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02.12.2021 - Ausgabe: 6/2021

Inclusion in motion - People with and without disabilities together in games and sports

By Dr Florian Pochstein (Ludwigsburg University of Education)

© Rawpixel.com / stock.adobe.com

If you ask children why they practise sports, they will give you a variety of different reasons. "It makes me strong and my muscles grow" is just as much a part of it as "it gives me a chance to really work out" or simply "because it's fun and I get to be with my friends".  Individual differences and perceptions are of course present, but basically sports and exercise seem to appeal to all children (and also many young people) intrinsically, i.e. from the deepest inside. In the course of growing up, priorities shift. Extrinsic reasons, competing motives and necessities become more important and stronger, one could also say: everyday life with work and family takes its toll. Sports and exercise then no longer just happen, but have to be planned and integrated into everyday life (Fuchs, 2003). In addition to measures of organised sports, the creation of spaces for physical activity in the city also plays an important role (Funke-Wienecke & Klein, 2008). 


But back to the children mentioned in the beginning. Whether the children interviewed have a disability or not is mostly irrelevant for the answers. The motives for doing sports, for physical activity in general, are almost completely congruent. And why not? Sports is a part of life that is not unknown to people with disabilities. For a long time now, there have been offers that enable this group of people to participate in sports in organised structures (e.g. in sports clubs) in the areas of popular, competitive or also rehabilitation sport. In a previous issue of this magazine, Tiemann (2019a) traced the lines of development and described the anchoring of the right of persons with disabilities to participate in recreational, leisure and sporting activities in Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) (United Nations, 2006). And of course, children with disabilities also engage in sports in their free time, independent of fixed club structures, organised entirely by themselves when playing football in the park, playing and frolicking around in the playground or within their families with parents and/or siblings. Especially in the last aspect, sports groups of persons with and without disabilities are automatically active together. 


But what about the joint physical activity of persons with and without disabilities in the organised structures of the German sports system? Is it possible to exercise the right to participation enshrined in the UNCRPD? And is it really the ideal way for people with and without disabilities to do sports together in a group? Can't (mustn't?) inclusion in sports start much earlier, namely from the moment when it is made possible for people with disabilities to participate in sporting activities at all? These fundamental questions and, above all, the resulting consequences are hotly debated both in academia and in sports practice. Without being able to go into more detail here about this discourse, which is far from over, it should be remembered that this discussion is also being conducted in a similar way in the education system. There are advocates of special schools as a legitimate and necessary form of education alongside inclusive school settings, because the safe spaces and special expertise of the teachers are an indispensable prerequisite for the development of the pupils. The opposing position is that "categorisation into special educational needs promotes generalising tendencies and thus stigmatisation, instead of prioritising the individual potential of each person" (Greve, 2021, p.4). For those interested in a more in-depth discussion of this issue in the school setting, we recommend the articles by Pochstein (2017), Tiemann (2019b) and Wocken (2011).


Preferably, both points of view are taken into account if the goal of practising sports together as a normal state is to be achieved. And that is exactly what is happening. Sports organisations have been working for many years on concepts of how to promote the togetherness of children and young people (and to a lesser extent adults) in sports. The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB), as the umbrella organisation of organised sports in Germany, has developed a wide range of general guidelines for action that can make inclusive sporting activities possible and supports projects which put them into practice. The German Disabled Sports Association (DBS), as the professional association of sports for people with disabilities, has produced, among other things, the Index for Inclusion in and through Sports, which offers assistance for clubs and other providers in the sports system who want to open up to the group of people with disabilities (DBS, 2014). Both of the above-mentioned ways are taken into account, although not to the same extent. The main topic is how providers can succeed in structuring their already existing sports offers in such a way that enables interested people with disabilities to participate. This is often much more complicated than it seems at first glance, because there are indeed many barriers to prevent this. This does not only (but also!) refer to the constructional conditions that often come to mind first, and which can actually hinder access in the truest sense of the word. Much more serious, however, are the barriers in people's minds. The openness to include people with disabilities in an existing sports group is far away from being universal. Prejudices, ignorance, fears in various forms on the part of the participants (with and without disabilities) exist and must be taken seriously. In most cases, these barriers can be overcome through information and the opportunity to get to know each other. But this does not happen easily, it has to be organised, moderated and (ideally) evaluated. Sports providers who do not shy away from the effort involved report great progress in the inclusive development of their organisation.


