Supporting the Inclusion of Students with Disabilities in Physical Education: Dismantling the Ableist Discourse

Apr 28 2022

Key Takeaway: 

Students with disabilities continue to be excluded from meaningful participation in physical education. However, structured and guided efforts to apply inclusion theory to practice at the teacher training stage has been shown to open up educators’ attitudes towards inclusion and equip them with the skills necessary to challenge ableist notions. —Akane Yoshida

Teacher Training for PE Inclusion

While inclusivity is a key feature of educational policy and legislation, physical education (PE) remains a curricular area that perpetuates the idea of able-bodiedness as the norm.1 This leads to the development of PE programs that neglect to offer the diverse learning experiences necessary for students with disabilities to fully participate in learning about and through movement.2

In this paper, authors Alfrey and Jeanes propose a model for initial teacher education that can substantially improve the experiences of students with disabilities in PE class, examining the impact of a unit of study co-created between one university and a local disability organization in Australia. 

The participants were third year student PE teachers undertaking a bachelor degree program. A 10-week unit of study was designed, beginning with the theoretical underpinnings of inclusion based on DeLuca’s framework for inclusion and leading to the co-design and implementation of lessons with young people connected with the disability organization.

Data was collected in the form of carefully timed written reflections from the teacher participants as well as recorded interviews. Both sets of qualitative data were then analyzed via a coding process. 

According to the authors, the teacher training unit “served to disrupt the [student teachers’] pre-existing normative and ableist assumptions, and better prepared them to teach students with a disability in PE. Importantly, the findings also suggest that the unit provided opportunities for [pre-service teachers] PSTs to explore and enact alternatives to the ‘disability as problem’ discourse that has circulated PE in the past.”

Success Factors 

Alfrey and Jeanes identified the following factors as being key to the success of the teacher training unit:

Impact on Knowledge and Practice

Student teachers reported that the opportunity to delve into definitions of inclusion and put Universal Design for Learning principles into practice, as well as interact with young people with disabilities for the first time (for many), was instrumental in widening their perspectives on inclusion.

Pedagogization of Theory

The unit of study was conceptualized through DeLuca’s interdisciplinary framework for inclusion (2013),3 which sets forth four stages of inclusion: 

  1. Normative, in which teachers seek to assimilate, rather than accommodate, students with differences;
  2. Integrative, in which teachers recognize differences and address them through formal modifications;
  3. Dialogical, in which teachers move away from labeling and categorizing, and instead celebrate diversity and individuality; and
  4. Transgressive, in which teachers dismantle the idea of the “dominant group” altogether and involve students in creating shared learning experiences.

Supporting the student teachers in the pedagogization of DeLuca’s theoretical framework allowed them to move away from “traditional ableist approaches” to PE, instead allowing them to “expect and celebrate diversity, avoid labels, and amplify the voices of their learners.”

Sense of Safety

Creating a supportive environment that allows student teachers the freedom to explore through trial and error was identified by participants as being a critical component of their learning.

Partnerships for Authentic Learning

Collaborating with the local disability organization lent an authenticity to the teacher training experience that participants valued.

Student Voice and Co-design

Participants stated that the opportunity to co-design lessons and collectively reflect with young people was instrumental to their training in centering student voice.

Summarized Article:

Alfrey, L., & Jeanes, R. (2021). Challenging ableism and the ‘disability as problem’ discourse: how initial teacher education can support the inclusion of students with a disability in physical education. Sport, Education and Society, 1-14.

Summary by: Akane Yoshida — Akane believes in the MARIO Approach because it puts student agency at the heart of the learning and goal-setting process. She loves how the MARIO Framework operationalizes this process and utilizes systematic measurement of student learning and teacher effectiveness to guide interventions.

Academic researcher Laura Alfrey participated in the final version of this summary. 

Additional References:

  1. Lalvani, P. & Broderick, A. (2013). Institutionalized ableism and the misguided “Disability Awareness Day”: Transformative pedagogies for teacher education. Equity and Excellence in Education, 46 (4), 468 – 483.
  2. Fitzgerald, H. & Stride, A. (2012). Stories about physical education from young people with disabilities. International Journal of Disability Development and Education, 59, 283 – 293. https://doi.org/10.1080/1034912X.2012.697743 
  3. DeLuca, C. (2013). Toward an interdisciplinary framework for educational inclusivity. Canadian Journal of Education, 36 (1), 305 – 347. https://journals.sfu.ca/cje/index.php/cje-rce/article/view/1157
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