If you are a blind or visually impaired woman wanting to play a team sport in this country, then good luck to you. For years Georgie Bullen was told she was no good at sport by her PE teachers. It was only a chance try-out for a Paralympic talent-identification day that allowed the then teenager to be discovered in a sport she had never even heard of: goalball. The Paralympic sport, played blindfolded and in silence, subsequently changed Bullen’s life both personally and professionally.
“Because I went to mainstream school I was the only VI [visually impaired] person at my school,” says the 20-year-old. “If I didn’t have goalball I wouldn’t even know anyone else who was VI or blind. We bonded over our experiences, like when people realise you’re visually impaired and they say, “Oh, that’s a such a shame because you’re so pretty.””
Goalball gave Bullen the confidence to form relationships and become a leader. The Hertfordshire athlete helped Team GB make history by reaching the quarter finals at London 2012. That result led to the announcement that the women’s team would be given £1m to help them on their journey to Rio 2016. “We went from being the worst-funded British Paralympic sport, to this huge increase. We got new staff on board. But with one bad result at the Europeans, UK Sport decided totake away all our funding. We went from £1m to nothing at all.”
UK Sport says that its decision was based on a meritocratic system – “Sports that could not demonstrate a trajectory towards medal success had funding withdrawn” – though the situation is reviewed on an annual basis. Tim Hollingsworth, CEO of the British Paralympic Association, says they have tried to support goalball in other ways, selecting it to be part ofNational Paralympic Day at the Olympic Park on 30 August where Team GB will play in the Copper Box arena. “It was a conscious strategy to raise the sport’s profile. Within the Games it is the only team sport for VI women, the differentiator being that for men there’s also the opportunity to play VI football. I’m not aware of any substantive move for that to change.”
Indeed blind or VI women who want to play football in this country have an uphill struggle. There is no national women’s team or even a league, unlike for men. The FA’s head of disability football, Jeff Davis, says many of the factors are historical: in the same way that able-bodied women’s football is less well resourced and less popular than men’s. The long lead-in time to learn the Paralympic game is an added barrier.
But change is afoot, and Davis reports that this season, for the first time, the men’s VI league has managed to obtain an exemption to the FA law that bans adult men and women from playing football together, and instead accept VI women in men’s teams as currently happens in Germany.
Meanwhile Bullen is determined to improve life for VI and blind people in this country, two-thirds of whom are not in paid employment. Last month she launched her own business – Team Insight – to deliver team bonding experiences using goalball, while raising awareness around visually impaired employees. “People think of disability as a wheelchair; one of my teammates was chased down the street being shouted at because they thought she’d stolen a guide dog,” she says. “People don’t understand VI, they think you’re either completely blind or fully sighted. Looking through the simulation spectacles I use on my training days opens people’s eyes.”