Accessibility in roller derby

At the moment in the derby community, we’re bursting a lot of our own bubbles.  People are sharing stories that show us how we’re not as inclusive as we pride ourselves on being and we’re not as safe a space as we thought we were.  It can be disheartening.  It can be easy to want to turn our heads away, look at our team and feel like what’s happened over there is an isolated thing, nothing to do with us, and oh let’s forget about it.  On the flip side, other folks get caught up in the chastising, denouncing, social media furore.  Again pointed fingers, but louder, making an example, trying to tear it up and restore our derby world to what it should have been with the healing balm of a facebook comment.

Somewhere in the middle is our reality, one which doesn’t put derby on a pedestal but still acknowledges a virtue in wanting to be that welcoming place of sanctuary and activity for the misunderstood, the vulnerable, and the never before put skates on their feet.  In that middle ground is where we can start to back up this flood of realisation and disappointment with practical actions and next steps for derby. 

As coaches, we have a great power to make small changes and help drive derby towards the culture we wish we have always had.

I attended a conference last week on Physical Activity and Mental Health.  I went because I see derby as a space where those with mental ill health come and can find a place within an understanding community.  It may be another derby myth that we have more athletes with mental health issues; it may just be that we generally feel a bit more ok talking about it. 

What I came away with from my day of learning wasn’t the answers to managing that skater who throws things or that one who isolates themselves or that one who only comes to training every three weeks.  I didn’t learn a whole lot of new about how activity improves mental health.  What I did get was space to think and listen and see the connections. 

And the realisation I came to (potentially late to the party) was that all the things we know about derby (it’s expensive, it’s impossible to get a venue, it’s on roller skates) actually add up to roller derby being inaccessible to pretty much every group at high risk to mental ill health.   So instead of coming away to write a blog about supporting our players with their mental health, I'm full of thoughts about that step before.  Getting (and keeping) people active and roller derby being part of the approach to support increased physical activity in our communities. 

When we talk about our community in roller derby, we tend to mean our skating community.  Skaters, officials, skating officials.  Games.  Champs. WFTDA.  Also fans, but only insomuch as they help us keep the other community going. 

If we’re thinking about roller derby as part of a sporting movement to keep people active, we need to look at different concepts of community. 

You might not really think about this other community, the one down the street.  That’s ok.  I didn’t really either.  I wanted to learn roller derby, play roller derby, compete at roller derby, WIN at roller derby.  Not to mention, eat, sleep, breathe roller derby. 

But with coaching and thinking about how we build our sport and make it stronger, I think a lot about community and the idea of roller derby outside of the league context.  What is our 'on the ground' community?  And what opportunities or barriers are there to keeping them involved?

Cultural accessibility

Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire

Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire

This is our big buzz word at the moment.  It’s an important one.  It’s a relevant one.  People are paying attention.  BE BETTER.  BE NOT RACIST. DON’T BE PART OF THE SYSTEM.

Ok.  Let’s make sure we are better, not racist, not part of the system of indirect discrimination.  How do we do that?

The first thing that’s taught on every equality awareness course I’ve ever been on is you have to acknowledge difference in order to support equity.

Don't be embarrassed to acknowledge difference, to talk about difference, and to ask people what they want or need to succeed.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “I’m not racist.  I don’t care what colour you are. why can’t we all just be people?”  Inclusive is not just treating people how you want to be treated.  If you do that, you end up with people just like you.  And you’re great.  But so are other people.

Recruitment and new skater nights.

Start by thinking about your visibility in those communities. How are you getting the recruitment message out?  Will the people you want to reach all be on Facebook?  Will they be in your circle of Facebook? Will they already have found derby and be in UK Roller Derby events group.  The answer to all of the above is : probably not.

So who do you want to reach?  What does a good “representative of your community” derby league look like?  Figure this out and then start considering what is unique about each of those parts of your community. 

