A “Permissible Prejudice”: An exploration of the systemic ableist barriers to sport and leisure activity for disabled people

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Cite as: Colombo-Dougovito, A. M., & Dillon, S. R. (2022). A “Permissible Prejudice”: An exploration of the systemic ableist barriers to sport and leisure activity for disabled people (pp. 113–140). In A. M. Colombo-Dougovito, T. Everbach, & K. Weiller-Abels (Eds.), Not playing around: Intersectional identities, media representation, and the power of sport, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.


In 1990, after signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, then President George H. W. Bush declared, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” Arguably, in the years since, access for disable people has improved for the better. Indeed, many of the accommodations such elevators or captions—long fought for by disabled activist—are widely used by disabled and nondisabled people alike. Although disabled people constitute the largest minority group in the US (26% of adults) (CDC, 2018), improvements to accessible often remain an afterthought and burdensome barriers limit disabled people’s agency within society.

Within the US, and many Western Cultures, our views of disability are, often, shaped by the Medical Model which focuses on the impairing conditions of one’s disability and places the onus of solutions on “correcting” or “curing” that disability. This pervasive viewpoint has shaped much of society’s view on who is “worthy” of accommodation or access. Ableism—defined as “a form of systemic, structural, and institutional oppression” (Brown, 2021)—is rooted in this idea of who is “worthy” and has been referred to as a “permissible prejudice” (Chordorow, 1999). IN other words, the exclusion and discrimination of those not considered “abled” by society is acceptable. Nowhere is this clearer than in sport contexts. Disabled people, regardless of diagnosis, face an increase myriad of barriers compared to their non-disabled peers.

Despite a wealth of research that exists on the poor health outcomes and lack of physical activity engagement by disabled people, many scholars point to a lack of motivation or will power and not accommodation as the issue. For those with disabilities, sport can be a means of navigating one’s identity post injury or disability (Day & Wadey, 2016), yet these accounts are often framed as “overcoming” or “finding resilience.” Organized sport, and by extention leisure activities, can acts as an influence on individual and societal beliefs of disability, gender, race, and class—yet, too often, these narratives serve to support past inequalities and injustices (Kahn, 1991; Messner, 1989). In fact, such narratives of the “abled boded ideal” (Hardin, 2003) or “SuperCrip” (Howe, 2011) are prolific resulting in perpetuated stereotype of disability (Beacom et al., 2016) and are, often, internalized by disabled athletes (Brittain et al 2020).

Therefore, using a critical disability lens within an intersectional framework, this chapter will explore the historic systematic barriers and facilitators to sport and leisure participation among individuals with a disability and reflect them through societal views of disability. Using a meta- synthesis approach, the authors will gather and analyze prior qualitative research to develop meta-themes about the societal access to sport and physical activity for disabled people. Additionally, the authors will examine the influence of society on an individual’s disabled identity and how that influences their own perception of the barriers that they face to engage with physical activity and sport, as well as what they believe provides them access to these spaces and activities.

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