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Being ‘normal’ in PE: Unrealistic measures of ability for disabled students

Volume 2: Learners and Learning in Physical Education

In the previous blog we reconsidered Ennis’s notion that physical education, as a subject, owes more than just apologies to many students for their sport-based physical education experiences. She suggests that sorry is a first step but that actions speak louder than words. The discussions on the blog

In this week’s blog Fitzgerald explores the experiences of five disabled students in physical education. As Fitzgerald suggests, disabled students are often ‘sent inside’ or not ‘passed to’ in games as a result of them being defined as not able to play in mainstream games. Subsequently, she argues that until we re-define ability and change the provision, disabled students will have limited opportunities to succeed and participate in physical education.


Paper 30:

Fitzgerald, H. (2005/2012). Still feeling like a spare piece of luggage? Embodied experiences of dis(ability) in physical education. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume II. (pp. 86-108) London: Routledge.


My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice

As always, in reading research that falls outside of my normal sphere, this paper forced me to think back on how I approached the teaching of students with disabilities and ask myself what I did differently or the same as the participants in the study – or in this case their teachers. I have often used the pages of my reflective diaries and these blogs to reconsider my actions in the cold light of day and with the benefit of what I know now and I am often fairly harsh on myself for the mistakes that I now see I made as a physical education teacher. I am certainly guilty of translating the term ‘dis’ as lack and ensuring that the kids in my care who had some form of (dis)ability – translated as lack of ability – experienced different forms of physical education to their peers.

However, I do not feel – and I am my own worse judge at times – that I disadvantage them. I tried very hard not to let any disability overly hinder their experiences and nor did I value the sanctity of the game over the student. Let me explain. Fitzgerald suggested that, sometimes, disabled students are excluded from traditional games because to include them would require significant modifications to the games themselves. Such modification would take way from the very attributes of the game that define them and, for some teachers, this is a step too far. Personally, I tried to avoid this and never (as Tanni Grey-Thompson suggested) relieved myself of the responsibility for students by sending them to the library. For example, I was once responsible for teaching rugby to group that included a student with haemophilia and was well aware of the consequences of so much as a bruise. Yet, in a full contact game with very carefully modified rules for ‘Will’ and a responsible student group, he was able to play his part in the game. It was a great learning experience for all of us and taught us all about expectations around disability and ways that we can challenge them.

Unfortunately, Fitzgerald warns that, despite teachers’ best efforts, the construction of the term ‘ability’ and its use as the benchmark of achievement in physical education are ingrained practices and they therefore operate at a core level within our classes. Only by making ourselves aware of them and challenging these assumptions can we begin to operate beyond them. These are not challenges that relate only to disabled students but to any students whose experiences of PE have been decided because of the ‘ability’ they possess and the ways in which, as physical educators, we determine what they are capable of achieving.


The Paper

In this paper Fitzgerald made a deliberate effort to build on Evans’s paper (see blog 27) where he challenged the idea that ability is the dominant measure of success in PE.  Fitzgerald focused specifically on the experiences of five physically disabled students and explored how they articulated and constructed ability and success in PE. She suggested that this was particularly important given the widely expressed opinion that we live in a time of inclusion and equity, and where physical educators can draw on a “diverse range of resources to assist them with their practice”.

Joining the increasing call for young people to be involved in research, and to be allow contribute their voices to decision-making processes, Fitzgerald chooses to ask five youngsters about their experiences of physical education as disabled students. Developing on previous research in disability studies – Fitzgerald argued that any student and not just those who were disabled could publically be humiliated with exasperated moans of  “Aw Sir, do we have to?” or “No way are having him” before the indignity of being allocated to a random team like “a spare piece of luggage that no one can be bothered to carry”. Yes, kids are mean but somewhere in every lesson is a teacher allowing this to happen, as one student said “You know it’s like Mr Evans does the football team and he spends the lesson with the good players and he’s not bothered about us”.

While it is difficult to judge the actions of these teachers on the comments of five students it does suggest that the disabled students are treated differently. It also suggests that students are making choices about ability themselves – a point that Fitzgerald and the students in her study acknowledge – and that they are also able to define what ability is. For example, the students in this study play boccia for the school and they are ‘allowed’ to do this. However, boccia is only played by a small number of students and the kudos afforded to the footballers (soccer) and the basketballers is missing for the boccia team. Furthermore, when it comes to basketball (as an example used in the study) ‘everyone’ seems to exclude the disabled students; “what it’s like, well like I can’t get the ball and they don’t pass to me and their bigger and faster…”. As a consequence, it seems that the disabled students aren’t allowed to interfere with the proper games and they are left to play their unimportant minority sports. This “peer-led exclusion” and the absence of “cooperative and affiliation dimensions” are clearly exampled in the “no one would pass me the ball” statements.

However, the frustration is evident in the disabled students. They want to get credit for being in the boccia team and for representing the school and yet no one takes it – or them – seriously. They feel that everyone knows who captain’s the major teams and which teachers like the most able students (Not that other students didn’t think that they were advantaged – indeed not playing rugby because it was too ‘dangerous’ was never contested (Mum and Teacher said I can’t do it, so I can’t) – because they got to stay inside and use the gym while everyone else went out into the cold and were made to play. The disabled students felt that the less able ‘able-bodied’ students (i.e. they weren’t disabled) felt that they were disadvantage for not being disabled and having the option to come inside:– “I know Rob yeh and Simon yeh hate rugby and they’ve asked to come in but they’re not allowed)”.

