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Ruff guide to Disability, Sport and PE

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The context of disability and its relationship to sport and physical education:

The increasing international emphasis on individuals with disabilities entitlement to high quality physical activity was crystallised through the Salamanca Statement (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation [UNESCO], 1994) which was signed by 92 governments and 25 international organisations. It established a set of beliefs and proclamations that every child has fundamental rights to education and identified core principles of providing children with the opportunity to learn, an education system designed to take account of diversity, access to regular child centred education and the acceptance of inclusive orientation as a means of combating discrimination and building an inclusive society.

Indeed, the Salamanca Statement (UNESCO, 1994) has according to Farrell (2001) led to a plethora of legislation, policies, and practices internationally (Booth et al 1998) that focus upon children and adults with disabilities and their access to all aspects of society including physical activity Furthermore, the 2nd World Summit on Physical Education (International Council for Sports Science and Physical Education, 2005) identified the distinctive focus of Physical Education (PE) on learning processes and pedagogical approaches whilst reaffirming its mission to support the inclusion of all children whatever their backgrounds and/or abilities.

This disability ruff guide by Professor Philip Vickerman, sets out to provide a theoretical and practical overview of the issues, challenges and rewards of supporting children and adults with a disability in relation to their entitlement and accessibility to all aspects of physical activity. It will explore definitions and models of disability alongside identifying strategies for facilitating engagement and participation of disabled people in physical activity.

Models of disability:

Bee and Boyd (2006) suggest interpreting issues of disability and inclusion can be both complex and diverse. They encompass a range of issues related to the tensions and challenges of approaches to supporting disabled people to access physical activity. According to Cameron and Murphy (2007), individuals with a disability lie upon a continuum in which there is often no clear cut distinction between those who need additional intervention and those who do not. Conceptualising differences of disability upon a continuum is therefore complicated and fraught with difficulties due to the many contrasting, and often opposing views as to what counts as a disability (Dyson and Millward 2000) - and more importantly how (if at all) these relate to physical disability.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) (2009) suggest 'disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person's body and features of the society in which he or she lives'. As such Burchardt, (2004) suggests that 'social models of disability' note systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (whether intentionally or unintentionally) are the central factors in defining who is disabled or not. Additionally, according to Reindal, (2008) whilst some people have physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychological variants which may cause individual functional limitation or impairments, these do not have to lead to disability. Reiser and Mason (1990) note therefore that 'social models of disability' do not deny that some individual differences lead to limitations but rather that these are not the cause of individuals being excluded.

Inclusion in physical activity for disabled people

Inclusion in physical disability must focus upon individuals with disabilities unique needs and their personal potential must be a key feature throughout all aspects of any definitions and interpretations. In doing so, this will avoid any misunderstandings of quantifying achievement of physical disability and/or attempts to establish baselines that are universally applied. In adopting such an approach this upholds the notion of the individual uniqueness of human beings and how they develop as embodied individuals (Whitehead 2007) within particular environmental contexts. Thus, how individuals with disability interpret and develop their physical disability will be specific to them - and at a pace and level that meets their specific needs (Wright and Sugden 1999). This is in contrast to any attempts to measure any aspect of physical disability against any standardised notions and expectations aligned to non disabled people.


Learning to move - moving to learn:

According to Sugden and Wright (1998) individuals with disabilities like their non-disabled peers need to experience physical movement, learning and development in a wide range of activities and environments. The rationale for supporting the development of disabled people's fundamental movement patterns is twofold: Firstly for individuals own physical development; and secondly it is an essential aspect of social, emotional, intellectual and cognitive development.

For children and adults with a disability, opportunities to access physical activity enhances fitness, fosters growth and development, and helps teach them about their world. Indeed, there is considerable awareness (Vickerman 2007, Whitehead and Murdoch 2006) of the contribution PE lessons have on the physical, social, emotional and intellectual development of children with a disability. However, PE has an even greater role to play in the overall growth and development of children becoming physically active. As such the relevance and importance of learning through physical activity cannot be over stated. In relation to PE, Sugden and Henderson (1994) suggest therefore the need to modify and adapt their practices to cater for individual disabled people's needs which incorporate teachers being aware of facilitating a diverse range of movement approaches. 

