Disability Sport

Disability sport refers to any form of organized physical competition intended specifically for people with disabilities and contrasts with able-bodied or mainstream sport, which is organized for people without disabilities. The historical lack of mainstream sports opportunities for people with disabilities is one of the important rationales for the development of disability sport. People are considered disabled, e.g., regarding physical mobility, sight, hearing, or mental functioning, when they have biomedical conditions or impairments that limit their ability to use certain skills, carry out certain tasks, or participate in certain activities or roles. Although their overall sports participation rates remain relatively low, people with disabilities have become increasingly involved in the pursuit of sport at various levels over the past few decades.

Disability sport has arisen and grown in popularity in recent decades, as people with disabilities have enhanced their rights, status, and perceptions of opportunity in society. Disabled people were relatively invisible in the United States until the 1970s, when federal law mandated the public education of American children and youths with disabilities in appropriate settings. What was known about people with disabilities was typically based on myth and stigma, but increasing public education, advocacy, and research in recent decades has resulted in a more accurate understanding of people with disabilities.

The scholarly study of social and cultural aspects of disability sport is relatively new. The first comprehensive collection of scholarly work in this area, Sport and Disabled Athletes, was edited by Sherrill in 1986, and the first comprehensive text on disability sport, Disability and Sport, by DePauw and Gavron, was published in 1995. Two major scholarly journals publishing studies of disability sport have been the Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly and Sociology of Sport Journal. The Disability in Sport Program of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University is an important source of education, advocacy, and research concerning disability sport and athletes with disabilities.

Disability and mainstream sport opportunities for people with disabilities may vary along a number of structural dimensions, including inclusiveness of eligibility, the amount of segregation or integration of disabled athletes and able bodied athletes or of athletes with different types or degrees of disability within a sport, disability adaptation, disability classifications, level of competitive intensity, and whether or not there is direct competition between disabled and able bodied athletes. Disability sports are divided into different classifications, according to the functional ability or medical or vision status of the participants with disabilities. There are also cases of disability sport divisions within mainstream sports, such as the Boston Marathon, but they are relatively few.

Two prominent examples of disability sport are the Special Olympics and the Paralympics. The controlled competition philosophy of the Special Olympics is to treat everyone as a winner, and the Special Olympics is open to everyone with an intellectual disability who is 8 years old or older. The Special Olympics training and competition program involves over 1 million children and adult athletes from around the world, and it has provided international competitive experiences through its World Games since 1968. The International Paralympic Committee organizes elite sports events for athletes with a number of different types of impairments, including spinal cord injury, amputee, intellectual and visual impairment, cerebral palsy, and other motor impairments. The Paralympics developed from a modest start in 1948 in England, was first staged as an Olympic style competition in Rome in 1960, and has developed into one of the largest sports competitions in the world, drawing nearly 4,000 athletes with physical, visual, or mental disabilities from 140 countries in 19 events to the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) signed an agreement in 2001 for their respective Games to appear alongside each other in the future. The 1996 Summer Paralympics were the first such Games to get mass media sponsorship. Paralympic sports range from archery to volleyball and winter sports such as Alpine and Nordic skiing.

Despite groundbreaking legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, people with disabilities in the US and other countries continue to face barriers to equal rights and full participation in society. These challenges help explain at least part of the appeal of disability sport to people with disabilities and the value of disability sport in reshaping public attitudes and treatment of people with disabilities. Thus, a major focus of some recent studies of disability sport is the empowerment potential of sport to enable people with disabilities to overcome stereotypes, stigma, prejudice, and discrimination based on conceptions of disability as inability. That is, disability sport is seen as a means of enhancing a sense of social identity, status, and power as well as personal competence or self efficacy. A shift from a rehabilitative philosophy in physical activity to an emphasis on empowerment in disability sport over the past few decades reflects the increasing seriousness of disabled athletes. Although there have been problems operationalizing the empowerment idea, it has been listed as a priority research topic of the International Paralympic Sport Science Committee.

For many disability sport scholars, sport classification is a central issue. Its main purpose is to classify sports and assign participants in ways that make competition fair, so that the outcome of events depends on factors such as ability, skill, training, and motivation rather than the nature or extent of disability. It is intended to avoid, for example, pitting athletes with amputations against those with cerebral palsy or who are blind in the same event. Official classifiers, who have the responsibility of assessing the functional ability or medical status of athletes and assigning them to particular sports classes or events, are important agents of social control in disability sport, and a study of disability swimming showed that classifiers generally maintained the social order of the sport and kept competition fair.

The dominant theoretical perspective in the sociological study of disability sport, especially regarding sport socialization, has been structural functionalism, although its dominance has been challenged in recent years by various forms of critical and feminist theory and sociocultural discourses on the body. We get a sense of the variety of disability and sport topics addressed by sport sociologists from a 2001 special issue of the Sociology of Sport Journal on ‘‘the sociology of ability and disability in physical activity.’’ It focused on topics such as women’s management of their physical disabilities through sport and physical activity; media representations of disabled sport and athletes; the politics of inclusion in sport of university students with mobility impairments; disability, sport, and the body in China; and stereotypes of gender and disability in elite disability sport.

