Sensory way to sports

Many more people with complex disabilities are taking up new sports – sensory versions of badminton, snooker and rounders – at whatever level that suits them. Louis Wickett-Padgham reports

Sensory Snooker at the Elite Snooker Club, Preston, 2024 © Mike Pinches, All Rights Reserved

The summer of sport is in full swing with the European Football Championship in its final stages and the Olympics and Paralympics about to begin.

This summer, lots more people with complex disabilities, including those with learning disabilities and autism, can play new sports, at whatever level best suits them.

National disability charity Sense, where my team supports disabled people to get active, has reimagined badminton, snooker and rounders so people with complex disabilities across England can meaningfully take part for the first time.

The disabled people we support chose these activities as the ones they most wanted to try but could not access.

We love the social opportunities each game offers. Recent research by Sense found that more than half (53%) of people with complex disabilities feel lonely (results gathered through combined online polling of 1,000 people with complex disabilities and a survey of 234 people with complex disabilities in 2023), compared to 25% of the general public.

Badminton brings together people who want to play a racquet sport, snooker is traditionally played on nights out and rounders works so well alongside a sunny picnic.

Over the past few months, we have set up the first sessions of our new, simplified versions of these activities in sports, leisure and community venues in England.

Sensory badminton and sensory snooker are currently available in four regions of England, and sensory rounders in six. More groups will be starting across the whole country as we find the right venues and train coaches.

Eventually, we hope around 1,000 people with complex disabilities – by which we mean people with two or more of autism, sight loss, hearing loss or a learning disability – will take up at least one of the new sensory sports, which can be adjusted to suit the skills and abilities of each individual player.

For sensory snooker, this might mean some players sit on a felt mat on the floor and mirror potting balls by throwing beanbags into buckets. Others play on tables in a traditional snooker hall but maybe pot the balls by hand instead of using a cue.

Similarly, for sensory rounders, the ball might be balanced on a stand and hit with a small bat or be rolled along the floor for a player to hit it back with their hands.

In sensory badminton, players might mirror traditional badminton shots by hitting a balloon to one another using racquets and an overhead action. Others might use a net to catch balls thrown underarm.

In each case, players develop the key skills needed for the traditional sport and achieving the same goals in a more accessible way. Some might take on extra challenges as they score points and enjoy some healthy competition.

The games’ three official governing bodies (Rounders England, Badminton England and the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association) helped Sense develop the sensory sports.

We tested our activity ideas over several months with people who use Sense services in groups of between six and 10 players. Most participants were aged 17-30, but the 10 snooker testers were aged up to 60.

The feedback from our first players has been fantastic.

Ethan, 21, from Bedfordshire, said after playing sensory rounders: “It was good and very fun. I liked hitting the balls and beanbags with the bat. I enjoyed exercising and stretching my muscles.”

Jay, 20, from Leicester, told us that he’d love to play sensory badminton again. And, from watching Geordie, 22, from Redditch, determinedly setting up the balls with the snooker triangle and potting them by hand, it is clear that he loves sensory snooker.

We are now working with the governing bodies to train coaches and run sessions. Sense will spend £60,000 over the next three years – funded by a Sport England grant – on equipment, venue hire and staffing.

Surnames have been withheld on request

To find out which sensory sports are available in your area or register interest, email or visit Sense 

Louis Wickett-Padgham is deputy head of the Active team at Sense