Implementing and Maintaining Inclusive Sports Programs

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Students with and without disabilities benefit from inclusive sports programs.

Studies show that children with disabilities perform better in inclusive classrooms, learning alongside their peers without disabilities, developing friendships, and cultivating executive functioning skills.

When it comes to sports, special-needs K-12 students who participate in mainstream activities fare equally well. Inclusive sports and fitness activities provide an opportunity for young people to learn skills together and discover more about each other’s similarities rather than differences.

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) said equality, equity, and fairness are the ultimate goals for the 30 or so state associations currently offering state championships in inclusive sports. From the sporting field to the classroom to the cafeteria, the spirit of inclusion is continuing to spread.

“We hear about the athletes being invited to sit at tables in the cafeteria that they probably would have never been asked to sit at in the past,” Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association (MPA), said to the NFHS. “There’s just a feeling of acceptance on the part of the athletes and a greater understanding from the vast majority of the rest of the student body of some of the issues these athletes deal with.”

As a growing number of school boards and local communities begin implementing inclusive sporting programs, interscholastic athletic directors have an opportunity to reach out to special-needs students to encourage participation. They also have a responsibility to instill the ideals of inclusion among their staff and athletes without disabilities. An advanced degree, such as a master’s in athletic administration (MAA), provides opportunities for interscholastic athletic directors to promote equity in sports.

Benefits of Inclusive Sports

Studies show about 20 percent of all youths have a disability or chronic condition. Children with disabilities are twice as likely as others to be overweight or obese due to a sedentary lifestyle. However, children who participate in sporting activities see great benefits, according to Action for Healthy Kids, a Chicago-based public-private partnership dedicated to promoting student health.

The organization said the advantages include:

  • Motor skills development
  • Socialization
  • Improved confidence
  • Decreased body fat
  • Improved physical fitness
  • Greater emotional well-being
  • Increased independence

The organization said students without disabilities benefit from inclusive sports as well, in these ways:

  • Increased appreciation for and acceptance of individual differences
  • Increased understanding of diversity
  • Meaningful friendships
  • Greater respect for all people
  • Preparation for adult life in an inclusive society
  • Better academic outcomes

“There is not any research that shows any negative effects from inclusion done appropriately with the necessary supports and services for students to actively participate and achieve (individual education plan) goals,” the organization said.

Including Children with Disabilities

The move toward equity for students with disabilities started in 1973 with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which ensures that children with disabilities have equal access to education. In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found schools did not understand that their Section 504 responsibilities included student athletics. The GAO found students with disabilities participated in athletics at consistently lower rates than those without disabilities because schools lacked guidance regarding their responsibilities.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) clarified the obligation of school districts to provide students with disabilities with an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular sporting activities. The OCR said changes that make reasonable accommodations, such as using light along with a starter pistol so hearing-impaired runners can compete, can make a difference because they offer students with disabilities the chance to participate. The office said the requirement does not mean school districts must create separate, parallel sports programs for students with disabilities. These students must legitimately earn their place on a sports team.

Barriers to Participation in Sporting Activities

John Register, associate director of Paralympic Outreach and Development for the U.S. Paralympics, said youth with disabilities face two main barriers to taking part in sporting activities: attitudinal (a lack of understanding or awareness of how to include people with disabilities in a sport) and physical (a lack of accessible facilities and venues). The public needs to stop defining people by their disabilities to overcome these barriers, Register said.

“People with disabilities are not inferior, nor do they seek pity,” he said in an article titled, “Overcoming the Barriers of Participation for Students with Disabilities.”
“A person with a disability wants to be viewed for who they are and not for what society determines their disability to be.”

Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said those with disabilities might face additional obstacles to participation, including:

  • Communication barriers
    Experienced by people who have difficulties hearing, speaking, reading, writing, or understanding, and who use nontraditional ways to communicate.
  • Policy barriers
    Experienced by people who are denied reasonable accommodations or access to publicly funded programs or activities.
  • Social barriers
    Experienced when people are excluded in from activities or programs based on their disability.

Creating Programs for Students with Disabilities

Action for Healthy Kids designed a five-step plan for developing and promoting inclusive sports and fitness programs:

  1. Consider safety
    Student safety should be foremost on the mind of anyone arranging physical activity programs that include special-needs children. Most students with disabilities have individual education plans (IEPs) that identify learning goals and objectives for the student. Interscholastic athletic directors who are organizing programs that include special-needs students should consult with members of the school’s IEP team.
  2. Integrate wellness
    With IEP accommodations in mind, determine which sporting activity can be accomplished to support health and encourage learning.
  3. Connect students, parents, and school
    Work with students (both those with and without disabilities), school personnel, and parents to develop a plan that supports the defined activities.
  4. Increase participation
    Develop a program that focuses on student participation based on the highest possible ability level. Such an effort may require adaptations such as changing equipment, modifying space, or providing peer assistance.
  5. Encourage healthy lifestyles
    Urge all students to make positive choices about healthy lifestyles even if they have physical limitations.

Researchers said central to creating inclusive sports activities are leaders who will take the reins of school programs.

Leading Inclusive Interscholastic Sporting Activities

The best inclusive sports leaders promote equity and fairness, sports and health researchers Eli Wolff and Mary Hums said in, “Be a Leader for Inclusion in Sports.” These leaders should not be afraid to speak up in support of disenfranchised students.

“We need inclusion leaders — role models and champions who promote and implement inclusion not merely as lip service or tokenism, but as a legitimate core value,” the authors said.

Interscholastic athletic administrators have an opportunity to become leaders for the next generation of athletes by promoting inclusive sports and fitness. Earning a master’s in athletic administration online from Ohio University provides an opportunity for athletic professionals to take leadership roles in interscholastic sports.

About Ohio University’s Master’s in Athletic Administration Online

Ohio University is a leader in sports education, launching the nation’s first academic program in sports administration. The program is housed within the university’s College of Business, underscoring its dedication to providing world-class sports business education.

Ohio University’s MAA program is designed to help interscholastic athletic professionals and others (including athletic administrators and coaches) to advance their careers as interscholastic athletic directors and manage successful athletic departments. The program works in collaboration with the National Intercollegiate Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) to prepare graduates for certification and is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA).

Recommended Reading

Ohio University Blog, “Teaching Fair Play and Sportsmanship to Youth at All Levels”
Ohio University Blog, “Promoting a Healthy Lifestyle for Interscholastic Athletes”
Ohio University Blog, “How Title IX Protects Interscholastic Student-Athletes”

Sources, “Inclusion Programs Continue to Expand Participation Opportunities”
Department of Education, “Dear Colleague Letter: Students with Disabilities in Extracurricular Athletics “, “Overcoming the Barriers of Participation for Students with Disabilities”
Action for Healthy Kids, “Including All Children: Health for Kids With Disabilities”, “Common Barriers to Participation Experienced by People with Disabilities”
Huffington Post, “Be a Leader for Inclusion in Sports”