The language of disability sport differs in some parts of the world and an overview of the latest definitions and terminology is provided.

What is 'disability'?

Anyone may experience disability at some point in his/her lifetime. Disability is a normal part of the human experience, and people with disabilities are part of all sectors of the community: men, women, and children; indigenous and non-indigenous; employers and employees; students and teachers; consumers and citizens.

There are numerous definitions of disability and the debate surrounding appropriate definitions of disability have evolved over time. The World Health Organisation states that “disability (resulting from an impairment) is a restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.” 

The United Nations defines persons with disabilities (PWD) as persons who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which, in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. 

Statistics on disability are difficult to compare internationally and also disability statistics do not always include the same definitions, types or categories of disability. The length of time a person is deemed ‘disabled’ affects the way the statistical data is measured and interpreted. 

What is 'disability sport'?

Disability sport is a term that refers to sport designed for, or specifically practiced, by people with disabilities. People with disabilities are also referred to as athletes with disabilities. Deaf sport is distinguished from other groups of people with disabilities and in some countries deaf people prefer not to label deafness as a disability. The rules of deaf sport are not altered, only instead of whistles and start guns, athletes and officials communicate through signs, flags and lights. In many developing countries deafness is still considered a disability.

What is 'adapted physical activity' (APA)?

Adapted physical activity is the profession, the scholarly discipline or field of knowledge, and the service delivery, advocacy and empowerment systems that have been created specifically to make healthy, enjoyable physical activity accessible to all and to assure equal rights to sport instruction, coaching, medicine, recreation, competition and performance of persons with disabilities. According to the International Federation of Adapted Physical Activity (IFAPA), Adapted Physical Activity (APA) means:

  • A service-oriented profession
  • An academic specialisation or field of study
  • A cross disciplinary body of knowledge
  • An emerging discipline or subdiscipline
  • A philosophy or set of beliefs that guides practices
  • An attitude of acceptance that predisposes behaviours
  • A dynamic system of interwoven theories and practices
  • A process and a product (i.e. programmes in which adaptation occurs)
  • An advocacy network for disability rights to physical activity of participants with disability

About terminology

The language that is used to describe people with disabilities has an impact on impressions and attitudes. The consensus is to always refer to the person first rather than the disability. For example, ‘person with cerebral palsy’, ‘person with downs syndrome.’

It is widely recognised that using words such as ‘tragic,’ ‘afflicted,’ ‘victim’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair’ should be avoided. Words such as ‘uses a wheelchair’ are widely considered more appropriate. It is important to use normal language and to recognise that some terms are more accepted than others and the language of disability can differ between countries.     

Image by Ron Lach