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Pečnikar Oblak, V.; Campos, M.J.; Lemos, S.; Rocha, M.; Ljubotina, P.; Poteko, K.; Kárpáti, O.; Farkas, J.; Perényi, S.; Kustura, U.; et al. Social Inclusion in Sport for People with Disabilities. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 14 June 2024).
Pečnikar Oblak V, Campos MJ, Lemos S, Rocha M, Ljubotina P, Poteko K, et al. Social Inclusion in Sport for People with Disabilities. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 14, 2024.
Pečnikar Oblak, Viktorija, Maria João Campos, Susana Lemos, Micaela Rocha, Predrag Ljubotina, Kaja Poteko, Orsolya Kárpáti, Judit Farkas, Szilvia Perényi, Urška Kustura, et al. "Social Inclusion in Sport for People with Disabilities" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 14, 2024).
Pečnikar Oblak, V., Campos, M.J., Lemos, S., Rocha, M., Ljubotina, P., Poteko, K., Kárpáti, O., Farkas, J., Perényi, S., Kustura, U., Massart, A., & Doupona, M. (2023, August 23). Social Inclusion in Sport for People with Disabilities. In Encyclopedia.
Pečnikar Oblak, Viktorija, et al. "Social Inclusion in Sport for People with Disabilities." Encyclopedia. Web. 23 August, 2023.
Social Inclusion in Sport for People with Disabilities

The concept and practice of social inclusion in sport are still undefined, causing confusion both in the field of sport policy and practice. According to the United Nations (UN), a conceptual and analytical work on what constitutes inclusion is needed.

athletes disability vulnerable people policy practice

1. Introduction

Sport is an effective tool for the social inclusion of people with disabilities, and the United Nations (UN) has recognized sport in its 2030 Agenda [1] as an important contributor to the realization of sustainable development and peace goals due to its promotion of tolerance and respect and facilitation of social inclusion, conflict prevention, and peacebuilding. For the purposes, “sport” refers to all forms of physical activity that, through occasional or organized participation, aim to express or improve physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels [2]. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes “that disability is an evolving concept and that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others” [3].
Social inclusion enables all members of the community to acquire vital skills, develop a sense of belonging, and gain independence [4]. It is a process of improving the conditions for participation in society, especially for people who are disadvantaged [5], by improving opportunities, access to resources, voice, and respect for rights. While inclusion is a central goal of the 2030 Agenda, conceptual and analytical work on what constitutes inclusion is needed, as well as efforts to improve data availability [6]. Thus, governments, policy makers, and community leaders should engage other stakeholders, such as private companies, non-governmental organizations, new social movements, and campaign groups, to improve social inclusion, especially for people with disabilities [4][7][8][9][10][11][12][13]. In the context of sport, the concept of social inclusion embraces the heterogeneity of athletes with disabilities and takes their diversity as a starting point for inclusive sport theory and practice. Consequently, the concept is defined and measured in different ways [14].
There are a growing number of global calls for action for promoting physical activity and sport among people with disabilities (e.g., [1][15][16][17][18]). The UN recognizes that people with disabilities have a fundamental right to “full and effective participation” in society, including in sport. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities highlights, in Article 30, the right of persons with disabilities to participate on an equal basis with others in cultural life, including recreational, leisure, and sporting activities, and to have the opportunity to access and participate in general sports activities at all levels, as well as disability-specific sports and leisure activities [3].
However, there is a gap between policy and practice. The lack of clear wording in policy and the use of vague terminology lead to a misconception of how to operationalize inclusion in practice and generates space for environmental and social barriers that limit the participation of people with disabilities in sport and increase their marginalization and discrimination in society [8][11][13][19][20][21][22][23][24].
Although there is no clear definition of sport and inclusion [10][20] for people with disabilities, it can no longer be said that there is a lack of academic interest in the field of social inclusion in sport [25][26][27]. For example, using keywords in Google Scholar such as disability or impairment, children and youth, sports clubs, sport, or organized sport and inclusion, approximately 13,100 reviewed articles were found in the databases over the last ten years [28]. Researchers found a wide variety of methods for studying the topic of sport inclusion of people with disabilities, using questionnaires [12][24][29] and/or structured, semi-structured interviews or narrative inquiry [11][24][25][30], Moreover, a confirmatory questionnaire was created to assess the involvement in sport, with an analysis based on theoretical foundations such as the social model of disability, the definition of abilities, the nature of social inclusion/exclusion, sources of motivation, the form of social support, the theory of planned behavior, DeLuca’s four conceptions of inclusion [31], the block model of empowerment, and social field theory [8][11][13][24][28][29].
The research also identifies the perceptions of parents, coaches, disabled people, athletes with disabilities, other partners in sport, management of voluntary clubs, sports organizations responsible for policy, and other groups at risk of social exclusion in European and global countries such as Serbia, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, Hungary, the United Kingdom, Greece, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, England, the Netherlands, Portugal, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, Australia, Africa, the USA, and Asia [8][11][13][24][25][28][29][30][31][32].
There is a need to seek the existing scientific literature for elements of reflection that may contribute to a better definition of the social inclusion in sport for people with disabilities. Despite the great interest of policy makers and academics in the inclusion of people with disabilities, there are no universally accepted definitions of inclusion in the sport literature. This gap contributes to the imprecision of policies [13][23], providing several stakeholders, such as national federations, mainstream sports clubs, among others, a wide degree of freedom in interpreting what constitutes inclusion in their context.

