, we play on the South London Special League (SLSL). A tournament that gathers disabled football teams across South London to play friendly, accessible matches.

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All sports should be inclusive and enjoyable for all and as a community, we should ensure that everyone is included. Beth advises that you can help by following these 4 simple steps:

1. Altering the entire layout of a club to make sure there are a range of options that allows everyone needs to be met.

2. Give players with disabilities are given a voice and the control to be able to say what they want to happen and see changes within a club.

3. Including players equally, regardless of skills, experience, ability, etc.

4. Rallying with disabled teams and helping to raise awareness so that people are more aware that there are disability exclusive teams.

Football has helped me in so many ways – it has improved my confidence, creativity, coordination and communication skills, university grades and my health AND wellbeing. I not only welcome women to get into football but encourage them to join in regardless of your ability or disability and hope it inspires and changes your life for the better as much as it has done for us, so let’s get all our women, non-binary and trans players in the game.

AMY DRUCQUER