Introduction to Sport for People with Disabilities

Original Editor - Wanda van Niekerk based on the course by James Laskin

Top Contributors - Wanda van Niekerk and Jess Bell  

Introduction[edit | edit source]

One in five people lives with a disability. Physical activity, which may include sports participation, has significant benefits for everyone. However, people with disabilities are often at risk of not engaging or having low engagement in physical activity. Despite the barriers to sports participation, many athletes living with disabilities have experienced the benefits of sport and aim to reach the highest level of their sporting abilities.


Benefits of Sports Participation for People Living with Disabilities[edit | edit source]

Table 1. Experiences and perceived health benefits of participating in sport for people with a disability[2]
Children and Adolescents Adults Elite Athletes
  • Opportunity to socialise and create a sense of belonging
  • Team culture experience
  • Cultivating friendships
  • Increased physical and emotional wellbeing
  • Ability to show off achievements and prove others wrong
  • Creating a sense of pride
  • Happiness and enjoyment
  • Improved fitness, functionality and confidence
  • Experience camaraderie through being part of a team
  • Equality and togetherness
  • Breaking stereotypes and society-imposed limitations
  • Manage stigma, defy expectations and challenge people's perceptions
  • Provision of a sense of purpose and meaning
  • Liberation in feeling free from impairment and not being restricted by perceived limitations
  • Independence
  • Empowerment
  • Acceptance and adaptation of disability can be achieved through sports participation
  • Improved fitness, functionality, strength and self-confidence
  • Support from teammates
  • Creating strong interpersonal relationships
  • Development and growth in dedication, mental toughness
  • Funding opportunities
  • Recognition
  • Improved self-confidence
  • Improved self-esteem

Barriers to Adaptive Sports Participation[edit | edit source]

Barriers to adaptive sports participation include[3][4]:

  • accessibility[3]
  • cost
  • transportation
  • variety of activities available
  • dependency on others
  • degree of impairment
  • lack of energy
  • lack of equipment[3]
  • pain
  • comorbidities
  • general health
  • risk of injury
  • lack of time
  • lack of knowledge of opportunities[3]
  • lack of interest and/or motivation
  • lack of social support[3]
  • inequity in financial support[3]

Recreational and Non-Para Sports[edit | edit source]

The word “Paralympic“ derives from the Greek preposition “para“ (beside or alongside) and the word “Olympic“, meaning that Paralympics are parallel to the Olympics. Some examples of recreational and non-Paralympic sports include:

  • wheelchair dance[5]
  • baseball[6]
  • ice-hockey
  • watersports
  • golf[7]
  • power football
  • extreme or adventure sports

Paralympic sports are listed below.

Special Olympics[edit | edit source]


  • Provision of year-round sporting activities and athletic competitions in a variety of sports for people with intellectual disabilities
  • Providing continuing opportunities to:
    • develop physical fitness
    • demonstrate courage
    • experience joy
  • Participate in the sharing of gifts and friendships with their loved ones, other athletes and the community

Read more: Special Olympics

Paralympics[edit | edit source]

The Paralympics are the ultimate competition for world-class, elite athletes with physical disabilities. Athletes with disabilities should have opportunities to:

  • pursue their goals
  • dream of winning a gold medal
  • commit to strenuous training regimes
  • meet strict qualification standards
  • exist in an environment of excellence and personal best performances

The four core values of the Paralympic movement are[13]:

  • Courage – “It encompasses the unique spirit of the Paralympic athlete who seeks to accomplish what the general public deems unexpected, but what the athlete knows as a truth.”[14]
  • Determination – “The manifestation of the idea that Paralympic athletes push their physical ability to the absolute limit.”[14]
  • Inspiration – “When intense and personal affection is begotten from the stories and accomplishments of Paralympic athletes, and the effect is applying this spirit to one's personal life.”[14]
  • Equality – “Paralympic Sport acts as an agent for change to break down social barriers of discrimination for persons with an impairment.”[14]

Current Paralympic Sports[edit | edit source]

Currently there are 28 Paralympic sports (22 summer sports and 6 winter sports):[14]

Table 2. Paralympic Sports[14]
Summer Sports Winter Sports
  • Para archery
  • Para athletics
  • Para badminton
  • Blind football
  • Boccia
  • Para canoe
  • Para cycling
  • Para equestrian
  • Goalball
  • Para judo
  • Para powerlifting
  • Para rowing
  • Shooting Para sport
  • Sitting volleyball
  • Para swimming
  • Para table tennis
  • Para taekwondo
  • Para triathlon
  • Wheelchair basketball
  • Wheelchair fencing
  • Wheelchair rugby
  • Wheelchair tennis
  • Para alpine skiing
  • Para biathlon
  • Para cross-country skiing
  • Para ice hockey
  • Para snowboard
  • Wheelchair curling

Classification[edit | edit source]

Classification is an integral part of sport for people with disabilities. It provides structure to competition and ensures fair and equitable competition at all levels of sport. Specific criteria are established to ensure that winning is determined by skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus.

