At the grassroots level, people with a disability can participate together with limited emphasis on rules and regulations. As elements of competition are introduced, it becomes more important to group people together according to their abilities in order to ensure fair competition.
For an athlete with a disability to participate in international disability sport competitions such as the Paralympic Games, Deaflympics and Special Olympics World Games, they must first meet minimum eligibility criteria and be a member of an affiliated national association.
In the Paralympic Games, the eligibility criteria differ across sports and disability groups. The Paralympic Games also have qualification criteria that athletes need to meet in order to compete at a Paralympic Games.
To be eligible to compete in the Deaflympics, athletes must have a hearing loss of at least 55 decibels in the better ear. Athletes are forbidden to use any kind of hearing amplifications during competition to avoid taking an unfair advantage over those not using these devices.
In the Special Olympics, an athlete must be at least eight years of age and be identified by an agency or professional as having an intellectual disability to be eligible to participate. A unique system of ‘divisioning’ groups athletes together for competition based on age, gender and ability.
Once eligible for a sport or event, an athlete is then classified according to their level of functional ability. The concept of classification is similar to the way athletes compete in different weight categories in wrestling, boxing and weightlifting. The classification system varies for each sport but is simply a system of grouping athletes of similar abilities for sport competition.
For more detailed information regarding athlete classification in the Paralympic Games, see the website of the International Paralympic Committee www.paralympic.org