Physical education: Young disabled persons must be allowed to take part on their own terms

What does it really take to include young people with disabilities in activities? And what is required to help them feel included? —This is not so easy; there are many different emotions involved. But we do have some knowledge.

Boy in a wheelchair playing basketball
Young people with disabilities must feel included to actually be included, concludes Terese Wilhelmsen in her thesis. Illustration photo: Shutterstock

So says Terese Wilhelmsen. She has carried out a study on the level of inclusion in physical education in Norwegian schools and how much pupils with disabilities are included, in the broader sense.

Early this May, at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences (NIH), she held the public defence of her doctoral thesis, “Inkludering av barn med nedsatt funksjonsevne i kroppsøvingsfaget. Erfaringer fra barn og deres foreldre" [Inclusion of children with disabilities in physical education. Experience from children and their parents].

—What is evident is that there is a large diversity in how children feel they are included or excluded in relation to physical education classes, says Terese Wilhelmsen. —The same also applies to the experiences reported by their parents.

Portrait of Terese Wilhelmsen
Terese Wilhelmsen Photo: NIH

Adaptation necessary

She has focused her study on physical education classes in schools as this is where children and adolescents are in closest contact and in particular where physical differences and abilities become all the more apparent. She has interviewed children with disabilities and their parents, in total 15 children and 26 parents. In addition, a number of other participants throughout Norway – a total of 64 children and 72 parents – have responded to a survey on how they experience physical education classes.

—The study shows that if children and adolescents with disabilities are to feel included, the learning climate has to be right: Children need to experience that they can actively take part, achieve the different tasks and that the activities are adapted to their interests and needs, says Terese Wilhelmsen.

By developing different physical education programmes for young people with varying physical abilities, some may feel excluded from the social arena even outside of physical education classes. This may create a divide between the children as they miss a number of common experiences, making social interaction more difficult. 

Avoid comparison

One important point is to restrict competition and avoid comparison of performance and skills.

—If you are able to provide physical education classes with this type of inclusive learning climate, young people with completely different abilities and interests will experience the classes as inclusive, both socially and educationally.

Terese Wilhelmsen believes that it is essential for children and adolescents with disabilities to be met with high and realistic expectations, in terms of both activities and other feedback.

—Each individual must be allowed to be compared to themselves, not others. When this is possible, it becomes much less important to achieve what others achieve and much more important to see your own development.

Forgotten channel of communication

Despite the fact that physical education is the part of the school day when the children are literally at their most “naked”, the subject is often forgotten when the school communicates with parents. And communications between the home and school are often particularly difficult when the physical education teacher is not also the form teacher.

—Parents want more dialogue related to physical education. When communication is not good enough, parents also feel that their children are excluded, says Wilhelmsen. —If they are provided with proper information, however, it will be easier for them to understand whether or when they have to change the programme, for example, for a specific class.

This is why the school has to talk to both the pupils and their parents, in particular relating to physical education, in terms of goals, expectations and progress.

Can use the experts

Numerous parents who do not have sufficient contact with their children’s physical education teacher feel that they have to fight for their children’s rights. They are often told that it is all a question of economy and resources. Such “fights” are well-known from former research in both Norway and abroad.

—It is in particular parents with children who have disabilities who experience this as an extra burden when they are trying to communicate knowledge and promote the rights of their children, says Terese Wilhelmsen.

In her opinion, the teachers can make use of a wide range of expert assistance, from the actual persons involved.

—It can be difficult for the teacher to know whether to continue with joint activities, provide parallel tasks or divide the pupils into groups. But not all children necessarily have to do the same activities. If the teacher, pupils and parents have clarified matters properly and together, they will be able to prevent a pupil from being excluded as different.


During her studies, Terese Wilhelmsen came across a strange paradox. It appears that many young children with disabilities are active in sports outside of school, but still experience problems taking part properly in physical education at school.

—This is quite striking. A number of children and their parents report that the school does not sufficiently understand all the things the children CAN do, and that in reality, the limitations are very few, says Terese Wilhelmsen. This requires, however, that the teacher understands the group’s strengths and needs, and that he or she plans activities accordingly.

—Nonetheless,” she stresses: —There are obviously some schools where this works well already.

Important to appreciate diversity

Previous research has shown that many teachers support inclusion, but find it difficult to practice. It is common for teachers to feel that they lack either the expertise, resources or both, but this is mainly a question of being a good educator and using the knowledge available in the teacher’s network.

—It’s far too easy to exaggerate the fact that these children are different, to believe that the disability is so much more difficult than the fact of being different. But it is really a question of valuing and planning for diversity. That's why physical education is so important. Bodily and physical skills are so transparent, she says.

—Physical education is an important arena where this diversity of bodies and physical skills can take centre stage in a positive way. This requires that physical education teachers – with the support of the school and the team of teachers – reflect and work actively in creating an inclusive fellowship in physical education classes.

Terese Wilhelmsen held her public defense of her doctoral thesis "Utfordringer hos barn med funksjonshemninger i gymtimer" at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences (NIH), 9 May 2019.