Less often, the second approach described is followed. If this approach is followed consistently, it means offering people with disabilities the support they may need so that they can make their own choice about which sports they want to do, in which organisational form and with whom (Misener & Darcy, 2014). This can be an inclusive sports group of any kind, but it can also be a group of persons with specific disabilities that is closed to the outside world. So it is also about creating more qualified offers. In Germany, Special Olympics (SO) has played a pioneering role in this area in recent years, but mainly for the group of people with so-called intellectual disabilities. For SO, in addition to support in the transition to a regular sports club, there is also the focus on establishing disability-specific offers in which athletes with disabilities train among themselves and compete (up to international levels). SO calls this form of sports "traditional". A later transition to regular sports is not excluded, but this is not the unconditional goal. And above all, this is not the qualitatively better, more inclusive form of sports, but one path among several. Unlike in education, a so-called inclusion spectrum (Black & Stevenson, 2012) is widely accepted that includes both inclusive, integrative and segregating structures. These levels are not hierarchical, as is the case in the current educational debate on inclusion, but rather on an equal footing. In practice, SO therefore offers traditional sports programmes as well as programmes that are open to all. Regardless of disability, it is much more about having fun doing sports together, getting to know each other and breaking down barriers. SO calls this, somewhat misleadingly, a non-competitive offer. Competition in the sense of counting points or goals is of course not forbidden, but basically these activities are structured in such a way that it doesn't really matter who wins. The parallels to the aforementioned kicking in the park are quite intentional here, the fun of physical activity, the meeting with like-minded people is the focus. However, SO also offers the concrete joint sports activities of people with and without disabilities in a team. Under the name Unified Sports®, both groups of people play in a team, swim or run in mixed teams, sit as a duo in rowing boats and canoes, etc. and compete with other equally composed teams. The principle of equal and meaningful participation and inclusion (SO calls this "meaningful involvement") is the main focus of this concept. The athletes with disabilities are not only part of the team, they are an indispensable part of it.


Scientific evaluations of the Unified Sports® concept have shown that both groups benefit from participation. The athletes with disabilities increased their self-confidence and expanded their social networks (McConkey, 2013), the partners without disabilities reported a lot of fun, fairness, expansion of their own tolerance and sense of responsibility (Pochstein, 2011). However, for the sake of completeness, it must be mentioned that these effects have not yet been proven in the long term. However, a positive development with regard to attitudes towards people with disabilities seems understandable and has already been proven in other settings outside the SO cosmos (Kiuppis, 2016; Quinten, 2015).


What conclusions should we draw from these concepts of sports practice and the increasingly proven (qualitatively and quantitatively) evidence of the positive consequences of inclusive sports groups? On the one hand, we conclude that it makes a difference of what is called successful inclusion. Is it really just mixed groups doing sports together? We should certainly keep this understanding as a vision for the future. Ideally, it will soon no longer be relevant whether people have a disability or not. Heterogeneity (also in other dimensions, such as gender, origin, sexual orientation) in all areas of society, and therefore of course also in sports, should become the norm. But we are not there yet, not even in sports, which is certainly taking a pioneering role on this path. Therefore, it is at least as important to show people with disabilities ways to engage in sports according to their wishes, preferably also in disability-specific offers. This is also an inclusive approach and promotes togetherness within the framework of general empowerment, i.e. the self-determination, autonomy and self-responsibility of these people.


On the other hand, we see that doing sports together does work. Whether in sports clubs, in families or on playgrounds, people with the most diverse conditions are in motion together, all this completely voluntarily. Quite often this just happens, the need for physical activity and the high self-motivation of sporting activity work by themselves. Nevertheless, targeted support, which must be backed up by political guidelines, among other things, certainly makes sense. The more we promote this through appropriate measures (see above) and the earlier children come into contact with this normality, the closer we come to the ideal of a heterogeneous, colourful society of diversity in which everyone is an accepted and valued member.



