An insight into teaching Physical Education with a disability by Andrew Horrell

Andrew Horrell is a Senior Lecturer in Physical Education at the University of Edinburgh. In this post he provides an insight based on research which explored the experiences of a teacher of physical education with a physical disability. Click here for the link to the full paper.

An insight into teaching Physical Education with a disability

The extract below from Ben’s journal provided an important frame of reference for the study as it establishes that he wanted others to know about his experiences and consider what these might mean for them and their practice.

“I pursue this research in [the] hope that other educators and schools take notice of the world around them. “Normal” is a matter of perspective: Every student, every person comes from a different background with different challenges.”

Ben’s experiences as a student teacher of physical education working in a school located in New England, USA, provided a unique view of what inclusion means in policy and practice. Born with spina bifida, he was small in stature and wore braces on his lower legs for stability. He had worked to develop his upper body strength, which he used to his advantage whenever possible. Ben entered the Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE) programme as a recruited athlete for the sled hockey team.

Teacher identity

Ben wanted to explore his teacher identity as part of his studies and I became involved in the study after visiting colleagues working at the University of New Hampshire. After securing ethical approval from the University, Michelle and I undertook additional analysis of a range of data sources. We worked with Ben with a view to providing a unique insight into how teaching physical education with a physical disability had led him and his school mentor to find new ways of meeting the challenges of a placement experience.

The medicalised view of the body has a strong influence in shaping our thoughts regarding individuals with disabilities, leading to the belief that a disability means that a person will be unable to function in the same manner as their nondisabled counterparts (Davis, 1997; Lee & Rodda, 1994). Ben knew that he faced challenges, but he had expectations about what he wanted to achieve. Operating in an inclusive environment which valued his capabilities he worked with his mentor and colleagues in the school to find a way to meet the standards expected of a student teacher and challenge pupils’ perceptions of what being a physical education teacher “should be”.

The Capability Approach

I want to acknowledge the debates in the literature of special education and disability studies about the practice of labelling. As teachers, we know the power of words, ideas and discourses that can shape for good or ill what we do and how we and others think. There are occasions where having a label or a name for something is essential because for shared understanding, it aids our communication. It is also the case that labels can operate and function in ways that restrict, not just communication, but more importantly our ability to understand and act in ways that would be productive and inclusive. Ben knew that he had a physical disability, but he also knew that he had abilities, and, in the study, we drew on the capability approach to inform our theoretical framework (Sen, 1999).

Capabilities are the conditions under which people can “help themselves and influence the world” (Sen, 1999, p. 18). In the context of physical education, Evans (2004) problematises the concept of ability and the privileged status that “physical ability” has in the relationship between physical education teachers and learners. There is an expectation that teachers are required to embody the curriculum, their ability to teach is enmeshed with their knowledge of content and the performative act of pedagogy.

As a teacher with a physical disability, Ben challenged the dominant perception of “ability” and competence by his decisions on how and what to teach. There were areas of the physical education curriculum that he may not have been able to teach, but Ben, working with his mentor found a way to create a curriculum that enabled pupils to learn and meet the requirements of his placement. The capability approach is not necessarily based on the availability of resources but rather the extent to which they enable optimal performance.

Concluding thoughts

I hope that you will read the paper and reflect on its findings. In physical education, planning and teaching lessons which engage all pupils requires teachers to skilfully adapt tasks and be creative to achieve the aim of inclusion. Ben was able to demonstrate these skills and the school and pupils were able to recognise his capabilities as a teacher, he was an agent of change for his own practice and for the school community. There was a fluidity to the disability discourse and there were episodes during his placement where he and his classes did or did not achieve what they set out to do. There were lessons and days when Ben’s physical disability enabled him to achieve more than others or he expected. There were times when the opposite was the case. Overall, in our analysis of data sources “Doing things my way” emerged as a strong theme and became the title of the paper. This did not mean that Ben did “whatever he wanted to do” it simply reflected that he knew what his capabilities were and working within the context of the school, the support provided and the resources available he found a way to teach physical education. He did so in a way that meant that the pupils in his classes learned more than just what was stated on the lesson plans.

What do you think?

This is an area where to date there have been limited opportunities to undertake research. I would be interested to know if there are other teachers of physical education who consider themselves to be disabled, perhaps you would be prepared to share your experiences with members of PERF.


Davis, L.J. (1997). Constructing normalcy. The disabilities studies reader. New York: Routledge.

Evans, J. (2004). Making a difference: Education and ‘ability’ in physical education. European Physical Education Review, 10(1), 95–108. doi:10.1177/1356336X04042158

Grenier, M. A., Horrell, A., & Genovese, B. (2014). Doing Things My Way: Teaching Physical Education With a Disability. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 31(4), 325-342. 10.1123/apaq.2013-0089

Lee, T., & Rodda, M. (1994). Modification of attitudes toward people with disabilities. Canadian Journal of Rehabilitation, 7(4), 229–238.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.