Social Inclusion in Sport and Recreation for Youth with Intellectual Disabilities

by Brittany A.

Youth with intellectual disabilities are often stigmatized as being incapable of participating in sport and recreational activities, as many individuals do not take the time to understand their diverse needs. Many of my experiences with youth have been with children who have intellectual disabilities. For anyone who has not had exposure to this kind of work, these children have the most energy, passion for life, and love, then any other people I have ever met.  Through these experiences, I have come to learn that much like other children, youth with intellectual disabilities also love participating in sports and recreation and can excel physically in such activities. I find it incredibly important to allow youth who have an intellectual disability of any kind, to have the opportunity to be physically active. Even more importantly, I believe that communities must promote social inclusion for these individuals through sport and recreation to allow for feelings of importance in not only the lives of youth who have a disability, but in the lives of their peers.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (2017), an intellectual disability affects one’s mental abilities in two areas of functioning: intellectual functioning (troubles learning or impaired judgement) and adaptive functioning (activities needed for daily life such as communication). Because of these delays in learning and their social skills being underdeveloped, youth with intellectual disabilities are often times excluded from sport and recreation organizations or programs. This being said, sport, as discussed many times in class, is a great way for youth to build and improve on elements such as self-esteem, positive identity, social skills, physical competency, and much more. By allowing the inclusion of youth with intellectual disabilities to participate in sport and recreational activities with peers their age, they can also develop these skills through physical activity whether it be structured or unstructured.

Another reason I find it so crucial to include youth with intellectual disabilities to participate in sport and recreation is because of their many negative health problems caused by sedentary lifestyles. A large amount of literature on physical activity and health suggests that individuals with intellectual disabilities tend to be very sedentary because there is a lack of opportunities and support for these individuals. As a result of this, compared to the general population, these individuals tend to be very unfit physically (Draheim, Williams, & McCubbin, 2002).

Over the past several decades this information has been taken into consideration and some amazing organizations have been created to increase sport participation in youth with intellectual disabilities. The Special Olympics (SO) is an organization that encourages physical activity for individuals with any type of disability and is potentially the most well-known organization of its type. SO is an organization that provides sport training and competitions through Olympic-type sports for youth (and adults) with intellectual and physical disabilities. Youth who have participated in this program claim that their self-esteem has been increased, that they feel support from adults in various roles, and that they have created friendships with their peers (Weiss, Diamond, Demark, & Lovald, 2003).

Organizations such as the SO have created a platform which allows children with intellectual disabilities to learn about and participate in sport and recreation. It has also positively shaped many children’s internal and external developmental assets such as their positive values, their social competencies, and support from others. This baseline has demonstrated that youth with intellectual disabilities are capable individuals who need to participate in sport and recreation just like anyone else. My wish is that in the future, is that these children, who have the physical ability no matter their intellectual depth, will be able to participate on sport teams and engage in recreational activities with the general public. From direct personal experiences working with youth with downs syndrome and autism, I have seen inclusion continue to be more accepted and I can only hope that this trend continues.


Class notes and personal experiences

Draheim, Christopher C., Williams, Daniel P. and McCubbin, Jeffrey A. 2002. Prevalence of Physical Inactivity and Recommended Physical Activity in Community-Based Adults with Mental Retardation. Mental Retardation, 40: 436–44.

Weiss J., Diamond T., Demark J., Lovald B., (2003). Involvement in Special Olympics and its relations to self-concept and actual competency in participants with developmental disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 24(4),  281-305.


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5 Responses to Social Inclusion in Sport and Recreation for Youth with Intellectual Disabilities

  1. leannewright2 says:

    Brittney awesome job!

    though my own personal experience volunteering with my mothers kindergarten class for many years i have witness first hand how excited children with disabilities are when you give them the opportunity for physical activity. the thought of gym class brightens they day for these kids as gym class is usually the only chance for physical activity they receive due to the lack of opportunity for youth programming for these children especially where they live in the small community of Oromocto.
    I agree that organizations such as the special olympics have done wonders for these children in giving them opportunity and a sense of belonging and accomplishment which we know is important for all children, all children need this and children with disabilities especially.
    my question would be is is better to have organizations create special programs for these children or should we be doing our best to integrate these children into regular youth programming? special teams offer more individualized focus on each child but integration offers more opportunity for social development. I think this topic would definitely make for interesting class discussion.