Black, K. & Stevenson, P. (2012). The Inclusion Spectrum incorporating STEP. The Inclusion Spectrum: a model for inclusion in physical education and sport. Accessed on 13 October 2021 at http://www.englandathletics.org/shared/get-file.ashx?itemtype=document&id=13231.

Deutscher Behindertensportverband (German Disabled Sports Association (ed.) (2014)). Index für Inklusion im und durch Sport. Ein Wegweiser zur Förderung der Vielfalt im organisierten Sport in Deutschland. (Index for Inclusion in and through Sports. A guide to promoting diversity in organised sports in Germany). Frechen: self-published.

Fuchs, R. (2003). Sport, Gesundheit und Public Health. (Sports, health and public health. Göttingen: Hogrefe).

Funke-Wienecke, J. & Klein, G. (2008). Bewegungsraum und Stadtkultur (Movement space and urban culture). Bielefeld: transcript. 

Greve, S. (2021). Inklusion im Sport – aktuelle Perspektiven. Bewegung & Sport, 75(1), 3-7. (Inclusion in sports - current perspectives. Physical Activity & Sports, 75(1), 3-7).

Kiuppis, F. (2016). Sport im Lichte der UN-Behindertenrechtskonvention. Zeitschrift für Menschenrechte, 2, 80-91. (Sports in the light of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Journal of Human Rights, 2, 80-91).

McConkey, R., Dowling, S., Hassan, D., & Menke, S. (2013). Promoting social inclusion through Unified Sports for youth with intellectual disabilities: a five-nation study. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 57, 923-935. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2788.2012.01587.x.

Misener, L. & Darcy, S. (2014). Managing Disability Sport: From Athletes with Disabilities to Inclusive Organisational Perspectives. Sport Management Review, 17, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.SMR .2013.12.003.

Pochstein, F. (2011). Europaweite Evaluation des Unified Sports Programms – die deutsche Perspektive. In D. Milles & U. Meseck (Hrsg.), Inklusion und Empowerment. Wirkungen sportlicher Aktivität für Menschen mit geistiger Behinderung (S. 53-62). Grasleben: Thieme.

(Europe-wide Evaluation of the Unified Sports Programme - the German Perspective. In D. Milles & U. Meseck (Eds.), Inclusion and Empowerment. Effects of sporting activity for people with intellectual disabilities (pp. 53-62). Grasleben: Thieme).

Pochstein, F. (2017). Ein langer, lohnender Weg. Inklusion im Sportunterricht. Grundschule Sport 16 (4), 30-31.

(A long, rewarding road. Inclusion in physical education. Grundschule Sport 16 (4), 30-31).

Quinten, S. (2015). Einstellung in Bewegung. Kann Tanzkunst helfen, Einstellungen gegenüber Menschen mit Behinderung zu verändern?. Zeitschrift für Inklusion, (4). Accessed on 25.10.21. Available at https://www.inklusion-online.net/index.php/inklusion-online/article/view/246

Attitude in motion. Can dance arts help change attitudes towards people with disabilities?. Journal of Inclusion, (4). 

Tiemann, H. (2019a). Inklusion im schulischen und außerschulischen Sport. (Inclusion in school and extracurricular sports). Playground@Landscape. Sports & Leisure Facilities, 12(6), 24-28.

Tiemann, H. (2019b). Inklusiver Sportunterricht. Sportunterricht (Inclusive physical education. Sports lessons), 68, 148-152.

United Nations (2006). Conventions on the rights of persons with disabilities. Retrieved 25.10.21. Available at http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml

Wocken, H. (2011). Rettet die Sonderschulen? - Rettet die Menschenrechte! Ein Appell zu einem differenzierten Diskurs über Dekategorisierung. Zeitschrift für Inklusion, (4).  (Save the special schools? - Save human rights! An appeal for a differentiated discourse on decategorisation. Journal of Inclusion, (4)). Retrieved on 25.10.21. Available at https://www.inklusion-online.net/index.php/inklusion-online/article/view/81



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