At Disability Expo 2024, we are celebrating every ability and inviting delegates to experience a diverse variety of activities in our Sports & esports priority action area.
Leading this dynamic area is Shelley Holroyd OLY. In this exclusive interview, Shelley unfolds the chapters of her remarkable athletics and coaching career, delves into her personal experiences with disability, and sheds light on the motivation behind her involvement in Disability Expo. Discover what delegates can anticipate at this extraordinary event.
Can you share some highlights from your extensive athletics career as well as your areas of work since retiring?
Shelley Holroyd: Highlights of my athletics career would be competing at the Olympic Games in 1996, achieving my personal challenge I set age 13 of competing in every major championship by the time I turned 23, gaining my first senior international vest age 16 and still holding the record for the longest throw in the history of the English Schools Athletics Championships.
Since retiring from competing, I moved into coaching to give back to the sport. It was always something I intended to do, but I never expected it to happen as quickly as it did. Unfortunately, after a bad training accident, I had to retire, which also took its toll on my mental health.
I had been involved in athletics since the age of 8, and at age 33, my career was ended by an injury. Thankfully, my athletics life also gave me skills to move forward in my personal life and the resilience I learned as an athlete transferred to my normal everyday life, which also helped me with my mental health. Transferable skills are a blessing.
My working life also moved in the same direction as my coaching, and I worked for the National Governing Bodies England Athletics and UK Athletics for 14 ½ years.
Being able to give back to a sport that gave me so much was a personal goal. I worked on the Paralympic Programme which meant I was immersed in the world of disability. Guiding athletes, coaches, parents, carers etc and enabling them to achieve their dreams.
This role gave me an enhanced understanding of para sport, new skills, enhanced life skills and a wealth of knowledge that enabled me to ensure the Paralympic programme was the best in the world.
Working in esports was also an amazing experience as it enabled me to utilise my skills as a gamer, an athlete and an event developer to create a whole new concept that had never been done before. Creating the world’s first Para Techno Tournament.
How has your personal experience shaped your approach to sports, and what advice do you have for individuals with disabilities aspiring to engage in athletics or esports?
Shelley Holroyd: Living with a disability can be debilitating, and I’ve witnessed this over the 14 ½ years of working in para sport. My own experience came when I had to have a major operation to repair the leg I had injured as an athlete. Unfortunately, they damaged a nerve, which left me with debilitating pain in both legs. I have days where I can’t walk properly or the pain is so intense, I have to lie down and keep warm.
I’ve tried all kinds of methods to try and help, but the only thing that helps is the medication, which I have to take every 4 hours. It takes the edge off the pain but every day I live with it. My advice to anyone is to build up resilience slowly. Don’t go too fast, too soon. Take baby steps and find your limit before engaging fully in sport. Learn how to enable yourself, and once you’ve done this, you will have the confidence to go further.
Try all sports and find one that suits you. If you need help, ask for it. Never leave yourself struggling because this is when your mental health starts to struggle. You start to feel like you’re failing. So, if you’re struggling, talk.
Sport has always been in my family, and it was something I was always good at. My parents were supportive and always said if it was what I wanted to do then they would support it. Having a support network is important. Friends can also become your support network. Surround yourself with people you can relate to because they will understand your needs better.
If you have a disability and you want to take part in sports or esports, do it. Don’t hesitate! Go online and find your nearest club. Try everything, and even if you don’t like it, at least you gave it a go. You have to keep trying things in order to find what you’re good at.
What inspired you to get involved in the Sports & esports Priority Action Area at Disability Expo 2024, and what impact do you hope it will have on participants?
Shelley Holroyd: I first encountered the Disability Expo in 2023 when I was there showcasing a para techno sport. The whole event was amazing and you could see the difference it was making to people who were trying to find solutions that would assist them in their day-to-day life.
Seeing big brands like Coca-Cola and Amazon being dedicated to the disability world was amazing, and it definitely felt like the place to be if you were looking for solutions, products and services. This year, I’m working with the Disability Expo team and leading on the Sports & esports areas, which is amazing.
Enabling others has always been something I’ve loved doing. Showing people what they can do rather than them being told what they can’t do is amazing. Seeing their face when they try it for the first time, watching them enjoy the event and then excelling in it gives you a sense of pride, knowing that you’ve enabled someone to be the best they can be and given them a new pathway in life.
Watching people engage in sports is amazing. It’s the same feeling with esports. It’s a different outlet than a physical sport but it gives just as much enjoyment to those who are taking part. It also opens up a whole new world to them where they can meet people online and relate to them.
What other inspiration do you need! The impact it will have will be amazing, and I’m looking forward to delivering the sport and esports programme I’m lining up. I’m creating a platform where people can have fun, interact with others, make new friends and even compete against a gold medallist.
They’ll learn about new products, how to be safe online, chat with gamers around the world, be fully immersed in content, etc, and the impact it will have will be amazing to see. It will be like creating a whole new world of possibilities for them.
What are the main issues faced by people with disabilities when it comes to sports and esports? What do you think the root causes are, and what are some of the solutions?
Shelley Holroyd: Equipment is a major factor, along with a lack of understanding. Equipment can amount to thousands, which then restricts people from taking part or competing. It’s great that companies are making adaptions to equipment but not to the detriment of those wanting to take part. When equipment is priced out of range, it then disables those who want to take part regardless of their disability.
So, in essence, it’s not their disability that is restricting them; it’s the price of the equipment. This is across sport and esports. Solutions would be for the companies to speak to the community to find out what the limitations are, what is affordable and how the company can help enable new gamers with basic equipment.
Not everyone wants to be a pro gamer; some just want to be able to play, engage, communicate with others and make friends. Why don’t they enable this and build a community for all?
Looking at both traditional sports and esports, what similarities or differences do you see in terms of accessibility and inclusivity for individuals with disabilities? How can these platforms contribute to breaking barriers in disabled sports?
Shelley Holroyd: The similarities are scary! It doesn’t really matter if it’s esports or a traditional sport; the issues are always the same. For example, ‘not got the right equipment’ is usually one that pops up. Another one is, ‘we don’t have anyone that deals with disabled people’. Or my favourite, ‘we don’t have any other disabled people, so they won’t fit in’.
It’s actually quite scary that it’s 2024, and yet we still have barriers stopping people from taking part. We live in a world where technology is so advanced it often leaves people wondering if it’s actually real, so why are we still so far behind in making everything accessible? We just need to harness this and steer it in the right direction so everyone benefits from it.
Building an inclusive world shouldn’t be hard, but it is. What makes it hard? People. Yes, people make it harder than it should be!
More often than not, clubs tend to refuse access due to not having the necessary equipment or guidance in adapting their environment. How can we combat this? By educating others and showing them how. It is the only way we can break these barriers down.
Showing people that it isn’t hard to adapt has always been my step forward in building a better accessible community. This is my ultimate goal for the areas I’m heading up. Opening people’s eyes and enabling them first and foremost will be a game changer. Showing what people can do rather than what they can’t do is the best form of education.
What exciting experiences and activities can attendees look forward to in the Sports & esports area at Disability Expo?
Shelley Holroyd: Without giving too much away… we will be releasing a series of social media posts, podcasts and videos as teasers. Building up excitement and getting people ready for two days of fun, activity, gaming, and competing whilst learning lots of new things are the goals. People will need to keep checking out our social media platforms so they can get as excited as I am!
Sign up to our newsletter for the latest updates on the Sports & esports Priority Action Area and beyond.