Teaching Disabled Children in Physical Education

(Dis)connections between Research and Practice

Book Review and Authors’ Response

Part one: Book review


I was delighted to see this book’s publication in 2023, as for me this was a much needed area of learning. I was looking forward to getting to grips with a topic that I was often too embarrassed to say I knew little about and needed support with. I was therefore encouraged to realise the aim of this book was to influence ways of thinking about teaching disabled students in physical education (PE).

This book has been skilfully written by Anthony J. Maher and Justin A. Haegele. It delves into different pedagogical practices when teaching disabled students in PE classes. More importantly, the authors review the research, or in some cases absence of research evidence that aims to challenge readers to consider their own practice.

The book is divided into eight chapters, starting with key information that really sets the readers up with the foundational knowledge for teaching disabled children in PE. Chapter 2 reviews and highlights the importance of research-informed practice within PE. Each chapter thereafter, considers specific disabilities by providing important background and context, overviews of the disability, the aim and purpose of chapter and a review of common strategies when working with disabled students in PE classes. The book finishes by reviewing recommendations for understanding the connections and sometimes disconnections between research and practice.

Chapter 1: Foundational Information for Teaching Disabled Students in Physical Education

The book helpfully kicks off with some vital information that really provides the foundation for better understanding this topic area and, more importantly, the students that we teach. I would honestly recommend every Head of Department prints and shares this chapter with their teams to read and discuss. It challenges us to consider how much we really know about disability and teaching disabled students in PE and the foundational information presented is imperative knowledge for every PE teacher who is genuinely looking to create an inclusive PE environment.

Maher and Haegele outline three different viewpoints towards what disability is:

  • The Medical Model: since replacing religious-informed viewpoints about disability is, this is the most accepted method of understanding disability. Disability is presented through this model as ‘a medical problem that resides in the individual as a defect, or failure, of a body system that is abnormal and pathological (Haegele & Hodge, 2016). This model is relied upon heavily, particularly within Western Countries, due to reliance of a diagnoses from medical professionals when requesting support from schools or agencies. This model can also influence how educators view children with disabilities and how they are treated in PE.
  • UK Social Model: The opposing viewpoint to the medical model, where impairment is used to describe an abnormality and the term disability is used to describe the disadvantages people who have impairments face. Therefore, impairment does not cause a disability, but the way in which society restricts them does. This model focuses on social change in order to celebrate, value and include those with an impairment in society.
  • Social Relational Model: This model considers both the impairment of the individual and the restrictions placed on the individual by others. The authors introduce the concept of disablism and psycho-emotional oppression. This can come in two forms – direct (explicit discrimination) or indirect (being excluded from opportunities). Whilst only my opinion, this model is one that all PE teachers should reflect on within their setting and something that might inform a student voice/conversation with the disabled students that you teach.

The chapter continues by reviewing the history of the integration of disabled young people in education and then unpacks what is meant by inclusion. Whilst the authors argue that the term integrated is preferred to that of inclusion, they present their definition of inclusion as ‘feelings of belonging, acceptance and value’ (page 8). This brings the students feelings front and centre and not that of the teacher.

Chapter 2: Research-informed Practice in Physical Education

In this chapter the authors emphasise the importance of being research driven in our practice and that there is sufficient research around the integration of disabled children and the decision making of educators to be research-informed. The need to use high quality, peer-reviewed research is stressed when considering decisions related to children with specific disabilities, pedagogy, curriculum design and assessment. The authors accept the gaps in and challenges in creating a connection between research and practice and highlight some of the causes of this issue. Encouragingly, the authors go on to provide some solutions to bridging the gap, including initial teacher training and continued professional development.

Before exploring the following chapters in more detail, I have created the following table which incorporates some key learning as a quick reference for teachers.

Chapter 3: Teaching Autistic Students in Physical Education

Whilst I would implore readers to read Chapter 1 to gain the foundational knowledge, I can imagine the time deprived amongst us might be tempted to jump to the following chapters that more closely consider the young people we might teach. I know I certainly took extra time on these chapters for which I have students currently in my classes. It should be noted that the authors encourage the reader to be critical of the evidence, or sometimes lack of evidence, related to some of the suggested strategies. I can see myself coming back to revisit some of these focused chapters as and when needed.

The first of these chapters focuses on children with Autism. Recognising the increased number of diagnoses around the world (787% increase in the UK 1998-2018 and 281% increase since 2000 in USA). The chapter provides the background and context about Autism. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) 11th edition definition of autism is presented as: ‘a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by the persistent deficits in the ability to initiate and sustain reciprocal social interaction and social communication, and a range of restricted, repetitive and inflexible patterns of behaviour. The authors challenge scholars and educators to better consider the opinions and experiences to those with Autism in order to appropriately overcome barriers to engagement.

