On an individual level, people with a disability may face a number of additional barriers to participation in sport compared with people without a disability.

Some common barriers include:

  • Lack of early experiences in sport (this varies between individuals and whether a disability is from birth or acquired later in life)
  • Lack of understanding and awareness of how to include people with a disability in sport
  • Limited opportunities and programmes for participation, training and competition
  • Lack of accessible facilities, such as gymnasiums and buildings
  • Limited accessible transportation
  • Limiting psychological and sociological factors including attitudes towards disability of parents, coaches, teachers and even people with disabilities themselves
  • Limited access to information and resources

Barriers to participation in developing countries

Regarding participation of developing countries in international sports there is a widening gap between developed and developing countries. This gap has been linked to a shortage of physical education and sport for all programmes, a lack of financing for sport, few sport facilities and little equipment, a ‘muscle drain’ to developed countries, and no capacity to host major sporting events with the result that developing countries have fewer world-level sport performances than developed countries.

Limited access to sport services, sports information and the issue of doping are becoming increasingly problematic. Developing countries also face a range of social and cultural barriers that impact on sport participation including: religion, culture, language, and the lingering influence of colonialism in many parts of the world.

Breaking the barriers to participation

Listed together these barriers may appear insurmountable but it is important to recognise that not every person will experience all of these barriers. In the interest of facilitating active participation from people with a disability in developing countries, the potential impact of these barriers should be taken into consideration.

There is limited research that explores the specific barriers to participation in sport for people with a disability in developing countries. Much more evidence is needed along with financial support to ensure that people with a disability have both the opportunity and the choice to participate in sport regardless of which country they live in.


Since the 1970s, the number of international organisations and associations serving athletes with disabilities has increased dramatically. In some countries there are increased opportunities for people with a disability to participate in school-based physical education, clubs and community associations and casual recreation.

Competitive sport

Opportunities for athletes with a disability range from sport and disability specific world championships, regional multi-sport tournaments such as the Parapan American Games, selected events for athletes with a disability in Olympic and Commonwealth Games and some athletes with a disability also compete in mainstream competitions against able-bodied athletes. There are now more than 17 international games for athletes with disabilities.

Special Olympics, Paralympic Games and Deaflympics

The three largest international disability sport competitions are the Special Olympics, Paralympic Games and Deaflympics. Special Olympics provide year-round training and competition opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities at all levels. The Paralympic Games provide international competition for six different disability groups including amputee, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, spinal cord injuries, intellectual disability and les autres (those that do not fit into the other groups). The Deaflympics provide competition for athletes who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The Paralympic Games cater for elite athletes with motor disabilities while Special Olympics offer sporting opportunities to all persons with intellectual disabilities from elite to those with severe and profound challenges. Since 2001 athletes with an intellectual disability have been unable to participate in the Paralympic Games. This is due to the suspension of their representative body, the International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability (INAS-FID), from the International Paralympic Committee while the classification system is reviewed.

Participation from developing countries

Recent research conducted in 2007 highlights the lack of participation from developing countries in international disability sport competition. In total, 23% of developing countries have not participated in either Deaflympic, Paralympic or Special Olympics World Games competition. Oceania is the region with the least participation historically, followed by Africa and Asia. Participation in winter games from developing countries is very low, whilst the participation of women in winter sport is even lower and declining with time.

At the grassroots level, programme development from key organisations, such as Handicap International, have enabled thousands of people with a disability in developing countries to become active in sport and physical activity.

Images by RUN 4 FFWPU