Can Anybody Play? The role of sport in the lives of adolescents with physical impairments

Project team

Dr Nikki Wedgwood


Research on the role of sports participation in the lives of people with physical impairments tends to focus on the positive effects of sport on physical health, mental wellbeing and self-esteem. The literature also suggests sports participation facilitates social integration. Yet, people with physical impairments are not a homogenous group, thus it stands to reason their sporting experiences will vary greatly due to a wide range of factors, such as the type and severity of impairment, family background, sex and age. Furthermore, ‘sport’ is neither a monolithic institution nor a cure-all. Nor is it unusual for sports participation to heighten and underscore prejudice and discrimination, for instance on the grounds of ethnicity, class or gender. Indeed, in celebrating physical abilities sports are imbued with ableism. Though this has been contested by the recent development of disability-specific sports, one would nonetheless expect a greater ambivalence towards sport from people with impairments. In other words, more critical attention needs to be paid to the impact of the social meanings of sport on people with physical impairments.


This small-scale exploratory study is based on life history interviews with six physically impaired young adults who participate in one or more competitive sport.


Supports the findings of other studies that show involvement in sport can have a positive impact on people with physical impairments at the individual level, that is, in terms of physical health, mental wellbeing and self-esteem. However, it also shows that beyond the personal level-that is, at the social level-the impact of sport is more complex, inconsistent and not always as positive as the literature to-date suggests. This is because the social significance of sport is derived primarily from broad social structures like gender and ableism.


This study highlights the importance of a life-phase approach to better understanding social inclusion. From the perspectives of adolescents it becomes evident that during adolescence social inclusion involves more than merely being accepted and having friends. This study brings to light degrees of social inclusion into mainstream adolescent culture and highlights the centrality of the body in social relations. This not only adds to our understanding of social inclusion but points towards the need for a much deeper understanding and more refined conceptualisation of the term, which may vary, for instance, from one life-phase to another.