Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow desde 2023   |   Portugal

José Soares

José is creating a mindset shift in the sports industry by positioning people with disabilities as an economic and innovation opportunity, activating a global movement of functionally diverse…
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This description of José Soares's work was prepared when José Soares was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2023.


José is creating a mindset shift in the sports industry by positioning people with disabilities as an economic and innovation opportunity, activating a global movement of functionally diverse entrepreneurs and decision-makers.

La idea nueva

Globally, 15 to 20% of the world’s population experience a severe disability and, due to an aging population, this is set to grow over the next two decades. Despite the existing legislation in numerous countries that mandates the employment of these citizens, their inclusion is a distant reality as they are still often considered less able within society and treated with condescension.

Traditional sports events and programs for the disabled, such as the Paralympics and inclusive sports teams, have opened up integration and leisure spaces to support their development and inclusion. However, these programs only allow the functionally diverse to play the sport but do not change how the sports industry works. Currently, no sports program fosters the participation of the functionally diverse decision-makers and leaders of sports organizations who can contribute with unique perspectives and ideas.

José founded Integrated Dreams to showcase how this status quo can be changed by increasing the leadership and representation of people with disabilities within the sports industry, focusing especially on football as a lever for a mindset change in society. José’s approach transforms the role of disabled people from passive receptors of generally unexciting administrative jobs or purely recreational activities to allow them to push to create their dream project or job, whilst simultaneously encouraging their inclusion in society.

To do so, he is preparing the fourth edition of the first international program to promote employment, entrepreneurship, and networking for disabled people in sports. He does this by enabling sports enthusiasts with physical and sensory disabilities to incubate inclusive projects as part of an eight-month program, connecting them with the industry’s biggest players, such as FIFA and UEFA, ultimately assuming roles in sports management and federations, as well as in local organizations and projects. The main objective is to demonstrate the value of the disabled collective and ultimately make society more inclusive.

His leadership and incubation program inspires and guides participants to develop one concrete idea (always related to sports and inclusion) and mentors them until they implement it in their local community. José firmly believes in the concept of “Community supports Community”, and each participant is allocated a local sports organization to provide support in the project’s development.

José has managed to spread his vision throughout Europe and beyond with over 20 different nationalities participating in his program and is now in the strategic phase of expanding Integrated Dreams to become embedded in other continents.

El problema

According to the UN, 50 to 60 percent of disabled people are currently unemployed (in developing countries, the figures are expected to be between 80 and 90%). A recent study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that in 27 countries working-age people with disabilities experience significant labour market disadvantage and inferior labour market outcomes than working-age persons without disabilities. On average, their employment rate of 44% is over half that for persons without disability (75%). The inactivity rate was about 2.5 times higher among persons without disability (49% and 20%, respectively).

Over the past decade, many countries have reformed their disability benefit systems, but the aggregate effects of disability reforms on the employment of people with disability have been limited. Reforms that merely affect the generosity of the disability system and strengthen employment-oriented programmes, while effective in curbing the size of the programme, do not translate into changes in the employment rate of people with disability. Solving the disability and work equation is a complex issue requiring mainstream approaches that have not been a priority until now.

Consequently, people with disabilities lack the resources, support, and inclusion to access education and employment and, ultimately, achieve their life goals. Although great advances have been made over decades to make the playing of sports more accessible and inclusive, in the realm of sports management, it’s unfortunate that the inclusion of disabled individuals remains an exception rather than the norm. There is a significant scarcity of cases where sports organizations actively employ disabled individuals or establish their own entrepreneurial sports projects with their involvement.

People with disabilities have recurrently faced discrimination and are perceived as lesser contributors to society. According to Scope, a British NGO supporting disabled people and their families, approximately one in three people (32%) hold the perception that disabled individuals are, to some extent, less productive than their non-disabled counterparts. As a result, most existing programs for inclusion use a charitable and condescending approach. Therefore, society is missing the value of their contribution, which allows other functionally diverse people to participate in society and provides novel ideas and perspectives to the wider community.

La estrategia

José is transforming the rules of the football world from a charity for functionally diverse people to an architecture of entrepreneurial opportunities within the sports management team, leagues and associations and entrepreneurial endeavors.

