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Gender Equity in Athletics and Sports

Women with disabilities face double discrimination--discrimination based on gender and discrimination based disability. Women of color who are disabled face yet a third type of discrimination...The limited available statistics suggest that economically, socially, and psychologically, women with disabilities fare considerably worse than either women who are nondisabled or men who are disabled. (Women and Disability Awareness Project, 1989).

Disabled Women in Sport

Throughout history, disability has been closely linked with poverty, poor nutrition, inadequate health care, lack of opportunity for exercise and socialization, and stress. Women have been specifically associated with nervous disorders, depression, and mental illness. Basically, anything emotionally debilitating has been assigned to the female.

Getting interested and involved in sports is difficult for women and girls with disabilities because of the limited exposure they get to sports, especially when they are young. Those who become disabled during their adult life, by things like accident or illness, are many times already involved in athletics. When that is the case, they are highly likely to remain active in sports.

Disabled athletes often need to feel empowered in order to get involved in athletics. Nondisabled people learn sports primarily through their families when they are children. Athletes with disabilities, however, often attribute their participation and success to self-motivation and friends. Women athletes who become disabled later in life already have a support system of teachers, coaches, friends, and partners who still encourage them. Disabled athletes with encouraging, supportive parents are often leaders in their sport and community. They believe their success in leadership is a result of good parenting.

Many athletes with disabilities of all kinds agree that sports are an important way to affirm their competence and worth. Sports sway the focus from people's disabilities and place attention on their abilities. Through sports, a person's skill and expertise is valued and significant.


Approximately 43 million people in the United States have documented disabilities. This figure includes almost 10% of all children, 30% of young and middle-aged adults, and about half of the population older than 65.

The United States has eight major sport organizations for the disabled. They are modeled after the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), which is for nondisabled athletes. The organizations and their founding dates are as follows: American Athletic Association for the Deaf, 1945; National Wheelchair Athletic Association, 1956; National Handicapped Sports, 1967; Special Olympics International, 1968; U.S. Association for Blind Athletes, 1976; U.S. Cerebral Palsy Athletic Association, 1978; Dwarf Athletic Association of America, 1986; U.S. Les Autres Association, 1986.

Since 1988 disabled athletes, except for the deaf and mentally retarded, have been required by international policy to compete at the same time and place.

A 1991 Harris poll revealed that nondisabled Americans have trouble relating to those with disabilities. The poll broke down explicitly how the nondisabled felt toward the disabled:

  • 91% - admiration, people with disabilities overcome so many barriers
  • 74% - pity, because of their situation
  • 58% - awkwardness or embarrassment, due to lack of knowledge about how to behave
  • 51% - lack of concern, belief that disabled persons can manage okay
  • 47% - fear, possibility that similar disabilities can happen to oneself
  • 18% - anger, disabled people cause inconvenience
  • 9% - resentment, disabled people get special privileges
  • 30% of nondisabled people surveyed would be concerned if a coworker was disabled and 23% would be concerned about having a disabled supervisor.
  • Physical disabilities, except for arthritis and osteoporosis, are more common in males. This helps to explain why women have limited access to sports such as wheelchair basketball, tennis, and track.

The Media: Sports UnIllustrated

Information is scarce when it comes to women with disabilities and even more limited for disabled women in sport. The national news rarely features women athletes who have overcome disability barriers. This lack of attention creates few disabled female athlete role models. Even television commercials that show disabled athletes almost always choose male models.

Journals specifically for the disabled obviously provide adequate coverage of disabled athletes. Magazines such as Sports n' Spokes; Palaestra: The Forum of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation for the Disabled; andDeaf Sports Review. feature disabled people in sport. However, they do not make up for the lack of equal-opportunity coverage in the mainstream media, local and national, including magazines like Sports Illustrated.

Subjects like sports psychology and sociology largely ignore disability in textbooks and journals. Even women's studies and women's athletics can be faulted for poor coverage of disabled female athletes. Women who participate in sport and who are also disabled are rarely mentioned in these two arenas.

Disabilities in the School

Disabled females involved in college athletics are rarely honored or given much attention on their campus. Exceptions do exist on a few college campuses around the country. The University of Illinois at Champaign and Wright State University in Ohio both sponsor women's wheelchair basketball teams.

Texas Woman's University has awarded one its highest honors to a disabled female athlete in the past. The coveted alumnae award was given to Sue Moucha, a Paralympic gold medalist. It was presented with the same recognition and importance to Moucha as it had been years earlier to Olympic gold medalist Louise Ritter. The university did not divide their athletes into two separate categories: nondisabled and disabled. Instead, an athlete with cerebral palsy and an able-bodied athlete were bestowed with the same honor.

In 1992 at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, Roberta Abney and Dorothy Richey established the precedent of equal coverage for ethnic minorities and disabled athletes when describing opportunities for minority women in sport. Their criteria posed four questions: How do people with disabilities see themselves? What disabilities are women most likely to have? Does gender bias enter into diagnosis? How do life experiences of women with disabilities face double and triple discrimination?


Three international events follow the nondisabled Olympic model of competitive sport. They are Special Olympics, Paralympics, and Deaf Sport and they each do a great deal to contribute to the awareness of women athletes with disabilities.

The first Special Olympics took place on July 20, 1968 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. This international movement began in order to show that people with mental retardation were capable of remarkable achievement in sports and beyond. In 1991 the Special Olympics brought in 6,000 athletes from 100 countries creating the largest sporting event in the world. To honor the 30th anniversary of the games, on July 20, 1998, Special Olympics launched a world-wide celebration that will culminate in July of 1999. The theme of the event is to honor the athletes, families, and volunteers that have been significant in changing the perceptions about mental retardation.

The International Paralympic Committee was officially founded in 1989. However, Olympic-type games for athletes with disabilities were organized as early as 1960 in Rome. These games revolved around the physically disabled only, especially those with spinal cord injuries. In 1976, games in Toronto began including other disabled athletes like the blind and amputees. Now, that the Paralympics has been officially recognized, it holds its games in the same year and country as the Olympics.

Sportsclubs for the deaf have been in existence since 1888. The deaf have never been involved in games that include other disabilities and still organize their own world games, the Silent Games. Deaf Sport is another type of international games that are held the year following the Olympics. People who participate in Deaf Sport have a hearing loss of 55 decibels or greater. They see themselves as separate, culturally and linguistically, from the disabled community. Most athletes use sign language at their games, and press coverage of their events are gradually growing.

[Source: "Women With Disabilities," Claudine Sherrill]