In this, and the following chapters, the authors provide strategies to support children in PE. The following strategies were offered (and argued against) for students with Autism:

  • Routines and Structures: though the authors argue the lack of substantial evidence to prove the routines and structures will support autistic students in PE, they review some of the suggestions found, including ensuring predictability around expectations, communicating the day’s events and having a designated place to sit when the class receive instructions.
  • Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA): ABA is defined as ‘the systemic application of behavioural principles to change socially significant behaviour to a meaningful degree (Alberto & Troutmen, 2013, p. 403). Essentially, my understanding of this from the chapter is that the environment will impact the behaviour of a child with Autism and if a young person is positively recognised for a behaviour, then that behaviour will be repeated. Strong arguments for lack of research and a potentially harmful impact regarding autonomy were also presented with this approach.
  • Video Modelling: The authors present the video modelling pedagogical strategy as an effective tool for learning new skills with PE. Recording a peer or sibling performing an action or desired behaviour, using the learner as the model and videos breaking the skills down can all support learning.

Chapter 4: Teaching Deaf Students in Physical Education

The chapter starts by highlighting that hearing loss is the second prevalent impairment in the UK. Aligning with the medical model of disability, this impairment is often considered as a problem needing to be fixed by medical intervention.

Once again this chapter reviews and critiques some of practices when teaching deaf student in PE. Two of the four presented are summarised below:

  • Considering Your Positioning: Whilst this can be challenging in a PE context, the authors emphasise the importance of positioning yourself where students with hearing impairments can read your lips and observe actions more closely. Readers are challenged to consider how performing demonstrations and explaining actions might be difficult for hearing impaired students to follow along with. They recommend trial and error through speaking with the hearing impaired students to see what worked best for them.
  • Use Non-verbal Cues: Hearing impaired students rely heavily on what they see, as such, demonstrations are important non-verbal cues that can support learning. As is the use of equipment (e.g. coloured cones indicating go or stop, etc.). Teachers might also consider the use of non-verbal cues from others within the PE context e.g. peers. How might they use non-verbal cues to indicate wanting the ball?

Chapter 5: Teaching Students Experiencing Cognitive and Learning Difficulties in Physical Education

The authors recognise the differences in definition and/or understanding of cognitive and learning difficulties as they often depend on context. In the UK however, they are most often considered as students who experience generalised movement difficulties (Vickerman & Maher, 2019). The strategies presented and critiqued in this chapter include:

  • Cooperative Teaching/Learning Activities
  • Micro-Teaching Tips
  • Class Organisation

The authors found very little evidence to back these strategies and recognised the challenge in recommending teaching strategies for students with cognitive and learning difficulties.

Chapter 6: Teaching Physically Disabled Students in Physical Education

The chapter starts by using the Equality Act 2010 definition of physical disability: ‘a limitation to a person’s physical functioning, mobility, dexterity or stamina that has a substantial, long-term influence on their ability to perform everyday activities’ (Government Equalities Office, 2022). The authors highlight the different types of disability (invisible e.g. brittle bones, or visible e.g. spina bifida).

One of the three strategies considered and critiqued in this chapter is differentiated instruction. The author’s present research that suggests that traditional forms of pedagogy are based on a one size fits all model. Differentiation was developed to move away from this model to consider the individual needs of students. Differentiated instruction relates to four aspects of teaching and learning: content, process, products and learning environment. Focusing on content, the authors consider the view that it refers to affective, cognitive and psychomotor learning and thus learning can be demonstrated through attitudes, understanding and skills. This will therefore not change the content but offer multiple ways for physically disabled students to achieve learning outcomes.

The final strategy offered was one that I could definitely see all students getting behind, reverse integration. Essentially, this is the practice of offering an activity developed primarily for people with a physical disability and offering it to an entire class (including non-disabled students). I could imagine the excitement of a class participating in wheelchair basketball or rugby lesson as well as providing the physically disabled person(s) to grow in confidence by showcasing their skills.

Chapter 7: Teaching Blind or Visually Impaired Students in Physical Education

Visual impairment can refer to someone with low vision through to someone with complete blindness. The authors report the negative experiences that visually impaired students often face including marginalisation and exclusion. These negative experiences are often linked with sedentary lifestyles when older.