Read more: International Paralympic Committee Classification Code

How Does Classification Work?[edit | edit source]

Athlete evaluation focuses on three fundamental questions[14]:

  1. "Does the athlete have an eligible impairment for this sport?"
  2. "Does the athlete's eligible impairment meet the minimum impairment criteria of the sport?"
  3. "Which Sport Class should the athlete be allocated in based on the extent to which the athlete is able to execute the specific tasks and activities fundamental to the sport?"

The IPC athlete classification code supports and coordinates the development and implementation of "accurate, reliable, consistent and credible" classification systems in parasport.

Download the IPC Athlete Classification Code from here.

The International Standards provide technical and operational standards for specific aspects such as eligible impairments, athlete evaluation, protests and appeals, classifier personnel and training and classification data protection.[14]

Find the International Standards in the IPC Handbook

Eligible Impairment Types[edit | edit source]

There are ten eligible impairment types in the Paralympic movement:

Table 3. Eligible impairment types and their description[14]
Impairment Type Description
Impaired muscle power Athlete has a health condition that reduces/eliminates the ability to voluntarily contract muscles in order to move or generate force

Examples of conditions: spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy, post-polio syndrome, spina bifida

Impaired passive range of movement Athlete has a restriction/lack of passive movement in one/more joints

Examples of conditions: arthrogryposis, contractures from chronic joint immobilisation or trauma affecting a joint

Limb deficiency Total or partial absence of bones or joints from trauma, illness or congenital limb deficiency

Examples of conditions: traumatic amputation, amputation due to cancer, dysmelia

Leg length difference Athletes with differences in the length of their legs

Examples of conditions: disturbance of limb growth, trauma

Short stature Athletes with reduced length in bones of the upper limbs, lower limbs and/or trunk

Examples of conditions: achondroplasia, growth hormone dysfunction, osteogenesis imperfecta

Hypertonia Athletes with an increase in muscle tension and reduced ability of a muscle to stretch due to damage to the central nervous system

Examples of conditions: cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, stroke

Ataxia Athletes with uncoordinated movements due to damage to the central nervous system

Examples of conditions: cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, stroke, multiple sclerosis

Athetosis Athletes have continuously slow involuntary movements

Examples of conditions: cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, stroke

Vision impairment Athletes have reduced or no vision due to damage to the eye structure, optic nerves or pathways or the visual cortex of the brain

Examples of conditions: retinitis pigmentosa, diabetic retinopathy

Intellectual impairment Athletes have a restriction in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour which affects conceptual, social and practical skills necessary for everyday life. Intellectual impairment must be present before the age of 18.

More information on Classification by Sports and Classification

Examples of classification classes for people with and without disabilities are shown in Table 5.

Table 5. Examples of classification classes for people with and without disabilities
Sport for people without disabilities Sport for people with disabilities
  • Weight
  • Biological sex
  • Age
  • Weight
  • Biological sex
  • Age
  • Type of disability
  • Functional mobility
  • Mixed

Members of the Classification Team[edit | edit source]

  • Medical
    • Physician
    • Physiotherapist
    • Occupational therapist
  • Sport Technical
    • Coach
    • Official
    • Former athlete

Main Organisations[edit | edit source]

Doping and Cheating in Paralympic Sport[edit | edit source]

Adaptive sports provide a platform for athletes with disabilities to perform at the highest level. With this, there is the added benefit of financial gain through winnings and sponsorships, leading to a more competitive environment and athletes wanting to achieve the highest levels of performance and skills. Similar to sport for people without disabilities, this improvement in performance is not always achieved ethically.[23] Some methods used by athletes with disabilities are[23]:

  • doping by taking prohibited substances
  • boosting - a special form of doping specific to athletes with spinal cord injury
  • techno-doping - the use of advanced adaptive technology or equipment

Another method is cheating on classification and athletes feel strongly that this issue should be handled as a serious issue in integrity in sport.[24]


Research on Classification[edit | edit source]

The IPC developed a conceptual framework for evidence-based classification. Read this position statement here: International Paralympic Committee position stand—background and scientific principles of classification in Paralympic sport.[24] In this position stand, it is stated that each sport should develop its own classification system based on evidence. The empirical evidence needs to show the link or association between impairment and performance in that specific sport.

A five-step process has been proposed to describe the research needed to develop an evidence-based classification system in Para sports. These five steps are[26]:

  1. Identify the sport and eligible impairment types
  2. Develop a theoretical model to identify the determinants of performance in a specific sport
  3. Develop ways to measure impairment and determinants of performance in a specific sport
  4. Use the tests designed and developed in step 3 to assess the relationship between impairment and performance in a specific sport
  5. Develop a minimum impact criteria and class profiles for each sport

In addition, a translational phase is key wherein the implementation of a new classification system is being addressed and a monitoring phase wherein periodic monitoring of the classification system is necessary to evaluate if change is necessary or not.[27] This conceptual framework for Paralympic classification should aim to:

  • be consistent with the taxonomy and terminology of the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF)
  • be based on scientific evidence
  • define eligible impairment types by sport
  • define the minimum impairment criteria
  • classify impairments according to the extent of activity limitation caused[14]