In addressing this issue Seaman and Depauw (1989) suggest physical disability should be considered as a universal developmental process that is inclusive of (dis)ability. They argue developmental approaches to physical disability should employ a myriad of methods and techniques in predetermined and systematic ways to facilitate growth and development among individuals with 'performance disorders'. In adopting such an approach, disabled individuals may approximate the norm and achieve their maximum potential through which the universality of physical disability must examine and take issue with 'normal' embodied experiences. In applying such methods this allows for recognition of the individual as a unique embodied learner alongside identifying foundations for understanding causes of 'atypical' (or unique) natural sequences of performance. Such personalised approaches to physical disability and embodiment are therefore defined as 'non-categorical'; and inclusive of the full diversity of disabled people's needs.

Another important point to consider in any discussion on ranges of disability though is that according to Sugden and Wright (1998) not all will have difficulties. A child with emotional behavioural difficulties for example could excel in physical activity or a child with learning difficulties may be an excellent swimmer. Consequently, we should not assume that disability equals difficulty in physical disability. In saying that though, disabilities generally do pose challenges for PE teachers and physical coaches and this is where having an open mind, high expectations and a willingness to adapt practices are critical to success or otherwise. 

Many disabilities can lead to a lack of confidence in managing their body/embodied dimension which in turn leads to difficulties (See Weiss and Haber 1999) in gaining positive experiences and being motivated to engage with physical activity (Wellard 2006). This is where PE teachers and coaches are vital to the process of ensuring individuals with a disability do not feel they are being limited in their activity experiences. It is also important that physical disability for individuals with a disability are not seen purely in a 'physical context' as many activities according to Sugden and Wright (1998b) present additional opportunities to develop social skills that can lead to a free independent life that is relevant, real, pleasurable and creative. An exciting activity programme can stimulate and motivate individuals who in turn are less likely to become frustrated or emotionally disturbed and consequently they should be given every opportunity and encouraged to use these to the best of their ability.

The aims of physical activity for individuals with a disability are no different to those of any other person. They are entitled to a broad, balanced, progressive, differentiated and relevant programme of activities. Clearly, some will have greater difficulties than others in terms of active participation but it is important that provision be made for their inclusion alongside their non-disabled peers. It is also important that should it be necessary for an activity or equipment to be modified or substituted it maintains its integrity and in no way is presented as a tokenistic gesture. Individuals with a disability by their very nature possess a wide range of personal and specific needs which have enormous complexity and diversity. To offer a comprehensive PE and/or physical activity programme that caters for such diversity may present considerable challenges for teachers and coaches. However, the skills that are learned and experienced by disabled individuals will support them and carry them forward throughout their life (Kasser and Lytle 2005) whilst assisting them towards active and worthwhile roles within society.

The relationship of physical disability to Physical Education:

According to Talbot (1993) (cited in Whitehead and Murdoch (2006) PE aims to systematically develop physical competence so that children can move efficiently, effectively and safely. Children should progress from simple exploratory movements and performances by steadily increasing competence, control, co-ordination and spatial awareness via a range of movement skills. Children should also be able to refine, extend and perform skills with improved accuracy and consistency. In relation to individuals with a disability Wright and Sugden (1999) suggest the goals of PE should be the same and as such the development of physical disability should be an attribute that is open to everyone. Naturally, in order to fulfil this it will have implications for the way in which PE is taught and how children are supported in their learning and development in order to accommodate their individual needs.

In meeting the needs of those with a disability, physical disability should be considered as a universal concept that relates to every human being. It is important to acknowledge all individuals have the potential to grow and develop if appropriate environments and support are provided (Vickerman 2007). Thus, whilst physical disability has fundamental principles, these should be interpreted facilitated and demonstrated in different ways dependent on individuals lived experiences. Whitehead (2001, 2007) suggests the capacity to be physically active should therefore be characterised by a person's unique motile potential and embodiment through which difference and diversity is celebrated as a strength and opportunity for all to access activity in ways and levels that are appropriate to their particular contexts.

Experiences beyond PE

Whilst it is important to note physical disability is a fundamental component of PE, it also has a much broader remit than just school contexts (Bailey 2005). Physical disability is an issue for all individuals whatever stage of life course they are at. As such Aitchinson (2003) argue a significant goal would be to ensure individuals with a disability develop the motivation to engage in physical activity that is premised upon enhanced self confidence and self realisation that all can experience success in progressing towards becoming physically active throughout their lives. Indeed the World Health Organisation (WHO) (1997) actively promotes health, well-being and physical activity amongst the full diversity of society. The WHO suggest physical activity is an essential component of everyday life and appears to be the single, most effective means whereby individuals can influence health and functional ability including those with disabilities. Thus being physically active is important to all individuals including those with a disability. Furthermore, with the development of the paralympic games more and more disabled sportsmen and women are becoming recognised for their excellence in sport as well as providing positive role models for others.

