Disabled and Adaptive Sports

Organized sport for athletes with a disability is generally divided into three broad disability groups: the deaf, people with physical disabilities, and people with intellectual disabilities. Each group has a distinct history, organization, competition program, and approach to sport.

Formal international competition in deaf sport began with the 1924 Paris Silent Games, organized by the Comité International des Sports des Sourds, CISS (The International Committee of Sports for the Deaf). These games evolved into the modern Deaflympics, governed by the CISS. The CISS maintains separate games for deaf athletes based on their numbers, their special communication needs on the sports field, and the social interaction that is a vital part of sports.

Organized sport for persons with physical disabilities existed as early as 1911, when the “Cripples Olympiad” was held in the U.S.A. One of the successful athletes was Walter William Francis, a Welshman, who won both the running and wrestling championships. Later, events often developed out of rehabilitation programs. Following the Second World War, in response to the needs of large numbers of injured ex-service members and civilians, sport was introduced as a key part of rehabilitation. Sport for rehabilitation grew into recreational sport and then into competitive sport. The pioneer of this approach was Sir Ludwig Guttmann of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England. In 1948, while the Olympic Games were being held in London, he organized a sports competition for wheelchair athletes at Stoke Mandeville. This was the origin of the Stoke Mandeville Games, which evolved into the modern Paralympic Games. The first official Paralympic Games, after the name change, was held in Rome in 1960. In 1975, the Paralympic Games expanded to include those with limb amputations and visual impairments. Individuals with cerebral palsy were allowed to compete beginning in 1980.

Currently, Paralympic sport is governed by the International Paralympic Committee, in conjunction with a wide range of other international sport organizations. Today, there are numerous sport opportunities throughout the United States for injured service members, including cycling, wheelchair tennis, shooting, wheelchair basketball, track and field, adapted water sports, and snow skiing. One such program is the Wounded Warrior program, which offers sitting volleyball to injured service members. Some organizations also offer sport opportunities to family and friends of injured service members in addition to the members themselves.

Sport for persons with intellectual disabilities began to be organized in the 1960s through the Special Olympics movement. This grew out of a series of summer camps organized by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, beginning in 1962. In 1968 the first international Special Olympics were held, in Chicago. Today, Special Olympics provides training and competition in a variety of sports for persons with intellectual disabilities.

Sport for persons with physical disabilities began to be organized in the US in the late 1960s through Disabled Sports USA. Disabled Sports USA was established in 1967 by disabled military veterans, including Jim Winthers, to help rehabilitate the injured soldiers returning from Vietnam and originally named the National Amputee Skiers Association. In 1970, Hal O’Leary founded the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) at Winter Park in Colorado. Today, NSCD has 19 certified instructors and more than 1,000 volunteers. Disabled Sports USA has become one of the largest national multi-sport, multi-disability organizations in the United States, serving more than 60,000 wounded warriors, youth and adults annually.

In 1986, the International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability (INAS-FID) was formed to support elite competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities. This was established in contrast to the more participative, “sport for all” approach of Special Olympics. For a time, athletes with intellectual disabilities were included in the Paralympic Games. After a cheating scandal at the 2000 Summer Paralympics, where a number of athletes participating in intellectual disability events were revealed to not be disabled, INAS-FID athletes were banned from Paralympic competition, but the ban on intellectually disabled athletes has since been lifted.