2. The Attempt to Define Social Inclusion in Mainstream Sport for People with Disabilities

Based on the keywords, a definition of social inclusion of people with disabilities in sport was developed:
Social inclusion in sport for people with disabilities is a key approach that ensures all individuals, regardless of their abilities/disabilities or backgrounds, can actively participate in sporting activities within mainstream sports organizations. Coaches cater to individual needs, promoting mixed-ability activities to provide equal opportunities for athletes and other participants like volunteers. The benefits include enriched experiences, improved skills, and a sense of belonging. Researchers’ findings and coaching outcomes support this approach, revealing its positive impact on participants. However, obstacles such as exclusionary norms, attitudinal barriers, and inadequate policies may hinder full participation.”
Researchers are aware that some essential aspects for the success of social inclusion in sport are not included in this definition, which highlights that studies may not focus enough on what can really contribute to the effective social inclusion of people with disabilities in sport.
The attempted definition does not say much that is new, nor does it highlight any aspects that are not already known. Instead, it frames and narrows the field. It certainly lacks more specific instructions, such as who is responsible or, as Dyer & Standford emphasize, that sport should be regular, frequent, and sustained [33]. The research is more a collection of researched areas such as policies, basic conditions, key elements, known soft skills, field gaps, and best practices in one place. Researchers do not process the collected material in the form of new knowledge. Instead, researchers focus on creating a framework definition as a starting point from which researchers can develop a more structured social inclusion policy in sport with a vision, strategy, model, and implementation at local and national levels.
Depending on their preferences and needs, people with disabilities’ choices to participate in sport can vary greatly: some prefer to train in mainstream clubs because there they can train with people without disability; others feel more comfortable in segregated activities, parallel activities, or mixed activities. Many scholars have argued for giving equal importance to segregated and inclusive approaches, arguing that many people who engage in disability-specific sport may regain their self-confidence, which later enables them to engage in mainstream sport, in a sport development continuum [4][34][35][36]. It is perhaps too early to claim that true inclusion in sport takes place in sports clubs involving groups with athletes of different abilities, yet there are many authors who support this idea. Researchers can read about the importance of full and partial inclusion [35], mixed ability groups [33], the empowerment model [28], and sport for all [34][37][38].
Kiuppis [4], starting from the inclusion debate in education as the main reference context, has established some basic definitions of sport, disability, quality physical education, and physical literacy, which are the starting point for defining social inclusion in sport. The work is based on four aspects: (1) the aspect of participation, (2) a minimum standard of sport for all, (3) the links between inclusion in sport and quality physical education, disability, and participation, and (4) the consideration of different concepts of inclusion [4]. This work represents a step forward and focuses more on inclusion in afternoon recreational sport activities that generally take place in sports clubs [39]. By moving forward, the focus is more on: (1) narrowing the functional definition of social inclusion in sport, (2) highlighting the gaps in this area that lead to a lack of implementation of social inclusion in sport, and (3) understanding the evolving language to avoid misconceptions.
In order to provide stakeholders and researchers with some insights for a more efficient definition, the research team has selected essential statements from all categories that were not reflected in the 24 keywords. Based on this selection, researchers highlight topics of interest for further research and deeper discussion.