Barriers and models of participation:

Barriers to individuals with disabilities becoming physical active have been subject to significant debate by authors such as Fredrickson and Cline (2002), Crawford et al (2008), Nancy et al (2008) and Reindal (2008). In acknowledgement of varying models of disability, Fredrickson and Cline (2002) suggest a combination of individual differences; environmental demands and interactional analyses have contributed to differing perspectives on inclusion (Ballard 1997).

Individual models of inclusion consider barriers to becoming physical active as being owned by the disabled individual. Thus, barriers to learning and development in physical activity are created by the diversity of individual's disabilities (Reiser and Mason 1990) and the challenges these create rather than attributing exclusion or isolation to the environment such as restrictions applied by physical activity coaches or PE teachers. Thus individual models perceive a person's disability as main the barrier to becoming physically active alongside lack of attempts to accommodate these by maintaining existing structures and systems.

Burchardt (2004) in contrast suggests environmental models adopt situation, rather than person centred foci to supporting inclusive physical disability. Cole (2008) suggests barriers to learning and access to high quality physical activity can only be defined in terms of relationships between what an individual can do, and what a PE teacher or physical activity coach must do to enable success in any given environment. Thus, the limiting factor for any individual with a disability being able to physically develop rests with adopting flexible approaches rather than expecting people to fit into existing structures. Thus, barriers to physical disability are considered to be created by the environments lack of flexibility rather than any 'deficit' an individual may bring to the activity as a result of their disability. As such, PE teachers and physical activity coaches play a significant role in facilitating and/or constraining individual's abilities to become physically active.

In drawing the similarities and differences of individual and environmental models of disability together, interactional models note impossibility in separating the learning and physical competencies from the environment within which they live and function. Thus models of causation and location of barriers to physical disability can be seen as a combination of complex interactions between the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, levels of support available, and the appropriateness of activities being provided. Thus neither environmental, nor individual models exclusively describe the reality of inclusive physical disability. Rather, the central factor in supporting unique embodied experiences should be premised upon concern for high quality physically active experiences (See Rink and Hall, 2008), alongside the ability of PE teachers and physical activity coaches to be equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills and understanding to support a wide range of individual needs.

Strategies for supporting physical disability for individuals with a disability:

In order to maximise opportunities to support the development of physical disability it is important this is premised on addressing individual needs. Strategies to support physical disability should be clearly planned, focused, and have a clear purpose of offering opportunities to experience success and satisfaction. According to Mouratidis et al (2008) time should also be built into activities to allow for repetition and raising self esteem of disabled individuals as embodied learners.

PE teachers and physical activity coaches also need to be sensitive to individuals with disabilities specific needs whilst being non-judgemental and ready to recognise both effort and success. The United Kingdom (UK) National Curriculum (Qualification Curriculum Authority, 2007) has set out strategies which exemplify how this can be achieved through the principles of:

  • Setting suitable learning challenges: Here PE teachers and physical activity coaches should reflect the diversity of physical disability by developing different objectives based upon individual needs. A child who has a learning difficulty for example may find it difficult to verbalise a movement vocabulary but they may be able to demonstrate competence through physical demonstration. In contrast a physically disabled child may struggle to demonstrate a particular skill set and/or activity but may be able to demonstrate verbal competence of what physical disability means for them. (See Vickerman, 2007). In setting suitable learning challenges, teachers and physical activity coaches can ensure individuals with disabilities are stretched and challenged to progress and achieve at a level and pace that meets their unique needs.
  • Responding to the diverse needs of pupils: This leads to the second requirement on those facilitating physical disability to acknowledge difference and diversity whilst embracing interactional models of disability (Fredrickson and Cline 2002, Reiser and Mason 1990) which seek to recognise the uniqueness of each individual and as such modify activities as required. Thus, universal approaches are not going to be appropriate to individuals with disabilities - rather acceptance and celebration of difference and diversity is central to fostering positive experiences of physical activity (See Coates and Vickerman 2008).
  • Differentiating assessment and learning to meet individual needs of pupils: If difference and diversity is to be accepted by PE teachers and physical activity coaches this involves recognition that individuals with disabilities are all on a continuum of learning and as such alternative methods of charting progress which maximise opportunities for to demonstrate physical disability should be facilitated. If different learning challenges are offered to support physical disability, then alternative methods of demonstrating competence should also be facilitated which reflect different stages of development and interpretation that individuals are at.

