Cottingham, M., Lee, D., Carroll, M., Shapiro, D., & Pitts, B. (2016). The historical realization of the Americans with Disabilities Act on athletes with disabilities. Journal of Legal Aspects of Sport, 26(1), 5-21.
Research Review: Alex X. Martínez
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is considered the most important piece of legislation for people with disabilities. Through ADA, disability is viewed as a civil rights issue that addresses employment, accessibility, public services, consumer access, transportation and telecommunications. ADA has created a profound difference for athletes with physical disabilities who are more likely to deal with barriers in sports involvement. The purpose of this study is to view perspectives of elite athletes with disabilities and the impact ADA had on their sports participation before 1990 and then after 1995.
There are numerous barriers affecting disability sports participation. Previous research studies identified three primary barriers faced by athletes with disabilities: (a) physical, (b) financial, and (c) psychological. Physical constraints are a highly limiting factor related to exercise, sport, in addition to those who use wheelchairs but do not participate in sport.
Transportation is a common challenge for individuals with disabilities. Research shows that persons with disabilities are underemployed, thus oftentimes limiting their ability to cover expenses (equipment, travel, and staff) related to disability sport. Another factor that limits disability sports participation is the presence of psychological barriers including lack of motivation, insecurity about participation, or a perceived judgment by society that individuals with disability are not valued as athletes.
Fifteen elite athletes with disabilities who used wheelchairs and who competed before 1990 and continued after 1995 participated in the study. The participants were interviewed via phone or Skype. The interviews included questions on how the ADA impacted their experiences both as athletes and as persons with disabilities.
During the interviews the participants identified four themes that were the most challenging in their pre-ADA athletic career: (1) physical barriers, (2) economic barriers, (3) social barriers, and (4) barriers of legitimacy. These barriers are similar with post-ADA barriers reported in previous studies. The impact of ADA on these themes include improvements on practice and competition facilities with ramps and doors wide enough to enter, accessible bathrooms at hotels and restaurants, transportation with lifts, and improvements on the quality of sports wheelchairs.
The participants felt that although ADA may not have created a direct impact on the economics of funding their sports, it more than likely created an indirect effect. It addressed social barriers that helped to create a society more culturally aware of disability and more supportive of disability sport thus providing better access to economic resources. Different views were reported on the effect of ADA on social barriers. Some participants felt that ADA had minimal impact on addressing social barriers while others felt that ADA has addressed social barriers, from an angle of raising awareness.
Barriers of legitimacy focused on the perception of the athlete in particular and not the society’s perception. Participants reported that barriers of legitimacy have improved substantially over the course of their careers as a result of greater exposure of the Paralympics, the efforts of organizations to accept and integrate disability sports, marathons incorporating athletes with disabilities, and additional television coverage.
These findings show that the general perception of athletes with disabilities is that ADA has improved their lives in multiple categories through indirect and direct benefits. Future research should replicate this unique study with athletes with different disabilities, including ambulatory mobility, blind and deaf athletes, and those with neurological disabilities. The impact of various legislations used in other countries should be examined to determine if athletes from other countries face similar experiences.