3. Misunderstandings and Vagueness

Especially in the last three years, research in the field of social inclusion in sport has expanded considerably, as it is a new concept for decision makers, while good practices based on volunteering have existed since the 1950s. On the other hand, people with disabilities are still considered unable to function as members of normal society in many Asian countries [40]. There is still no consensus among scholars, practitioners, and policy makers on what constitutes social inclusion [34]. The idea and concept of inclusion of para-sports is also not defined [41]. Furthermore, “normalized” and exclusionary concepts and practices in youth sport need to be critically challenged [42]. Anderson et al. [41] state that opinions have been expressed that inclusion is an unattainable, utopian goal, but they go on to state that this may be due to a lack of knowledge about accountability and implementation. The results show a discrepancy in the perception of inclusion. They go on to say that no one dares to raise their hand and ask not only what inclusion means, but also how it should be implemented and what should be preserved in the process [41]. Furthermore, according to Townsend et al. [39], the question of whether disabilities should be addressed in separate blocks or integrated into the structures of regular education is still hotly debated [39].

4. The Difference between the Mainstream Sports Environment and Specialized Institutions

There is a significant difference between inclusion in the mainstream sport environment and in specialised facilities for people with disabilities or in para-sport. Hums et al. [43] point out that it is important to note that disability sports organizations (DSOs) are organized and named by disability (cerebral palsy, hearing or visual impairment, etc.), whereas national governing bodies are named by sport. The DSOs have a somewhat better regulated policy and basis, while in sport, this part is just being established through the social inclusion policy. However, the selected articles do not talk about funding, preferring to use terms such as budgetary constraints, lack of available support staff and resources for capacity building, sharing resources and gaining political support, implementing collaborative shared leadership through the joint development and implementing action plans, and re-conceptualizing ideas about responsibility [44].
Research in a group of mixed ability athletes emphasized that the key to inclusion is a welcoming, supportive general environment, regular and sustained provision, equal membership, and the promotion of self-determination to maximize positive outcomes such as changing perceptions of disability, developing friendships, and promoting personal development [33]. Other health and social benefits were key factors in prolonged engagement in wheelchair basketball, and it was reported that reverse integration led to better mutual understanding of the impact of (dis)ability [45]. Ester et al. [46] also say that participation in sport has a positive impact on psychological well-being, indicators of psychological ill-being, and social outcomes in adults.
There is also an important shift from the traditional disability model to the social model of caring for people in the community. Sofokleous & Stylianou [47] state that social model stimuli had a positive effect on pro-disability policy attitudes, and medical model stimuli had a negative effect on pro-disability policy attitudes. Townsend et al. [39] write that in specialized or separate institutions for people with disabilities, the medical model of approach, treatment, and mindset is very present [39]. The definition of social inclusion in sport is therefore based more on the social model that supports sport for all, the empowerment model, and mixed ability sport [28][33][34][37][38].
Many articles also refer to the Unified Sport of the Special Olympics [33][37][48] as one of the best practices of social inclusion in sport. Best practices represent one of the developed categories. It is interesting to note that there are few best practices compared to the number of other statements (n = 14). And precisely because Unified Sport, as an activity of a specialized institution for athletes with intellectual disabilities, is so “sung”, it is at the same time, an ideal demonstration of the mixed-ability approach that should be implemented in sports clubs, where it is still in its infancy from the perspective of mass practice.
Successful social inclusion, therefore, requires a change to the social model [35][39], and this is most likely to succeed in mainstream sport.

