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Get kids with disabilities off the sidelines and into the game

Ways to facilitate social acceptance and inclusion for everyone

You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll learn how to work with, motivate, and help children with disabilities. A fun challenge for teammates is to figure out the best way to modify various practice or warm-up activities

As we get ready for the opening of the 2016 Summer Olympic and Paralympic games, our attention will soon be drawn to the challenges and victories of top athletes from around the globe. For children in our neighborhoods who are inspired to try a new sport or activity themselves, will there be a place for them?

You can make sure there will!

Many times the first obstacle to including children with disabilities in neighborhood sports and recreation is the discomfort and uncertainty of the adults leading the programs—naturally they may be unsure about what kinds of adaptations or modifications may be necessary to ensure all children can participate safely and successfully. The first step you can take is to model and encourage social acceptance.

How you act and interact with children of all abilities can make the difference in whether every child gets a chance to experience the many benefits of sports.

To get started, take a look at these suggestions adapted from Dr. Martin Block’s groundbreaking text A Teacher’s Guide to Adapted Physical Education. Though directed to physical educators, many of the tips can be adapted for community programs and recreation opportunities in the neighborhood.

Have a positive attitude

It is understandable for a coach or parent helping out to be unsure about their ability to include children with disabilities. Although feelings of apprehension are understandable, commit to giving inclusion your best shot by learning about the children with disabilities and experimenting with different ways to best include them in your sports or recreation program. The first step is to be willing to try. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll learn how to work with, motivate, and help children with disabilities. Be sure to regard and treat all children as key members of the team.

Model appropriate behavior

Many children learn how to act around children with disabilities by modeling the behavior of respected adults. One of the simplest things you can do is welcome children with disabilities and model friendly behavior through your actions and words. Greet and talk to the child with disabilities even if the child does not fully understand what you are saying. Pat the child with disabilities on the back, give high-fives, choose the child first, and recognize the child during activities (Good throw, Billy!).

Include children with disabilities in as many activities as possible

Modifications may be necessary to safely and fairly include the child, but the child should be part of the larger group as much as possible. For example, a child with intellectual disabilities who cannot keep up with the fast warm-up routine can be encouraged to focus on three or four key warm-up movements rather than all the movements.

Individualize coaching

It is important to realize that some children with disabilities will learn differently from their teammates. For example, children with severe ADHD or autism may be so distracted that they get only half the number of turns as peers when practicing throwing and catching, shooting baskets, or hitting tennis balls.

Reinforce positive interactions

Encourage children to befriend children with disabilities by being their partners, including them on their teams, and generally interacting with them during activities. When necessary, encourage peers to help the child with disabilities but avoid “mothering.” This is particularly true for children with intellectual disabilities or autism who might not understand exactly what is going on. Do not tolerate teasing or negative interactions.

Be knowledgeable about the child with disabilities

Although it is impossible to know everything about the child with disabilities, it is important to know medical and health information, how to communicate with the child, how to deal with behavior problems, and what activities the child really enjoys. This information can be obtained from the child’s parents, other families who know the child, and the child him- or herself. The key is to know as much as possible about the child so you can accommodate his or her unique needs and help other children understand why you are making certain modifications.

Prepare children without disabilities for social acceptance

An important part of successful inclusion in neighborhood activities is to prepare other children who may not have had experience with children with disabilities. Help children become more knowledgeable about disability in general to avoid myths and stereotypes, and learn how to view and interact with children in a positive manner.

Lead a discussion on differences and similarities

Help children understand that all people are different in some ways and similar in others. Have children name similarities and differences between them, and point out that differences are a natural part of life. For example, have everyone who was born in the state raise their hands; then have those born in another state raise their hands. Have everyone who likes certain sports teams raise their hands, then have everyone who likes a different team raise their hands. Repeat with other types of contrasts. Point out how some children are alike in some ways and different in some ways.

Talk about famous people who have disabilities

Choose several names from this list of famous people with disabilities and ask children to write down the first thing they think of when they hear each name. Then explain that each of these famous people has a disability but is recognized for their individual talents and abilities.

Role play!

Another way to bring greater understanding is having children do activities that help them feel what it is like to have a disability. This technique has been used for years in Red Cross adapted aquatics classes as well as its inclusive physical education programs. Children can be blindfolded and asked to move through an obstacle course, sit in chairs to play volleyball or basketball, or have one arm tied up while trying to hit a softball. You can prompt children to talk about how it might feel for a teammate with disabilities who is trying to participate in these activities. Also talk about how a child with a disability may have an advantage in some activities.

Role-playing ideas

Walk with a piece of paper between your knees and try to run (simulates cerebral palsy)

Try to write your name or throw a ball using your opposite hand (simulates coordination problems)

Close your eyes and then try to run slowly (simulates a visual impairment)

Sit in a chair (wheelchair if available) and try to do a chest pass to a teammate or shoot a basketball into a basket (simulates use of a wheelchair)

Hold your hands over your ears and have someone very softly give verbal directions to do a multitask motor activity such as dribbling and then shooting a jump shot in basketball or sliding from one cone to another and then running back to the first cone (simulates a hearing impairment)

Try to walk while balancing a tennis ball on a spoon and while peers are clapping their hands in your ears and waving their hands in your face (simulates autism or ADHD)

Tie your arm to your body and try to run, catch a ball, or hit a baseball off a tee (simulates having use of only one arm)

Explain how to interact with specific children

Many children may want to interact with a child who has a disability but are not quite sure if it is okay or how to approach a child. Explain that it is great to talk to and play with the child and how important it is for the child to really feel a part of the team or group. Explain how to talk to the child if he or she has unique communication techniques, how to include the child in activities, and specific ways to befriend the child.

It can also be fun and challenging to have children figure out the best way to modify various practice or warm-up activities. Providing suggestions for how to interact will help children be more understanding and welcoming. Provide ongoing encouragement to talk to the child with disabilities, provide feedback and positive reinforcement, and offer, but not insist on, help. The entire team should take responsibility for ensuring every child feels included. As children begin to feel more comfortable, their interactions will become more spontaneous.


For more information on how to successfully include all children in neighborhood sports and recreation activities, see the chapters in A Teacher’s Guide to Adapted Physical Education on Game and Sport Modification, Facilitating Social Acceptance and Inclusion, and Including Students with Disabilities in Community-Based Recreation.


Originally published: August 2016