In concluding Fitzgerald suggested that while the discourse around society is one of inclusion, this has only improved things at a superficial level. Until we can move beyond deep-seated ideas of what it is to be normal and what ability is and how it is defined, then those who are disabled will have a difficult time in PE. They are unlikely to be “able to work towards, or achieve, a level of competence recognised as reflecting a ‘good’ performance and therefore [they] are destined to fail and suffer exclusion and derision as a consequence of something that is beyond their ability to control”. They fail even before entering the sports hall and before they’ve ever had a chance to succeed.


What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate? Use the comment box below to ask question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.?

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is this your responsibility or just something else to be put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be.

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? Please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear whose work behind the scene as copy editor is a vital part of getting this blog out on time and in a semblance of coherence. 

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On Thursday 08 August at 21:58 Amanda Stanec said
Ash, I think this rather recent article will be of interest to you. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/26/sports/education-department-clarifies-law-on-disabled-athletes-access-to-school-sports.html?_r=0 I think that schools will now be held accountable to a certain extent to accommodate students with disabilities in a meaningful way. I studied with Dr. Marty Block & Dr. Luke Kelly at University of Virginia and feel EVERY PE teacher would benefit from Marty's book: http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED497276 I was lucky enough to work on a chapter of the book w/ Marty and a very revised edition addressing the new clarifications on the law will be central to the book (a good thing). I am most proud of how structure aided some students' (w/ autism) experience in my classes. I was told that the previous year they were scared / hated PE and w/ structure, weaving their interests into my classes they loved it. I found these children set the bar for my teaching. If they weren't included, learning, enjoying the lessons - I was (quite frankly) failing. My doctoral minor was Adapted PE and I still spent the better part of my Sunday planning for these lessons. I think that if we base "success" on how hard we throw the ball - we are totally missing the boat. Rather, teaching students (w/ and w/out disabilities) effectively about what community resources are available for physical activity - and how to foster independence and enjoyment in accessing these facilities MUCH better defines success. A task-involved motivational climate is always the aim (in my humble opinion) and considering physical inactivity and obesity rates are higher in students w/ disability - we better damn well be committed to supporting these students. I really want to thank you for the topics you are bring forth to the conversation. Hope I didn't ramble too much. :)
Andy Vasily
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On Wednesday 14 August at 10:36 Andy Vasily said
Thanks to Ash for opening up this discussion and to Amanda for providing additional reading. Where to begin with this one? I guess for me, it is a definite area in which I need to read up on and to research. As an international school teacher, I have not had many students with special needs attend my classes. It does not mean that when I have a student with special needs enter my program that I do not take it seriously. Over the past couple of years I have had 2 students, in particular, one with Down Syndrome and one with Autism. Both of these students were on the severe end of the spectrum. I felt as though it was my professional responsibility to work with the special needs teachers to help in formulating a plan that would work for these students. We had our ups and downs, but for the most part, it was all good. By nature, I am a teacher who strives to connect with all of my students. With these 2 students it was no different. My students on a whole saw that I treated these 2 students no differently, showed them respect and love, and I know that this set a positive tone in the class that reinforced that they were all equal shareholders and had a distinct responsibility to support one another at all times. For other students that I teach with special needs, much less severe in nature, I make it a goal to speak with their classroom teachers whenever possible to get a better understanding of who these kids, what shapes and defines them as people and what their home life is like. I also take the time to get to know the students themselves. This works wonders and helps me to plan, with ease, the learning experiences that they engage in. So, my advice is that we are never in this alone. We need to access the experts and ask for help when needed. Thanks Ash and Amanda. It has made me reflect.
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On Wednesday 14 August at 20:47 Anne McKay said
A timely topic Ash as the paper I am teaching this semester is Adapted physical activity. A story to start. In NZ, primary schools are being inundated with outside providers going into schools to "teach" fundamental skills and provide more opportunities for physical activity. They are known in this instance as activators. What I see and observe there is another blog post, however for purposes of this comment the local activator was working with a class of students. A young 6 year old boy who has cerebral palsy was in this class. As he stepped forward to take part the "activator" looked at him and asked him to go and sit to the side. In essence the activator was making quick and unsubstantiated judgements about what this young boy was not capable of and possibly, because of there one size fits all approach was unable and unwilling to think about what he could do to support the participation. Thankfully the teacher who was with the class immediately stepped in and supported the boy's participation. It has been interesting working with our students as we consider what adapted physical activity is, why we have and need a focus on it and now getting into considering ways of working with students so that they have opportunity for similar participation. Teaching with me on this paper is a lecturer who works for NZfootball and has represented NZ at the Paralympics. What he brings to student understanding is his ability to bridge what many of them initially saw as separate situations. Coaching in what my students started out by calling "normal" coaching and involvement as an athlete and as a support person in international paralympic competition.(After our sessions on language and attitudes they now pick themselves up when the refer to something as "normal" ) He has been able to get them to consider and understand the importance of building relationships and trust, of observing first and not make assumptions about what students with impairments can and cannot do, and of continually thinking about how they can change and adapt physical activity to meet the many and varied needs of young people with disabilities. They have been engaging with the research that has brought student voice to the forefront (Donna Goodwin) and have become quite indignant about how these students with disability/impairment have been treated. They are very nervous about our upcoming work with young people with disability as by their own admission they have not had many opportunities to engage with them As they have reflected back on their own schooling experiences t- they have suddenly realised that they did have class mates with disabilities - but they had often not been around in physical education. The next 6 weeks are going to provide opportunity for them to grow in confidence as we work with 2 groups of young people with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities. There are some great supporting resources out there. The Australian Sports Commission have some really useful resources about how to consider a range of ways of including people with the inclusion spectrum and how adapt activities using the TREE model as well as providing ideas on activities and games that can be used. http://www.ausport.gov.au/participating/disability Working on this paper has certainly opened my eyes to possibility and potential and I believe such a paper should be included in any physical education teaching degree.

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