5. The Language and the Explanation of the Key Words Used

In defining social inclusion in sport, it was necessary to understand some terms in a new way. Even though the concept of inclusion is well established in other professional fields such as education and employment, it is new in sport [4][49].
The literature review also revealed that different professional fields such as education, employment, social security, health care, etc. think and write about inclusion somewhat differently. The meaning of inclusion also varies, depending on how it is used and understood in different countries. The “new” phrases about social inclusion in and through sport, written in English and also more characteristic of English speakers, are not necessarily understood in the same way in other languages. Even a search of the literature on inclusion in sport showed that one has to specify the term “social inclusion” to get the right results in the browser, as the word “inclusion” itself is too broad. All this contributes to the vagueness of the field, which is also noticeable in the legal framework [35].
The language of social inclusion in sport should be very positive and chosen to support anyone interested in regular sport and exercise. Both the terminology and the approach go beyond the mere use of the body and emphasize, above all, the social touch in the sense of social action, social networks, and social capital that excludes no one [32][34].

6. Social Inclusion in Sport

Thus, social inclusion in sport is the most comprehensive concept and refers to all athletes and others involved in sport, such as parents, volunteers, coaches, managers of sports organizations, sports federations, as well as specialized entities such as organizations for the disabled, asylum seekers’ homes, humanitarian organizations, sponsors, and donors [4][28][35][38]. It includes all types of sports, from weekly recreational sports to competitive sports. Social inclusion in sport means caring for all who participate in sport, especially the vulnerable [28][35][37][38][50]. These may be children, adolescents, or adult athletes who need adjustments due to various psychophysical conditions, illnesses, or other personal circumstances. They may be in a socially vulnerable situation, face resettlement, have refugee status, belong to a different ethnic minority, and therefore have fewer opportunities, face injury, end their elite sports career and find themselves in a new situation they are not familiar with, have difficulty balancing sports and school or sports and work in the so-called dual career system and others. In the search for a definition, researchers have deliberately avoided dividing sport into sport and para-sport or sport for people with disabilities. The concept of social inclusion in sport is also characterized by the fact that it encompasses sport as a whole [37][51].

7. Mainstream Sport Environment

The term “mainstream sport” is deliberately chosen in the definition to refer to participation in sport in majority, dominant, traditional, and mass sport organizations, such as sports clubs, rather than specialized, segregated, minority, or disabled organizations, such as disability associations. While the latter are not excluded, they are intentionally not highlighted because they already exist and are “too entrenched”. Since segregation is so historically present, the attempted definition emphasizes the place where inclusive sports programs should take place [35]. Researchers called it the mainstream sport environment, and it includes mainly classical sport organizations, such as sport clubs, because it is well known that para-sport in Europe is mainly practiced in special organizations with disability status [19][28][35][48][51]. But the situation in this field is already changing. The trend is for all world sports federations to take para-sport disciplines under their wing (Source: IPC members approve new constitution at General Assembly (

8. Important Persons

Using the keywords, most studies were found that refer to people with disabilities. However, they may also refer to other vulnerable groups at risk of social exclusion, such as young people, drug users, women, immigrants, senior citizens, ethnic minorities, prisoners, homeless people, and homosexual athletes [9][52]. Most articles addressed people/athletes with disabilities in general, but some only addressed Paralympic athletes [25][53][54], athletes with an intellectual disability [48][55], and also people with mental illness [46].
Research has shown that contact with people with disabilities may be the most important measure to promote the formation of positive attitudes towards the inclusion of people with disabilities [8][29][48][56]. Increased awareness has helped to establish accessible sports facilities and organized sport programs for people with disabilities, and this has been shown to reduce marginalization [8]. Commercial interest in sport is driven by proximity to spectators, who become consumers, and the desire of companies to target these people to sell their products. Unfortunately, the role of marketing Paralympic sport is the first perspective that fails in most countries. But the media is one of the catalysts for the commercial perspective of Paralympic sport and funding from governing bodies [53][57][58][59][60] that can achieve change.

9. Best Practices

Researchers have come across the distinction between social inclusion in sport and through sport. Marivoet [22] defines social inclusion in sport as the actual presence of equal opportunities in accessing vulnerable people. In this regard, good practices pay attention to non-discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, social class, or other grounds. It further states that social inclusion through sport refers to the development of personal, social, or physical activity, or other abilities. The best practice here aims to promote formative sport, which means that the ethical principles of sport and the values associated with it are paramount. [50]. The definition attempted is further developed based on actual existing cases, but also includes developmental issues.


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