Bridget Jolley has always loved watching AFL and has always wanted to play, but — up until four years ago — she had never had the opportunity.

The 36-year-old from Melbourne has a condition called aniridia, which affects her vision.

In August 2017, Bridget came across a post on social media calling for expressions of interest to develop an Aussie rules competition for people who are blind or vision impaired.

“I’ve always been keen [to play Aussie rules], but I never really played, partly because of my vision, also partly because there weren’t a lot of opportunities for girls,” Bridget said.

“This is the first time I’ve really had the opportunity to play, which is a really big part of [how] people can connect to a sport that they really like.”

Bridget Jolly stands in front of a wall and smiles.
Bridget was always keen to play AFL, but didn’t see an opportunity before she discovered AFL Blind.(ABC Sport/Siren Sport: Megan Brewer)

Bridget — who works in disability advocacy with Women with Disabilities Victoria and Youth Disability Advocacy Service — is the only woman on her team, the Bombers. She’s also the team captain.

“I’m quite proud of being captain of my team and having that camaraderie within the team and the messages from others who appreciate being supported, and getting the chance to play.

“It’s clear what this sport means for other people as well.

“We do get people travelling so far to play [including from interstate] and this shows that it’s something that a lot of people are really passionate about. It’s really nice to be part of that,” Bridget said.

An inclusive game

Experience isn’t a requirement to play AFL Blind.

“Whether you’ve got much knowledge of AFL Blind or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s a really receptive community,” Bridget said.

Courtney — who has a condition called coloboma of the iris — agrees. The 19-year-old athletics coach discovered AFL Blind after seeing friends playing on Instagram.

Courtney holds a football while on an indoor football field.
Courtney discovered AFL Blind on social media and says she’s loving it.(Supplied: Nerissa Byrne)

“I’ve been playing for the Bulldogs since July and I’ve loved it,” she said.

“Everyone just supports each other.”

With a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, Penny, 34, from Melbourne plays on the Bulldogs team with Courtney. 

Penny is a qualified social worker whose work focuses on disability inclusion in sport. She first started playing for a mainstream AFL women’s team in Bundoora.

“I had a really great experience [at Bundoora] but, just with young kids and what not, it was a bit tricky,” she explained.

“I have a colleague who plays for Essendon, and he suggested I come down and play this season. So, I came down to the Come and Try Day and gave it a go, and I haven’t looked back since,” Penny said.

Courtney stands in front of a brick wall with a medal and smiles.
Penny played for a mainstream AFL women’s team in Bundoora before joining the Bulldogs.(ABC Sport/Siren Sport: Megan Brewer)

While the number of female players has doubled in the past year, there are still more than 40 men but only six women who play AFL Blind.

Penny and Courtney are the only two women on the Bulldogs team, and they feel supported and included. For the pair, that inclusivity goes beyond being welcomed into a male-dominated sport.

“Everyone experiences the same thing or similar thing, so we all know what we’re going through,” Courtney said.

That shared experience makes for a strong camaraderie between all the teams.

Two players tackle one player while on an indoor court playing AFL blind.
Games are played indoors in a controlled environment, to allow players to utilise their hearing.(Supplied: Nerissa Byrne)

“It means everything. There’s tension on the field, but we were hugging the other team when we got on and got off during the quarters and high-fiving and congratulating and wishing people well,” Penny said.

For all the hugs and high fives, Courtney says that doesn’t mean they take their games any less seriously.

“It’s just as, if not more, intense than AFL.”

Adaptions to make Aussie rules accessible

AFL Blind was launched in 2018, with games played at Action Indoor Sports in Tullamarine, Melbourne.

The competition is open to players as young as 14 years of age, with four teams in the league including the Hawthorn Hawks, the St Kilda Saints, the Bulldogs and the Bombers.

The Hawthorn and St Kilda teams are associated with AFL clubs, while the Bombers and Bulldogs are not.

A team photo of the Bulldogs AFL Blind team.
The Bulldogs compete against the Hawks, Saints and Bombers.(Supplied: Nerissa Byrne)

There are several differences between AFL Blind and AFL, including adapted rules for marking, tackling and scoring.

Players fall into three different classifications:

  • Classification A is for players who are totally blind
  • Classification B is for players who have limited vision but use hearing as their primary tracking sense
  • Classification C is for players who have limited vision but use vision as their primary tracking sense

Players wear different-coloured wristbands depending on their classification, which helps the umpires officiate games.

While teams can be made up of a mix of players across the classifications, on the field, they need to have one A classified player per team, three B classified players, and two C classified players.

The ball has a buzzer in it, so players can track it across the field and there is a person standing behind the goals who shakes bells, so players know where to aim. There is also audio description for all games.

A woman reaches to catch a football on an indoor field.
A game of AFL Blind looks and feels like traditional Aussie Rules, with slight adaptions to equipment.(Supplied: Nerissa Byrne)

AFL Blind is mix-gendered, and players also don’t have to identify with a particular gender to play.

“It’s a really great opportunity for those who are trans and gender diverse, where you’re not classified based on gender to play,” Bridget said.

Importantly, despite rule changes designed to help players hear the game, the crowd is still able to cheer like they would at any other game.

“When they developed [AFL Blind], they wanted to try and keep as much of the spirit and crowd involvement as possible,” Bridget said.

Two players jostle for the ball while spectators look on.
AFL Blind draws a good crowd, with spectators often lining the perimeter of the field.(Supplied: Nerissa Byrne)

“It’s nice because we get a lot of family members come along, and players who used to play sometimes will come along and cheer for the team they used to play for.”

Disability, gender and sport

Growing up, Bridget found there weren’t many options for her to play sport. On top of that, she says, people with a disability are often told it’s too difficult to accommodate their needs.

“There’s a lot of, ‘You don’t need to worry about sport’ or that it’s just too difficult.

“There’s not a lot of opportunities. I have three siblings and they all played tennis growing up and I didn’t because it was just too difficult,” Bridget said.

A man tackles a woman who has just handballed a football.
The football has an electronic beeper inside to produce sound loud enough for players to track the ball.  (Supplied: Nerissa Byrne)

In the disability space, Bridget says there is also an imbalance between genders.

“Sometimes I think, for some people, if you were a boy and really wanted to do it with a disability, people might be like, ‘He really wants to do it, so we’ll try and create those opportunities’ or vice versa if you’re an abled girl.

“When you get into intersectionality, I think it’s just that people would see it as a double reason why you shouldn’t want to pursue it.”

Bridget says there is often the assumption that, just because someone’s disabled, it means they can’t do certain physical things that able-bodied people do, or that they can’t play football at the same pace.

“[Blind people] can’t see very well, but the way the games are done, it doesn’t mean they can’t move the ball quickly or run fast, it just means that they may not always see what they’re running into,” she says, laughing.

“Disability does impact us, and it does impact the way we play sport, but not always in the way that people think it does.”

The three women agree that people with disability have the same passion as people who are able-bodied when it comes to playing sport.

“We’re just athletes and we want to have fun, we want to be involved in a team, and every Australian with disability has that right,” Penny said.

ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Julie Dickson is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. She is studying a Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) at Deakin University and was recently an intern with ABC Sport.