In part one last week, we covered person-first language, took a detailed look at what it means to truly be inclusive, and evaluated the differences (or lack thereof) in characteristics of athletes with and without disabilities. In part two, we’ll use the critical theory to look at how sport reflects society for people with disabilities, the concept of social settings to check the message your program is sending to people with disabilities, and wrap things up with an action plan for coaches.

Sport as a Model of Society

Especially in an Olympic year, we constantly hear about the values of sport in society. Sports build character, sports teach life lessons, sports teach the value of hard work, team work, self-confidence, and so on. There is no doubt that sport can be a powerful way to do all of these things, but only when done with the goal of doing so. Just like playing a team-building game on the first day of practice doesn’t automatically build a rock-solid team with no further effort, the messages you want to send and the lessons you want to teach with sport need to be consistently evaluated and reinforced to be effective.

One way that we can evaluate sports in society is with the Critical Theory. This is one of five main sociological theories that has guided sociological research for the last fifty years, and focuses on the power dynamics present in a given environment [3]. Someone using critical theory will see sport is an area where culture and social relations can be produced and changed. History has proven that this is the case in sport, from race relations to gender IMG_6575(1)stereotypes, and hopefully now to disability. Main questions to ask of your program from a critical theory perspective include:

  • How do people without disabilities interact with, influence, and make decisions for those with disabilities?
  • How is power shared between individuals with and without disabilities? What is the balance of competitive opportunities, resources, equipment, coaching, and more?

For a sport like rowing that is already extremely expensive, with a new 8-person boat selling for 30-40,000 dollars not including oars to row it, the discussion of how money is allocated between those with and those without disabilities is extremely relevant. It’s one thing to be inclusive in a state-funded elementary school physical education class. It’s an entirely different matter to convince a board of directors or private company to fundraise and allocate funds for modified, adaptive, and inclusive equipment and coaching so that a minority of participants can be included in the sport.

Many athletic programs, even those who do offer inclusive sport opportunities, have governing boards that entirely consist of people without disabilities. We can use the critical theory to see this as an example of social and economic power and how, in this case, sport reflects the marginalization of people with disabilities in broader society. Conversely, a program that includes people with disabilities in the decision-making process and seeks to invest resources in inclusive equipment could represent an effort to change current culture and social relations by balancing power between those with and without disabilities.

Look Good, Play Good?

A final sociological theory is Erving Goffman’s concept of social settings and how environment affects an individual’s self-perception and actions [4].

Let’s consider the setting that many athletes with disabilities experience.

Seize the Oar’s summer inclusive program was not accepted at the nicer, more accessible, and more expansive boathouse in the city, despite the fact that they provide their own recruited participants, equipment, and coaching staff. At near zero extra work and cost to the nice boathouse, this program was denied access for seemingly no reason. Thus, the program operates out of a smaller, fairly dingy boathouse on the other side of the lake, exposed to greater amounts of wind, and with less accessible parking and dock. The dock is surrounded by milfoil, a deep-growing water weed that frequently gets tangled in motorboat propellers. What message does this setting send to our participants and how does that message affect how they view their participation in the sport? To go back to the three points from the inclusivity study, would anyone feel that they gained entry to the rowing community, that they are participating legitimately, and that they have friends in the rowing community? I would say no, no, and no. These athletes were denied access to the nicer facility, relegated to the dingier facility, and practice in a more isolated location away from the central hub of rowing participants.

The Coach’s Action Plan

How can you be an advocate in your sport or community for people with disabilities? “Advocate” sounds like a big commitment, but it can be as simple as just finding a way to include someone or helping provide an accommodation.

Some considerations for coaches, whether rowing or another sport, include:

  • Be open-minded to the idea of accommodations, rather than having to be convinced of the need or considering how deserving the athlete is. Accessibility and inclusivity should be the default, not the exception.
  • A pre-season survey/questionnaire that asks athletes or their parents if the athlete has any disabilities you should be aware of. Be prepared to have a conversation about accommodating that disability if one is listed and be respectful of any information disclosed.
  • If you notice an athlete struggling more than expected or if they do inform you of a disability, have a conversation with them about how you can best work together.
    • For example, I mentioned earlier a few players on my high school lacrosse team who have attention deficit disorder. They struggle with instructions when only given verbally. When I diagram the concept on a whiteboard or demonstrate it with a walk-through, in addition to my verbal cues, they can put the whole picture together and comprehend the information. This wasn’t something I dictated to them—I included them in the discussion of what accommodations would be useful for them and we worked out a system together.
  • Check your settings and the message they send to your participants. “Accommodation doesn’t mean bottom-of-the-barrel,” says Coach Tara. If you’re a coach or facility director, what does your inclusive or accessible equipment look like and does it send the message you want to send?
  • If your organization has an inclusive or adaptive component, do athletes with disabilities have representation or a say in your organization or program? Are the athletes included in discussions of inclusivity?
  • Can you put on a unified sporting event for your sport? What accommodations could you make to make this possible?

According to the 2012 US Census, nearly one in five people in the United States have a disability. Are we really going to count out, exclude, or minimize 20% of the population from competitive and recreational sport, sport management, and coaching? How much talent are we wasting by not making every effort to include an entire fifth of the population? That’s just over 56 million people in the United States—seven times the population of New York City. Imagine the possibilities for sport and recreational culture worldwide if people with disabilities were proportionately represented in athletics, competitive and recreational opportunities, and the sports industry from coaching to management positions.


[3] Coakley, D. (2009). Sports in Society (4th ed.). Vancouver, Canada: McGraw-Hill Ryerson

[4] Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.


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