6 Tips for Being Inclusive of Girls with Disabilities

There are many young girls with disabilities and that population is growing; now consisting of 4.3% of the under-18 population (1) and approximately 27% of the adult population (2). In the past, society would look at individuals with disabilities as someone to fix or pity, but now we understand that they want to be included just like everyone else.  

The Americans with Disabilities Act is now over 30 years old, and much of the legislation deals with public accommodations and accessible environments. Overall, it was designed to ensure a more inclusive country where every body has the right to participate in society. Here are a few tips that can be used to include all girls and enhance their experience with physical activity:   

  • Normalize Disability: Don’t single out someone because of their disability; most want to be a normal participant and don’t want the pressure of being “inspiring.” 
  • Embrace Accommodations: Each person’s disability will be unique, which means spaces and equipment may often need to be adapted to the specific needs of an individual.  
  • Remove Clutter: Free the space of anything that could prevent movement from someone in a wheelchair or become a tripping hazard to someone with a visual impairment.  
  • Get Creative: Many types of exercises can be done from a seated position with the use of inexpensive equipment such as door pulleys, elastic bands/tubing and dumbbells. Velcro straps are also helpful if grip strength is an issue.  
  • Pull More: Due to the use of wheelchairs, crutches or walkers, many people with disabilities overuse the pushing muscles of their chest and shoulders. Focus on exercises that involve the back muscles like pulling in the rowing motion. 
  • Reflect Often: Be a problem solver and become comfortable with trying new things or changing approaches that aren’t working.  

Current frameworks state that much of one’s disability comes from the interaction of the individual and the built environment in which she lives (3). For example, I’ve walked into many restaurants where we’ve had to help our friends in wheelchairs get up or down a couple of steps.  Most people will experience these environmental barriers at some point during their life due to injury or age, but girls with disabilities will always experience them unless we choose to create spaces where everyone can participate. Sadly, youth with disabilities are 4.5 times more inactive than non-disabled youth (4) and this inactivity is at a time when most people learn motor skills and an appreciation for physical activity that carries over into adulthood (5). Much of this inactivity stems from a lack of adequate recreational activities and programs (4), but Girls on the Run is making strides in getting youth with disabilities moving more. 

Studies have shown that quality youth programs positively influence physical activity levels into and through adulthood (6), especially when they are fun and social (7), and Girls on the Run is not short on providing a fun and social after-school environment. It’s also known that pushing a wheelchair and running or walking is the most common form of physical activity for adults with disabilities (8). What better way is there to reinforce lifetime healthy activities for girls with disabilities than by participating in Girls on the Run?   

When working with girls with disabilities, remember that you are making a positive difference in their personal health and quality of life (9). Girls with disabilities look at the world through a different lens and will develop skills that help them adapt and overcome not only their physical surroundings but also many other areas of their life. 

To learn more about the lasting positive impact of Girls on the Run, click here. To register your girl for an upcoming program season, connect with your local council today! 

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  1. United States Census Bureau (2021, March 25). Childhood Disability in the United States: 2019. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2021/acs/acsbr-006.html 
  2. United States Census Bureau (2018, November). Americans with disabilities: 2014. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2018/demo/p70-152.pdf 
  3. World Health Organization (WHO) (2001). The international classification of functioning, disability and health (ICF), 18. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO.  
  4. Rimmer, J. A., & Rowland, J. L. (2008). Physical activity for youth with disabilities: A critical need in an underserved population. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 11(2), 141–148. 
  5. Murphy, M. H., Rowe, D. A., & Woods, C. B. (2016). Sports participation in youth as a predictor of physical activity: A 5-Year Longitudinal Study. Journal of Physical Activity & Health13(7), 704–711. 
  6. Ahmed, M. D., Ho, W. K. Y., Zazed, K., Van Niekerk, R. L., & Jong-Young Lee Lee. (2016). The adolescent age transition and the impact of physical activity on perceptions of success, self-esteem and well-being. Journal of Physical Education & Sport16(3), 776–784.  
  7. Buffart, L. M., Westendorp, T., van den Berg-Emons, R. J., Stam, H. J., & Roebroeck, M. E. (2009). Perceived barriers to and facilitators of physical activity in young adults with childhood-onset physical disabilities. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine41(11), 881–885. 
  8. Kyle, D. L., Brown, P., Hemphill, M., Gill, D. (2019, June). The impact of youth adapted sport on physical activity of adults with disabilities. Presentation for International Symposium on Adapted Physical Activity. Charlottesville, VA.  
  9. McVeigh, S., Hitzig, S., & Craven, B. (2009). Influence of sport participation on community integration and quality of life: A comparison between sport participants and non-sport participants with spinal cord injury. Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine32(2), 115–124.