I’m a straight, white, healthy, 24-year old athletic male with no disabilities. No one in my close family has disabilities, and it’s not something that I consider myself to know much about. I coach high school lacrosse and college rowing, two sports traditionally known for being more privileged, and aside from a few athletes with attention deficit disorder, I haven’t had any experience of coaching athletes with disabilities. My exposure to the field of disability comes from my girlfriend, an MA graduate in rehabilitation counseling who works in residential services for people with disabilities, and a few opportunities to volunteer with an adaptive rowing program in the Seattle area. I decided to do a final project for a graduate school course on this subject and set about learning more about sport for people with disabilities as well as accommodations and inclusivity in sport. As I started researching, talking to other coaches, and thinking about my own experiences, I realized I had a lot to learn. My goal with this article is to share my learning process, including my own preconceived notions, background research and sociological theory, and tangible takeaways for my own coaching and hopefully yours too.

Part one of this article will discuss person-first language, how we can define and produce inclusiveness, and whether there actually is a difference between athletes with and without disabilities. Part two will discuss how sports reflect society for people with disabilities, how environment affects perceptions and actions, and will conclude with an action plan for coaches.

Person-First Language

person first
Source: Center on Transition

One of the first things I had to learn was a new language. Just like being a strength coach means knowing the difference between “sets” and “reps” and how a reverse lunge is different from a regular lunge, or how being a rowing coach means knowing that port is left and starboard is right and “cox” isn’t a dirty word, the field of disability has its own lexicon.

Person-first language keeps the focus on the individual or their participation as an athlete, and THEN may include a description of their disability. This means we say “athletes with disabilities,” rather than “disabled athletes.” Also, in person-first language, people are described as using a tool, not being a tool. “The person confined to the wheelchair” or “the handicapped person,” is different than, “the person using a wheelchair.” It is, after all, a choice to use a wheelchair. This is not a mere semantic, politically correct difference; it is a more respectful way of describing people. Using person-first language creates a more positive social view of disability by describing the disability simply as characteristics of a person, rather than making the person’s disability the sole focus of their existence.

What is Inclusivity?

Another word is “inclusive.” What does it really mean to be inclusive? I’ve had athletes get injured and be temporarily disabled, using crutches for a short period of time, and I’ve always tried to keep them included in practice by giving them a job to do or some activity that they can perform around their injury. However, it has always been secondary to my fully able athletes, and, to be honest, often an afterthought. “Uhhh, just go do XYZ for a bit, I’ll come over and check on you in a few minutes.” Do they really feel included?

A 2010 study looked at this issue exactly, interviewing 8-12-year old students with disabilities to understand their perspectives about supposedly inclusive school physical education activities [1]. “I know it’s being ’included,’ but you just don’t feel like you’re included,” said a 12-year old boy with cerebral palsy. Inclusion is a subjective experience, the researchers explained, and is the individual’s own perception of a sense of belonging, acceptance, and value. Because of this, it is very difficult to objectively assign recommendations for inclusivity without knowing, or at least consulting with, the individual being included. The three things that appeared most clearly from the interviews in this study that determined whether the children felt included were:

  • Gaining entry to play: Were the children invited to join a game or, when they requested to join, were they willingly accepted?
  • Feeling like a legitimate participant
  • Having friends playing the game or making friends during the game

It is difficult to precisely define inclusion in a way that could apply to all contexts, and perhaps this is part of the point. At its core, inclusion needs to be a genuine and collaborative effort to facilitate participation of all athletes present.

A great example of this is the Seize the Oar rowing program in Seattle, run by coach and fellow Rowperfect UK author Tara Morgan. I learned a lot from Coach Tara through this project and had the opportunity to go watch and help out with a Seize the Oar practice. Seize the Oar provides both adaptive (competitive rowing with disability accommodations) and inclusive (rowers with and without disabilities) rowing opportunities and Coach Tara’s motto is simply, “Come on, let’s row!” Her message is to just get people to the boathouse, and figure it out there as a collaborative approach for what the right level and mode of participation and activity is for each individual. This checks off all the boxes of the inclusivity criteria—people are invited and recruited to come row, Coach Tara works with each individual to find a way to legitimately participate, whether that’s on the stationary rowing machine, the extra wide and almost un-flippable eight-person boat, or with specialized adaptive rowing equipment, and rowers participate in a friendly and social atmosphere with rowers with and without disabilities.

Check out Seize the Oar’s Facebook page to watch videos and learn more!

Rowers at Tara Morgan’s Seize the Oar Program, source Tara Morgan

The Similarity Theory

Reading the list of criteria for inclusion, you may have thought, “hey, that sounds just like me!” I want to feel genuinely welcome and included in activities, I want to feel like a legitimate participant, and I want to have friends who include me in activities. THAT is the basis of the Similarity Theory, as outlined by Claudine Sherrill in a 1999 study of how sport for people with disabilities is understood. In earlier research, many researchers were concerned with analyzing the differences of people with disabilities and people without disabilities—competitive drive, psychological motivations, physiological adaptations to training, sociological aspects of sport, and even nutritional differences. Study after study showed that athletes with disabilities were not significantly different in any relevant sporting factors to athletes without disabilities. Sherrill concludes that, “athletes, whether disabled or able, are similar in traits, states, personal orientations, attentional and interpersonal styles, and attribution.” [2]

While this may seem obvious, this was an important realization for me. I had worked with many athletes without disabilities who all showed immense variations in motivation, communication styles, physiological adaptations to training, and attitude. With almost no personal or professional experience with people or athletes with disabilities, I had developed an assumption that “they” would be somehow inherently different. But really, the same amount of variation that exists within athletes without disabilities exists in athletes with disabilities. Basically, everyone, with and without disabilities, is similarly different.

I hope that this has kickstarted your own thought process around inclusivity and characteristics of people and athletes with disabilities. Stay tuned for part two where we’ll discuss two more sociological theories and their applications before wrapping up with an action plan for coaches!


[1] Spencer-Cavalierre, N., & Watkinson, E.J. (2010). Inclusion understood from the perspectives of children with disability. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 27, 275-293

[2] Sherrill, C. (1999). Disability sport and classification theory: A new era. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 16, 206-215

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