  2. Katie D says:

    I’m glad you chose this topic to blog about. It is something that definitely flies under the radar when thinking of youth developing through recreation and sport. What really stood out to me in your post was the fact that youth with intellectual disabilities are seen to be unfit physically because of the sedentary lifestyles they are forced into because of the lack of opportunities in many places. It is very shocking and unfair to see that this would be the case for those individuals who simply don’t have the option to participate. For one year of high school basketball at FHS, and for now 3 years of assistant coaching at FHS we have had the pleasure of having a girl with Down syndrome being our manager. She comes to every practice and every home game, and you can see the positive impact it has on her well-being and on the players and coaches who get to interact with her. I have seen her develop immensely in these past 4 years, and I believe so much of that is attributed to her being able to have a role in a sport environment, as well as her participation in Special Olympics. I also know of, through Emma, a Canada Games program for Special Olympics that she was able to participate in. In hearing of this opportunity, it gave me hope that we will be seeing much more emphasis placed on recreation/sport activities for youth with intellectual disabilities in the future. Based on my experience, the experience is all positive for those who wish to give it a try.

    Katie D.

  3. melissabakkenes says:


    You did a good job! When I was reading your article, I even saw new aspects that do play a role with people with intellectual disabilities. You were saying that excluding these people from sport activities will give them negative health problems. This was not my first thought when I thought of the exclusion of people with disabilities. Therefore it is a good thing that you addresses it. My first thought was indeed the lack of developmental assets. There is not (yet) an opportunity for them to participate, this will lead to missing many assets. For example, positive peer influence, this could be really an important factor for these children. If the children with intellectual disabilities will have the opportunity to do the same activities as regular children, then these regular children could have a great positive influence on the children with intellectual disabilities.
    It is also even important for children with intellectual disabilities as for other children to develop the internal and external assets.
    I also believe that there should even be more opportunities for children with intellectual disabilities. It is already a good thing that there are these organizations that encourages physical activity, but is should be encouraged more. It should be made available for every child, also the ones that could not afford to participate in programs or cannot participate because they live in rural places.
    All in all you did a great job, by also showing me some other insights.

    Melissa, B.

  4. jamariobar says:

    I find this topic very interesting. Often other may have chosen to look at physical disabilities more so than intellectual disabilities which is as important and it should be noticed or made mention of more often. In Barbados we are aware of the presence of these disabilities but what our issue lays in that we are more focused on the educational aspect of the situation whether it is learning to read and write or the learning of a skill or trade where they can earn some income which goes a long way in making them feel a level of independence. Rather than the need for physical activity which is just seen as fun and neglecting the health benefits that comes with physical activity.
    This made me wonder if there are physical activity programs for children with disabilities outside of the school. If there are, they are not well marketed or advertise to the public of Barbados. I personally have met some children with these disabilities who are actually passionate about sports and you can tell when they talk about it even though they sometimes struggle to find the right words to express themselves. They also would love to play the sports but the places where they can go to learn the sport safely or for a coach to be patient with them in Barbados is very limited. They love these sports so much that when given the opportunity to learn to play, they pick up the movements for the sport at a faster rate than expected and they do excel at the sport. However, the opportunities to showcase their skills are very limited, (if they are any) in Barbados. We will never know in Barbados how being involved in sports can impact them on a social and interactive basis if it will have a positive or a negative impact on them thank you Britney you have given me some things to really think about.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hi Brittany! Congratulations on a great blog post, I think you make some excellent points throughout your post. I found it particularly saddening to read that individuals with intellectual disabilities lead a sedentary lifestyle as a result of lack of opportunity for them to participate in physical activity. Personally, I really prioritize and value physical activity, so knowing the additional barriers individuals who have intellectual disabilities face in order to engage in physical activity is extremely disheartening. This past summer I worked at Para New Brunswick Sport and Recreation; and while the organization indicates that we work with individuals who have physical disabilities, I found that we worked a lot with individuals whose mobility disability was impacted by their intellectual disability. Para NB Sport and Recreation is the only organization of it’s kind in Canada where they serve the whole province to ensure that everyone can play. The unique opportunity the organization presents is the Equipment Loan Service, where residents all over New Brunswick are able to borrow adapted sports equipment for free. While New Brunswick residents have access to this program, many others in Canada do not have access to equipment that can enable them to be physically active.

    As per government recommendations youth are to engage in physical activity every day, however, I was disappointed to learn that there is not a daily physical activity recommendation for the population of you who have intellectual disabilities (Hinckson, Curtis, 2013). Hinckson and Curtis (2013) indicated that upon reviewing 30 different studies the synonymous conclusion was that youth with intellectual disabilities were less engaged in physical activity than those without an intellectual disability. They further suggest that youth who have intellectual disabilities and do not engage in physical activity when they are young are likely to continue with this lifestyle into and throughout adulthood.

    Haley M.

    Hinckson, E. A., & Curtis, A. (2013). Measuring physical activity in children and youth living with intellectual disabilities: a systematic review. Research in developmental disabilities, 34(1), 72-86.

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