Supporting people with Disabilities in Participating in Sports. Barriers for participation and guidelines to overcome them.

Inclusion of people with disability in Sport is about providing a wide range of opportunities:
  • People with disabilities wish to be involved in sport, but a wide range of barriers prevent them from doing it with any meaningful frequency.
  • Access to sport is about the creation of an appropriate, affordable and welcoming environment.
  • It is proven that involvement in sport influences general well-being, personal development and competences of people of all ages and levels of ability.
  • Sport reduces the negative perceptions associated with disability. It can transform community perceptions about people with disabilities by highlighting their abilities and decreasing the perception to see the disability instead of the person.
  • We have a responsibility to provide people with disabilities with opportunities to create, develop and participate in sporting and recreational activities, and encourage the provision of appropriate instruction, training and resources.
  • Disability Sports should be totally inclusive, as opposed to being something specialised.
  • Accessing Sport and recreation gives people the confidence to take on other activities.

Sports and physical activity have been identified by the World Health Organisation as being essential for health and well-being (World Health Organisation, 2003). The European Sports Charter (Council of Europe, 1992) defines sport as all forms of physical activity, which through casual or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels.

Experience has demonstrated that participating in Sports provides opportunities to be more involved with society, whether one has disabilities or not. Sport enables individuals to communicate, to experience togetherness and to find out what we are capable of doing.

Since the Irish Sports Council (ISC) established the Sports Inclusion Disability Programme in 2007, there has been an increase in participation in sport and physical activity by people with disabilities in Ireland. New opportunities were created through increased levels of programming developed through the Sport Inclusion Disability Officers (SIDO) project. However, research still shows (Sport Ireland Policy on Participation in Sports for People with Disabilities) that individuals with disabilities are still less likely to participate in sport and physical activity in Ireland than those without disabilities.

Factors influencing participation of people with disabilities in Sports

Motivations and barriers to participation in sport exist for everybody, but people with disabilities frequently face additional barriers. The National Disability Authority identifies the following barriers as some of the factors that interfere with the participation in Sports and Physical activity of people with disabilities: (

  1. Poor Physical Education provision in schools. This can lead to young people being unable to acquire physical literacy, which should be taught, rather than just developed naturally. It is central to understanding that sporting ability is controllable rather than pre-determined (Bickerton, 2005).
  2. Negative school experiences.
  3. Low expectations from teachers, families and peers.
  4. Lack of knowledge of what is available, lack of information and expertise, and a lack of understanding and awareness of how to include people with a disability in sport.
  5. Poor community facilities and lack of access to facilities and programmes.
  6. Transport difficulties, inaccessible transport or lack of suitable transport to particular venues.
  7. Lack of coverage of a wide range of sports in the media.
  8. Lack of experience of the benefits of physical activity, untrained staff and lack of accessible facilities.
  9. Lack of companions or volunteers who can facilitate and assist people with disabilities when required.
  10. Inadequate sponsorship and coaching.
  11. Limited opportunities and programmes for participation, training and competition.
  12. A lack of a culture of general participation in physical exercise and sport in Ireland.
  13. Cost associated with access to venues, transport and purchasing special equipment

Increasing participation of people with disabilities in Physical Activity and Sport

In order to increase participation, the various public authorities involved in sport for people with disabilities (including health, social welfare, education and sports departments) need to continue working together regarding the development of policies and actions in the formulation of sport policies. Furthermore, people with disabilities and their advocates should be included in the process as they are the best source of information. They know what they are capable of doing and they can tell you about possible modifications to assist them with inclusion.

Participation could be increased by:

  • Providing the necessary adaptations of the local sport amenities, and facilitating access and transport to these amenities and recreation areas. Some progress has been made but more remains to be done.
  • The creation of more projects designed to give people with disabilities confidence in their own physical abilities, combined with programmes to make them aware of the potential physical, psychological and social benefits of Sport. While some Sports organisations such as the Football Association of Ireland(FAI) and Tennis Ireland have successfully developed programmes for people with disabilites, more support is required.


  • In 2009, as part of the Coaching Development Programme for Ireland (CDPI), Coaching Ireland , with the support of CARA, the disability NGBs and Disability Sport NI developed and published a Coach Education Framework. This includes material for coaches and tutors in disability awareness and guideliness on Coaching people with Disabilities.However, there is still a need to create and deliver localised education and training programmes to equip voluntary and professional sport leaders with the  knowledge, competence and skills to work with people with disabilities. This includes professionals in play, physical education, physical recreation, exercise for fitness, and competitive sport. In general, even though these professionals are  theoretically interested and competent, they do not feel confident to include people  with disabilities in their classes or Sport Clubs.


  • Service Providers have a responsibility to promote education and training in the importance and benefits of participating in physical activity and Sports for good health and wellbeing. By educating our frontline staff they will be better able to support their service users in an adequate manner to participate in Sports.


In summary, to Increase participation of people with disabilities in Sports, we need more than just making sport amenities accessible. Changing aptitudes by education and training of Sports coaches, volunteers and frontline staff is of crucial importance. Inclusion in sport is more likely to happen if they acquire the knowledge to understand the benefits of participating in sports and the skills needed to organise, modify and adapt appropriately to meet each individual’s needs.





Bickerton, P. (2005) Learning to move. Sports Coach UK

Chawla, JC. (1994) Sport for people with disability. British Medical Journal 308:1500-4.

Council of Europe (1992) The European Sports Charter, (

Meegan, S. (2002) Adapted Physical Activity Ireland .

World Health Organisation (2003) Health and Development Through Physical activity and Sport. World Health Organisation.

National Disability Authority, (2005) Promoting the Participation of People with Disabilities in Physical Activity and Sport in Ireland .

Carmen Martinez is a Senior Supervisor Sport Instructor in St Vincent’s Centre in Dublin (Daughters of Charity Disability Services). Carmen holds a Graduate Diploma in Dance and Honours degrees in Physical Activity, Educational Psychology and Social Care.  She has worked in the area of Sports and Intellectual disabilities for over 17 years. She has been a volunteer for Special Olympics Ireland since 2005 and has been both Head coach and coach in Irish and international Games. Before working for the Daughters of Charity She was the Sports and Dance Coordinator and Facilitator at Stewarts Care in Dublin. She is very interested in promoting the health and wellbeing of people with physical and Intellectual disabilities through inclusion in Physical Activity, Dance and Sport.


  1. Great article to create awareness about the importance of sports, dance and physical activity for people with disabilities. Organizations and public institutions should take note of this issue to promote proper areas, transport and professional staff to develop these activities for good health and wellbeing of people with disabilities. It would be a huge benefit for them and their families, often forgotten and excluded from Society.


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