Consequently, in modifying and adapting physical disability practices as suggested through the three principles above, any barriers or lack of success rest with PE teachers and physical activity coaches rather than any 'deficit' of individuals with a disability. It is essential therefore we start from the premise that everyone can learn and develop if the right opportunities are provided for them. Sugden and Keogh (1990) support this view particularly well in suggesting movement outcomes are determined by the interrelationship of three interacting variables of:

  • The resources the child brings to the learning situation
  • The context within which learning takes place
  • The task to be performed

Thus individuals with a disability bring to any movement situation a set of resources which are in the equation for becoming physically active. PE teachers and physical activity coaches need to therefore ensure selection and breakdown of tasks are appropriate in order to maximise success and achievement. Finally, the environmental context can make or break success so this requires establishment of environments that are conducive to learning. In attempting to identify key principles which promote development of physical disability many authors such as Fitzgerald (2005), Whitehead (2001), and Whitehead and Murdoch (2006) have suggested strategies and models of inclusion all with the intention of supporting the unique needs of individuals with a disability. In drawing this diversity together there are three common factors which re-occur and include:

  • Activity adaptation - Changing what is taught;
  • Instructional modifications - Changing how we teach;
  • Human or people resources - Looking at changing who teaches or supports individuals with disabilities movement experiences.

In supporting progression in physical disability PE teachers and physical activity coaches should consider how they can address the inter-related variables identified by Sugden and Keogh (1990) alongside the learning and teaching methods noted above. These factors will now be discussed in relation to how they can assist individuals with a disability to become proficient in 'learning to move and moving to learn'.


The learning process for individuals with disability:

The World Health Organisation (WHO) (2009) suggest 'disability is a complex phenomenon, reflecting an interaction between features of a person's body and features of the society in which he or she lives.' The WHO (2009) suggests the term 'disability' is an umbrella term that encompasses impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions. They suggest 'impairment' is a problem in body function or structure; whereas an 'activity limitation' refers to difficulties encountered by an individual in executing a task or action. Finally, the WHO (2009) refers to 'participation restriction' as a problem experienced by an individual through involvement in life situations.

In examining these interpretations, Sugden and Keogh (1990) suggest when learning a new task the first operation on the path towards physical disability is to develop an understanding of the skill. An essential aspect of this is for primary PE teachers to appreciate the unique movement patterns of individuals with disabilities then create strategies to maximise learning and development. Central to this process is helping individuals understand what is demanded of them along with an appreciation by teachers and coaches to provide physical, social, emotional and intellectual support in order for them to meet that demand. This is a critical aspect of the learning process and one that is often overlooked. Consequently, during this part of the learning process it is vital demonstrations, instructions and explanations are provided that offer clarity to situations that are being presented.

The second aspect of the learning process involves acquiring and refining skills whereby individuals know what to do to engage with the physical process of learning and development. During this aspect of learning PE teachers need to guide individuals with any refinement and correction of techniques that may be required. As a primary PE teacher, observational skills are vital here in order to provide immediate and constructive feedback whilst also recognising the unique movement patterns of individuals with disabilities. Thus movement patterns that are observed will be unique to individuals and it is vital PE teachers and/or physical activity coaches are cautious in expecting 'standardised' outcomes.

The third phase of moving towards becoming physically active involves individuals with a disability automatising these skills. This is where they become increasingly competent and physically active whilst performing without paying too much attention to it. Another aspect which permeates across all stages is generalising the skill involving using the skills learned to date to support with any new skills that are presented to them. Whilst these skills overlap with each other it is often not useful to try to make definitive distinctions at this stage due to the unique movement patterns displayed by individuals with a disability. Thus PE teachers and physical activity coaches need to adopt flexible strategies to facilitate increasing proficiency in physical disability, whilst also being cautious in encouraging standardised movement patterns.

It is often the case that individuals with a disability are classified according to the severity of their particular conditions, however whilst this can appear to be logical in the first case, it is not the most useful or productive manner in which to progress forward. For example there are some individuals with complex physical conditions that only require minimal adaptations, whilst others with fewer and less complex need that require significant intervention. Indeed, the need to adopt interactional approaches to disability by PE teachers and physical activity coaches is essential in order to construct physical disability experiences around the individual, rather than expecting them to fit into pre-existing environmental contexts.


This ruff guide provides an overview and context to the term disability and its relationship to adults and young people who are engaging in physical activity. The guide has set out to recognise that 'social models of disability' take as the fundamental standpoint society's rights and responsibilities to modify and adapt activities in order to ensure disabled people have equal access and entitlement. It is hoped that the models and strategies discussed within this guide will provide a basis for considering what you consider to be the most effective strategy for inclusive physical activity.


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We are grateful to Professor Philip Vickerman; Liverpool John Moores University, for the provision of this Ruff guide.



Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 July 2012 13:14  

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