A number of recent critical media analyses have focused on social marginality, inequality, and bias in print and electronic media coverage of disability sport. Some studies have critically pointed to the common ‘‘supercrip’’ image portraying disabled athletes as heroic within the boundaries of the world of disability, which some disabled athletes have strenuously resisted in an effort to portray themselves as a part of the larger society. Critics of this media image also argue that it implies that people with disabilities are only worthy of respect in society if they have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to ‘‘conquer’’ their disability. In addition, some have observed a ‘‘hierarchy of acceptability’’ in the mass media that has resulted in more attention for athletes with disabilities who looked more like able bodied or ‘‘normal’’ athletes or for athletes with disabilities that were acquired rather than congenital or seemed more ‘‘correctable.’’ A common finding in this type of research has been less attention to female than male disabled athletes.

With the rapid development of elite disability sport, topics concerning integration and inclusion have been among the most debated about disability sport. Major questions have focused on who should be eligible to compete, against whom, and in what sports. More specifically, some have argued in favor of having able bodied people participate in certain disability sports, as a means of increasing their sensitivity to the needs of people with disabilities, but others have strenuously opposed such ‘‘reverse integration’’ because they believed it reflected an outdated view of disability sport as rehabilitation rather than competitive sport, would reduce competitive opportunities for people with disabilities, and was at odds with the preferences of disabled athletes, who opposed the inclusion of able-bodied athletes in their sports. A potentially useful concept in this context is appropriate integration, which involves matching the abilities and motivation of participants with the structural parameters of a sport. Today, many disability sport advocates and scholars are focusing attention on the recognition and support from mainstream sport organizers needed to be able to include more disability sport divisions in mainstream sports events, from the interscholastic level to the Olympics. Scholars need to learn more about the kinds of sports opportunities pursued by people with disabilities, how they are socialized into, in, and through sport, and how the nature of their integration or segregation in sport influences how they and others with disabilities are integrated into society.

Various methodological approaches have been used in sociological research on disability sport and athletes with disabilities. Relatively little systematic empirical research has been done on the sociology of disability sport. Most of the published studies have relied on qualitative or interpretive approaches, such as participant observation, semi structured or unstructured interviews, and content analysis. The number of participants in these studies have been small, with few having over 30 participants. Thus, a number of these studies could be viewed as exploratory.

With the sociological study of disability sport still in its relative infancy, it is not surprising to find a limited amount of empirical research on disability sport, small sample sizes, and few attempts to replicate studies of specific research topics in this area. Future studies of disability sport are likely to rely heavily on critical perspectives and qualitative methods to pursue new ways of looking at disability, the disabled body, and sport, but large scale surveys, guided by more structural perspectives, are also needed. There is much to learn about the culture, organization, governance, commercialization, and stratification of disability sport; power relations in and affecting disability sport; disability sport socialization and the social identity, status, and experiences of disabled athletes; the impact of the mass media on disability sport, sports experiences of athletes with disabilities, and perceptions of people with disabilities in general; the integrating influence of sport for people with disabilities; and the relationship of disability sport to mainstream sport and the mainstream of society.


  1. Brasile, F. M. (1992) Inclusion: A Developmental Perspective. A Rejoinder to ‘‘Examining the Concept of Reverse Integration.’’ Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly 9(4): 293-304.
  2. DePauw, K. P. (1997) The (In)visibility of DisAbility: Cultural Contexts and ‘‘Sporting Bodies.’’ Quest 49: 416-30.
  3. DePauw, K. P. & Gavron, S. J. (1995) Disability and Sport. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
  4. Duncan, M. C. (2001) The Sociology of Ability and Disability in Physical Activity. Sociology of Sport Journal 18(1): 1-4.
  5. Hardin, B. & Hardin, M. (2003) Conformity and Conflict: Wheelchair Athletes Discuss Sport Media. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly 20(3): 246-59.
  6. Nixon, H. L., II. (2000) Sport and Disability. In: Coakley, J. & Dunning, E. (Eds.), Handbook of Sports Studies. Sage, London, pp. 422-38.
  7. Pensgaard, A. M. & Sorensen, M. (2002) Empowerment through the Sport Context: A Model to Guide Research for Individuals with Disability. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly 19(1): 48-67.
  8. Sherrill, C. (1999) Disability Sport and Classification Theory: A New Era. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly 16(3): 206-15.
  9. Williams, T. & Kolkka, T. (1998) Socialization into Wheelchair Basketball in the United Kingdom: A Structural Functionalist Perspective. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly 15(4): 357-69.
  10. Wolff, E. A., Fay, T., & Hums, M. A. (2004) Raising the Bar: Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Sport. Presented at the 2004 Disability in Sport Symposium, April 16, Boston.
  11. Wu, S. K., Williams, T., & Sherrill, C. (2000) Classifiers as Agents of Social Control in Disability Swimming. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly 17(4): 421-36.

Back to Top

Back to Sociology of Sport.