Athletes with Disabilities: Where Does Empowerment End and Disempowerment Begin?

By Deborah L. Rivel.

Published by The International Journal of Sport and Society

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There is no dispute that engaging in physical activity and recreational sports can have positive implications for one’s physiological and psychological health. It has been proven to raise self-esteem and build social networks. Overall, it can lead to an improvement in one’s quality of life. For people with disabilities, the potential benefits are multifold. For a population used to being stigmatized and stereotyped as weak and incapable, participation in sports allows them to feel a sense of normalcy and physical accomplishment and to redefine disability identities. This paper will discuss both the benefits as well as barriers to participation as reported by people with disabilities who have participated in recreational sports activities. The discussion will then turn to the legal bases for inclusion of people with disabilities in sports and recreation, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Office of Civil Rights’ Dear Colleague letter of January 2013. Finally, the paper will turn to a discussion of the “supercrip”, particularly within the context of the Paralympic Games and how elite athletes with disability both provide a means to empowerment as well as a divisive element within the disability community that can be both damaging and disempowering.

Keywords: Disability, Identity, Supercrips

The International Journal of Sport and Society: Annual Review, Volume 5, May 2015, pp.1-10. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 627.641KB).

Deborah L. Rivel

Advisor, Office of Disability Services, Bronx Community College, CUNY School of Professional Studies, New York, NY, USA