He has selected the sports industry and especially football as a showcase sector. His passion for football is a crucial driver, as is the fact that football is undoubtedly the most powerful and most popular sport in the world, linking communities, stirring emotions and breaking down cultural barriers, and as such can be a powerful showcase for the inclusion of the disabled2. Similarly, football has also become one of the most profitable industries, with a significant economic impact where employment opportunities are widespread and hugely aspirational for many.

To reach his vision, José has developed a three-pronged strategy:

1. Creating a global community of disabled entrepreneurs

José has developed the Football for All Leadership Programme in collaboration with academic partners and experts in sports, such as FIFA, UEFA, the Centre for Access to Football in Europe (CAFE), Johan Cruyff Foundation, the Portuguese Football Association, Arsenal Football Club, and S.L. Benfica, as well as with top academic entities, including Nova University Business School in Portugal and The International Academy of Sports Science and Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.

José designed this program by mapping local sports organizations and patient associations throughout more than 20 countries to reach even the most underserved and inaccessible communities. These organizations nominate candidates, carrying out a pre-selection based on an entrepreneurial attitude and interpersonal skills.

Once he recruits the participants, the program is deployed yearly in three stages:

i. On-Site Lecture Period:
For one week, the participants partake in collaborative workshops focused on three main components – Personal Development & Leadership, Project Management, and Technical Knowledge Applied to Sports. Lectures are given by many representatives of partner organizations, and networking opportunities take place. For some, this is the first time they meet people outside their community living in similar situations, and overall is a critical moment to foster networking between people with disabilities from all around the world. This is where the global community begins. At the end of the week, each participant proposes an inclusive sports idea for their local community and is allocated a mentor to collaborate with them over the next months.

ii. Implementation Period:
During the following eight months, the participants, with the support of sports industry mentors, implement their project idea for their disabled peers locally. Every project must be linked to their local community following the “Community supports Community” concept coined by José.

The same local organizations and associations that nominated and supported the participants in joining the program, are key in this phase. This is where the participant has a huge impact on his peers. José makes the most of the network of local sports organizations and tasks them to collaborate and co-implement the entrepreneur’s project, thus ensuring a powerful indirect impact. Projects in the last three editions have covered local employment opportunities in soccer administration positions, soccer associations working to rehabilitate the socially excluded due to substance abuse or violence, and even community events celebrating diversity.

As FIFA Senior Advisor Joyce Cook claimed in the yearly Football for All closing ceremony, “It is crucial that disabled people have full access to take their rightful places as administrators, leaders and decision-makers. If we ensure people with disabilities are not only able to enjoy but also more frequently contribute to the game, the game will, without doubt, improve. We will see better governance, resiliency, innovation, and growth.”

2. Positioning the disabled as key in the field of sports innovation

Building on his network of entrepreneurs, José has built a new architecture where sports organizations can connect and work with functionally diverse people to develop innovative and inclusive solutions and become champions of an inclusive society.

José offers these organizations the opportunity to present challenges, in the style of a Hackathon, to then work side-by-side with people with disabilities to co-create an action plan to solve challenges related to inclusion and accessibility.

To ensure these projects have as wide implementation as possible, José has established the Football for All Disability in Football Alliance; a Think Tank established in collaboration with the Centre for Access to Football in Europe and the Power of Sport Lab. The Think Tank is a platform where key stakeholders across the football world meet periodically to share and discuss their views around different aspects related to football, disability and non-playing aspects such as employment, media or fan relations disability.

These connections are gradually transforming the vision of the functionally diverse as valuable contributors. As an example, participants of the program, were invited to be part of the executive board of reference organizations in this area (e.g., Centre for Access to Football in Europe) or were accepted to study at top Universities (e.g., Ulster University or Nova Business School).

Jose´s key partners in the design and implementation of the project, (the universities and sports organizations), have declared that this collaboration significantly changed their day-to-day work. Preparing the program for people with disabilities and later working with them as mentors have been an eye-opening opportunity to listen to unique perspectives, identify inclusivity gaps, and become ambassadors of José´s model.

In three years, The Football for All Leadership program has supported 47 entrepreneurs and 68% of them are now working for sports organizations, with decision-making responsibilities. The participants and their projects have impacted more than 30 communities, reaching more than 30.000 people.

The impact of José´s work is wide-reaching: One of his participants is currently the Accessibility Manager within the Portuguese Football Association tasked with improving the accessibility of professional football stadiums in Portugal. Another student has found a job in the Centre for Access to Football on the European Board and two others have found positions in the Belgium and Letonia Football Federation respectively.