Is roller derby even really an option for them?  At a previous job, I was in a project aiming to encourage more angling (sport fishing) in the Sikh community, because they were under-represented.  The Sikh faith has strong beliefs around not causing the suffering of animals.  There aren’t formal edicts against eating meat, but many Sikhs opt for a vegetarian diet.  And fishing for fun can still result in not so much fun for the fish, even if they’re put back.  So maybe there are Sikhs who want to fish for fun, but they would definitely need some different messaging.   

A place to start is working with trusted institutions or groups in the community.  Understand the community needs and challenges.  Talk to them about how roller derby could look for them.  Work with them to send the message or co-run the event.  As great as we are, we do tend to be a bit insular about partnerships, joining forces, and learning from other groups.  The whole point is to open ourselves up here; talking to people who know more is a great way to do it.

Where are your new skater nights held?  Do you even have new skater nights?  Do you jump straight into try outs?  Do you need to hold them in your practice space?  Can you take new skater nights to different parts of the community where you want to increase visibility of the sport?

Think about your approach.  Is your message only “hey we’ve got a cool sport and some skates and you can borrow them so you should come skate”.  Can you target your messages more by community?

From my experience in West Yorkshire, if we want to encourage representation from the South Asian community, we need to know that they are primarily Pakistani or Bangladeshi and majority Muslim.  So there are there are other messages we can include that make it seem more accessible.  

Things like making it a female-only space.  It feels exclusive to do that these days, but for certain communities, that’s really important.  Not just that the event is for women only, but that the space itself will not have men in it. 

And also: 

  • Being prepared with solutions for head scarves. Bigger helmets that can fit over might be a solution. Sometimes being secure in the space means they will opt to remove them.

  • Not promoting that “all you need is active wear”. Be clear that as long as clothing is loose fitting, you can make it work.

  • Encouraging people to come in groups or pairs. Having a representative from their community attend as a support or even as a participant.

  • Making it easy to get to on foot or clearly explaining how to get there on the bus as part of the message.

  • Setting the sessions not at standard dinner preparation time. Find out when people in the community tend to have free time. See if you can make that time work.

  • Having someone responsible available to watch children.

  • Not holding recruitment nights during Ramadan.

Not all of these are appropriate to every community, it's just a snapshot of the work I've done to look at being more inclusive in my part of the world.  The most important thing to do is question all the elements and ask people in the community. 

You'll find that not everything you consider is possible or at least not possible without some planning or changes.  Your league is the only one in a position to make a decision about how much you want or can build a culturally accessible event (or multiple events to meet the different needs of a diverse community).

What happens after you get them trying roller derby and they decide they like it?

Manage expectations about success. 

Not theirs, yours. 

Inclusivity also needs to be about creating a space where people can attend sometimes. It sure does mess up your 12 week new skater programme, doesn’t it?  Maybe you don’t want them because if they can’t commit now, how will they commit to the team? You don’t have that time to waste. That may well be the case.  But then, maybe you need to not focus on inclusivity.  Instead, you focus on winning the derby. 

It might be about creating a space where people never actually play a public game.  They just come for a kickaround (what do you mean there’s no ball?). 

Can roller derby exist in the five-a-side kickaround context?  Should it? As a community we seem to strive to be the elite.  We don’t have a strata of participation levels.  We have strongly competitive leagues and leagues that are trying to be competitive and they are all playing to win. 

These are only some examples of things to consider.  There will be more.  They will change depending on who you’re aiming to talk to. 

As a coach, you can make and support these small changes that make a difference to a whole lot of people.

Other media and information you might find interesting
Oppression in Roller Derby, Off the Track S1E3, WISP Radio Broadcast
Mental Health Charter for Sport and Recreation (UK), Sport and Recreation Alliance

Stay tuned because we haven’t even scratched the surface—there’s still Financial accessibility, Geographic accessibility, Physical accessibility, and Talent accessibility (I’m sure there’s a better name for this, but it’s what I’ve got at the moment), and just, you know, accessibility accessibility.

Note- I’ve obviously not seen every derby place and team in the world.  If you have overcome these accessibility issues, tell us! Get in touch and share your successes.  Shed some happy light in this space!