Read more: Classification Research and Research needs for the development of evidence-based systems of classification for physical, vision, and intellectual impairments (Chapter 7) in Training and Coaching the Paralympic Athlete[26]

Articles on classification discussed by Dr. James Laskin in the course video:

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Akis van Doorn. Disabled athletes or Super-humans? Available from:[last accessed 01/06/2023]
  2. Aitchison B, Rushton AB, Martin P, Barr M, Soundy A, Heneghan NR. The experiences and perceived health benefits of individuals with a disability participating in sport: A systematic review and narrative synthesis. Disability and Health Journal. 2022 Jan 1;15(1):101164.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Fagher K, DeLuca S, Derman W, Blauwet C. Optimising health equity through para sport. British journal of sports medicine. 2023 Feb 1;57(3):131-2.
  4. Diaz R, Miller EK, Kraus E, Fredericson M. Impact of adaptive sports participation on quality of life. Sports medicine and arthroscopy review. 2019 Jun 1;27(2):73-82.
  5. Aliberti S, Ceruso R, Lipoma M. Modification of the wheelchair sports dance classification system for a fair competition. Journal of Physical Education and Sport. 2021 Feb 1;21:675-80.
  6. Cunningham GB, Warner S. Baseball 4 all: Providing inclusive spaces for persons with disabilities. Journal of Global Sport Management. 2019 Oct 2;4(4):313-30.
  7. Monforte J, Smith B, Bennett T. Benefits, Barriers and Facilitators to Golf Participation Among Disabled People: Identifying Opportunities to Increase Uptake and Foster Inclusion. International Journal of Golf Science. 2021 Sep 1;10(1).
  8. Infinite Flow Dance. Marisa Hamamoto & Piotr Iwanicki | Hip Hip Chin Chin Samba. Available from: [last accessed 26/05/2023]
  9. FOX8 WGHP. Wake the World program allows people with disabilities to water ski. Available from: [last accessed 6/6/2009]
  10. Special Olympics. Available from (last accessed 26o5/2023)
  11. Special Olympics. Changing the World Through Sport. Available from: [last accessed 26/05/2023]
  12. PBS News Hour. 50 years after first games, Special Olympics aims for 'inclusion revolution'. Available from: [last accessed 26/05/2023]
  13. Rocha CM, Hong HJ, Gratao OA. Involvement with the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the values of sport. Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events. 2021 Jun 23:1-24.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 14.5 14.6 14.7 14.8 14.9 International Paralympic Committee. Available from (last accessed 26/05/2023)
  15. Cliff Productions. The Mandeville Legacy - Paralympics Documentary. Available from: [last accessed 26/05/2023]
  16. Paralympic Games. 'All about ability' - How the Paralympic Movement is maintaining momentum. Available from:[last accessed 236/05/2023]
  17. Paralympic Games. Paralympic Sport A-Z: Swimming. Available from:[last accessed 26/05/2023]
  18. Paralympic Games. The History of Para Alpine Skiing. Available from: [last accessed 26/05/2023]
  19. Paralympic Games. Para Ice Hockey: Sports of the Paralympic Winter Games. Available from: [last accessed 6/6/2009]
  20. Paralympic Games. Paralympic Sports A-Z: Wheelchair Rugby. Available from: [last accessed 26/05/2023]
  21. .ParalympicsGB. ParalympicsGB Classification Explainer. Available from: [last accessed 30/05/2023]
  22. Sport for Business. Understanding Paralympic Classification. Available from: [last accessed 30/05/2023]
  23. 23.0 23.1 Zwierzchowski, J. and Gaweł, E., 2021. Performance enhancement and doping in adaptive sports: legal framework within the international paralympic committee. Sports for People with Disabilities—Theory and Practice Health and Social Dimension of Training Sports of People with Disabilities. Katowice, Poland: Akademia Wychowania Fizcznego w Katowicach, ISBN, pp.978-93.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Weber K, Patterson LB, Blank C. An exploration of doping-related perceptions and knowledge of disabled elite athletes in the UK and Austria. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 2022 Jan 1;58:102061.
  25. Austin McConnell. The Greatest Paralympic Scandal of All Time. Available from: [last accessed 30/05/2023]
  26. 26.0 26.1 Tweedy SM, Mann D, Vanlandewijck YC. Research needs for the development of evidence‐based systems of classification for physical, vision, and intellectual impairments. Training and coaching the paralympic athlete: Handbook of sports medicine and science. 2016 Jul 27:122-49.
  27. Mann DL, Tweedy SM, Jackson RC, Vanlandewijck YC. Classifying the evidence for evidence-based classification in Paralympic sport. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2021 Aug 13;39(sup1):1-6.
  28. Morgulec-Adamowicz N, Kosmol A, Bogdan M, Molik B, Rutkowska I, Bednarczuk G. Game efficiency of wheelchair rugby athletes at the 2008 Paralympic Games with regard to player classification. Hum Mov. 2010 Jun 1;11(1):29-36.
  29. Molik B, Laskin JJ, Kosmol A, Skucas K, Bida U. Relationship between functional classification levels and anaerobic performance of wheelchair basketball athletes. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 2010 Mar 1;81(1):69-73.