Another two participants, one from Spain and another from El Salvador, have worked together to create the first football school for amputees and have launched the first football championship for amputees in Central America. This school has also been able to fundraise to offer scholarships for universities and ensures that the physically disabled have opportunities beyond sports.

Thanks to the collaboration of UEFA´s Centre for Access to Football and José´s organization, an Armenian participant has improved the accessibility of all stadiums in Yerevan. She has become the first physically disabled woman and journalist to become a mainstream football commentator, and a public source of inspiration and awareness listened to by many in her country.

3. Inclusion as an opportunity: Using awareness and advocacy to build strategic alliances

José has been able to institutionalize his idea and methodology by weaving bottom-up and top-down partnerships and by advocating crucial allies such as soccer associations, universities, and local sports to position inclusion as an opportunity.

Although not the key focus of his strategy, José uses awareness and advocacy tools as a doorway to create new alliances. As such, through a partnership with Real Betis and the Spanish Soccer League, José organized the most inclusive soccer match in history. 50,000 fans witnessed the participation of more than 1.700 disabled fans during the match. This landmark event was published in more than 150 news outlets and received millions of reactions on social media, but more importantly created two new, strong alliances for Jose´s leadership program.

Similarly, in collaboration with the World Football Summit, a platform that connects over 80.000 of the football industry’s decision-makers to shape the future of the game, José created the Football Without Limits Awards to recognize and celebrate the most impactful football and functional diversity projects in the world, and again build a solid partner for his objectives.

José has tested and validated his vision throughout Europe and beyond and is now in the strategic phase of expanding Integrated Dreams to become embedded in other continents. He has just closed an agreement with the US Soccer Organization to implement Integrated Dreams in the US in the run-up to the 2026 male World Cup and the 2027 female World Cup.

José’s scaling strategy is to select key partners in different sports, in this case, the US Soccer Association, and complete an efficient knowledge transfer on the first edition of the program, and afterward, they become autonomous in their region while being part of the global community. His other line of scalability is related to industries adjacent to sports, like technological innovations for the functionally diverse population, where the disabled can transform their role as passive users of technologies to innovators in the process.

José’s partnerships have also revealed other groups that lack representation, such as women and ethnic minorities in sports. Due to the success of his approach with the disabled, his organization has been tasked with a three-year project funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. Their role is to assess recent research on representation in leadership positions in football to develop responsive, inclusive leadership governance action plans at National and European levels.

La persona

José can now laugh about it but as a child, he was often the last one picked for the football team, and almost always left on the bench when he was part of his local football team. This built great resilience in him but also a great empathy for those who are left out and feel excluded. Raised in a large Catholic family, the eldest of five siblings, and constantly involved in volunteer work with kids and adults who were less lucky than him, he knew that this was something that would never leave his life.

As a university student motivated by family tradition, he opted for an undergraduate law degree although his real passion was sports management. During this time, he faced significant challenges in passing the courses, failing 37 times but never giving up. Overcoming this challenge gave him the knowledge that with hard work and determination, nothing is impossible. Despite the difficulties, José became the student association president and led several impactful initiatives, launching the first basketball and football teams in the university.

He was also motivated to work to include an ethnically diverse group in the wider university community. His university had a group of students from Macao, a Portuguese colony on the Chinese mainland, until 1999. Again, José was upset by the idea of exclusion and co-founded (with a Macanese student) the Portuguese Macanese Association, which is still functioning today.

After graduating, he pursued his sports passion and joined the AISTS Master of Advanced Studies in Sports Management and Technology. While studying, he worked as an intern with the FIFA Sustainability Department and was tasked with reviewing the Good Practice Guide for Diversity and Anti-Discrimination in Football. As José states, this was a life-changing opportunity, not only because he met with prominent leaders in the field but because he realized that vast gaps existed, a lack of spaces to discuss diversity, and the minimal work done to use soccer as an inclusion tool at a decision-making level.

While collaborating at UEFA, José attended a conference about inclusion in football for people with disabilities, and of the approximately 200 attendees, only one was disabled. At that time, it became crystal clear to him how unreasonable it was that disabled people were being excluded from critical decision-making spaces. This was the moment when José knew that he had to dedicate his efforts to increasing the representation of disabled people across the football and sports world in general.