Hannah Macdougall people with a disability in sport
Dr Hannah Macdougall: The Intersection of Disability and Gender in Sport

About Dr Hannah Macdougall 

Hannah Macdougall is a dual Paralympian and previous World Record Holder, representing Australia in swimming and cycling. She also co-captained the Australian Swimming Team at the 2006 World Championships and the 2008 Paralympic Games.  

Hannah has completed a Bachelor of Exercise and Sport Science/ Bachelor of Commerce (Sport Management) at Deakin University and completed a PhD in athlete wellbeing at LaTrobe University.  

When she is not training, Hannah is an inclusion advocate, mindfulness, breathwork and wellbeing ‘pracademic’, and Senior Advisor for Community Programs and Campaigns at the Victoria State Emergency Services. 

Visibility of Disability in Sport

In her interview with Michelle, Hannah talks about the lack of role models and visibility in sport for people living with a disability. As Michelle notes, despite a significant proportion of the population identifying as having a disability, they remain underrepresented in sport and media.   

Hannah says people with a disability do not often see themselves represented in sport, and so it becomes a space with which they do not necessarily identify. She says, the more we normalise disability in this space, the more people we will engage in sport and the more perspectives we will gain on what it means to have a disability. 

Perceptions About People With A Disability

Hannah talks about how people with a disability are perceived, and the misconceptions around their all-around ability. For example, Hannah says there have been times when she has been riding her bike and people will ride past her to say, “It’s great to see you out riding a bike”. Despite the fact that her level of fitness and skill on a bike trumps most, people have had a tendency to view her for her disability rather than for her athletic ability. 

However, Hannah says things have changed and progress has been made over her time in elite sport. In particular, Hannah says there has been an attitude shift in the way people perceive and approach disability. For example, she says people used to view athletes with a disability as  “cripspirational”— a play on words used to describe someone who is inspiring, not for their ability, but for their disability. Hannah says nowadays athletes are increasingly recognised for their athletic ability, rather than their disability. 

The Confidence to Support Athletes With A Disability

Hannah also says the appetite for parasports is growing, particularly after gaining momentum through the Tokyo games. With more people being involved, the games and categories are evolving, and regulations are enabling clubs to have the confidence, skills and resources to support people with a disability. 

Following the Tokyo games, it also became known that Paralympians do not receive the same financial gains as their Olympic counterparts. In response to public outcry, the Government stepped in, promising that funding will hereon go towards prize money for Paralympians.  

As Michelle notes, without an income, athletes cannot fully commit to their sport. Therefore, ensuring athletes are remunerated is a large part of getting them into, and keeping them in sport. Hannah acknowledges some of the work that has already been done in this space, such as the athlete support scheme. The scheme is designed to support athletes, taking into consideration their unique circumstances, and providing a level of funding that aligns with their medal potential. While Hannah admits it has its flaws, she believes it is a major step forward. 

The Commercialisation of The Disability Sports Sector

 Hannah also believes that by tapping into the market of people living with a disability, the disability sports space will attract more revenue. She says organisations can tap into this market when their content, visuals and stories are inclusive of people with disabilities. This said, as Michelle notes, it is not only important for organisations to market to people with a disability, but also to ensure there are practices and facilities that allow them to participate.  

In Hannah’s experience, she says organisations are successful in creating a space for people with a disability when they use a strong inclusion approach. According to Hannah, an inclusion approach looks to integrate sports and allow equal access to facilities. It also recognises the efforts and contributions of diverse people through awards and shares their stories through visual content.  

Hannah says language is also a big part of creating more inclusive spaces and says it is important to use a “person-first” approach. According to Hannah, this involves referring to people in terms of their strengths, rather than in terms of things like their gender, age or disability. She also believes the language of “we” rather than “I” is key to driving meaningful change.  

We Need More Data on Women With a Disability

Hannah and Michelle also touch on the lack of data around sport and disability and call upon researchers to focus their efforts in these areas. As Michelle notes, with research comes awareness, and with awareness comes action. With more data, leaders in sport can account for and generate outcomes for people with disabilities in this space. 

In closing, Hannah leaves us with words of wisdom about the power of mindfulness in regulating our emotions and increasing psychological flexibility. All in all, she believes the world will be a better place if we can all practice a little more mindfulness.  

Call to Action

Hannah says we need to normalise people with a disability in the sport space by increasing their representation in media, sharing their stories, and focusing on their strengths. She says organisations have a role in creating a more inclusive space for people with disabilities and can do so by awarding their contribution, allowing equal access to facilities, and using more inclusive language and content.

Michelle also calls for more research into disability and sport so that leaders can make informed decisions and account for people with a disability.  

Listen to the interview 


About the Podcast

The need to tell the stories of women in sport and to create a clarion call to action to close the gender gaps in sport has never been stronger. The Advancing Women in Sport podcast goes beyond the statistics about women in sport so that all of us can become more aware of women’s lived experience n sport. We’re uncovering the stories beneath the stats….

In this first season, you will be able to hear the stories of women at different career and life stages, from different sporting disciplines and sectors within the very large sports industry about their lived experience in the sporting sector.

The women interviewed are athletes, coaches, administrators, broadcasters, directors and more. They identify in many ways and represent the many intersectional communities that sport serves. You can tune in via all the usual podcast services or at the podcast website.