The authors seek to explore and critique strategies used to when teaching visually impaired students in PE. These strategies are summarised below:

  • Learning Support Assistants (LSAs): This role often requires supporting adults to repeat instructions, keep students on task, assisting students through movements and providing physical and verbal prompts. Unfortunately, the training provided to LSAs in order to support visually impaired students in physical education is rare and therefore visually impaired students often reflect negatively on the support provided within PE. Some LSAs appear uninterested, whereas others might some overly keen which can alienate the student from the rest of the class.
  • One-to-One Peer Tutoring: With supporting evidence, the authors advocate the use of a trained peer, usually a nondisabled student of the same age, to work with the visually impaired student in PE lessons. This can support feelings of inclusion. The authors do warn of the importance of setting this type of mentoring up in full dialogue with the visually impaired student.
  • Tactile Modelling and Physical Guidance: This form of support refers to the manual moving of the visually impaired student or allowing them to feel the teacher during the movement to better picture how to perform the movement themselves. Obviously, the requirement for consent is a must and whilst not dismissing this strategy, the authors do point out the lack of evidence to support its application.
  • Boundary, Equipment and Rule Modifications: This one seems the most logical, by adapting equipment (using brightly coloured balls or balls with bells in), making clear boundaries or adapting rules to slow the game down we are better including students with a visual impairment right? As the authors rightly argue, this approach can often single out students and better serve the teachers feeling or creating an inclusive environment than actually creating one. That is not to say this approach does not work, but it should only be implemented following conversations with the visually impaired students.

The book ends by considering the key learning and recommendations moving forward. It considers the experiences of disabled students within a PE context and reminds readers of the importance of considering high quality research to inform decision making.

Personal Summary

The book reviewed in the blog has been a transformative resource that significantly supported my teaching in Physical Education (PE). As someone who initially felt a lack of confidence and knowledge in teaching disabled students, this book has acted as a guiding light, illuminating the path towards creating a more inclusive and effective PE environment. Chapter 1, in particular, provided foundational information that not only expanded my understanding of disability but also prompted me to reflect on my teaching practices. It challenged me to reassess my approach to disability and inclusion in PE, pushing me to prioritise students’ feelings of belonging and acceptance. Additionally, the strategies and critical insights shared throughout the book, especially in chapters dedicated to specific disabilities like Autism and visual impairment, have equipped me with practical tools and perspectives to better engage and support my diverse student population. Overall, this book has empowered me to be a more informed and empathetic PE practitioner, fostering an inclusive and enriching learning experience for all my students.

Reflective Questions

  1. What is your current understanding of disability in the context of physical education, and how might this understanding influence your teaching approach?
  2. How can you incorporate research-informed practices into your teaching methods for disabled students in physical education, and what challenges might you face in doing so?
  3. What strategies can you implement to create a more inclusive environment for disabled students in your PE classes, while considering their unique needs and preferences?


In conclusion, Teaching Disabled Children in Physical Education: (Dis)connections between Research and Practice is a valuable resource for educators seeking to enhance their understanding and teaching practices for disabled students in physical education. With Anthony J. Maher and Justin A. Haegele as authors, the book delves into various pedagogical approaches and examines the existing research landscape, urging readers to critically evaluate their own practices. The book’s eight chapters provide a comprehensive exploration of key disabilities, including autism, deafness, cognitive and learning difficulties, and physical disabilities. By presenting strategies and scrutinising their efficacy, the authors encourage inclusive and research-informed approaches to physical education. This book serves as a reminder of the importance of considering high-quality research and prioritising the experiences and needs of disabled students in creating an inclusive and empowering physical education environment.

Part two: Authors’ response

It was with great pleasure that we agreed to write a response to Lee’s review of our book: Teaching Disabled Children in Physical Education (Dis)connections between Research and Practice, published by Routledge. We found Lee’s review to be insightful and thought-provoking. We were moved by his open, honest, and authentic reflection about his confidence and knowledge relating to disability and teaching disabled students in physical education. For us, reflecting on experience and knowledge is key because it provides a starting point for teachers to make more informed decisions about their own learning and development. The same, it must be said, is true of former practitioners and researchers like us. We did not want to position ourselves, the authors, as ‘expert knowers’ when it comes to disability and teaching disabled children. Rather, we endeavoured to support teachers to make more research- and evidence-informed curriculum and pedagogical decisions about teaching disabled children in physical education to increase the likelihood that those children will have more meaningful experiences of the subject that we are all passionate about. We were very pleased to read that Lee’s review captures and articulates this message clearly and concisely.

What was perhaps absent from Lee’s review, maybe because it was not as powerfully articulated in our book as it could or should have been, was the importance of physical education teachers drawing on their own knowledge and experience to engage in pedagogical experimentation, reflection, and refinement. As readers of this blog will know, ‘what works’ will depend on many factors, including the learning context and situation, the needs and abilities of the learners, the space, equipment, and additional support available, among many other things. As such, trial, error, and correction are key. These important features should not be lost within resources advocating for evidence-supported practices, but, rather, they should exist together.

The second core theme that came through Lee’s review, which we were pleased to see because it was the central tenant of our book, was our attempt to move discussions about ‘inclusion’  beyond a focus on access, opportunity, participation, and representation toward that of empowerment by centring the experiences and amplifying the voices of disabled children (and, dare we say it, all children) in physical education. As part of this endeavour, we stressed the importance of disabled children experiencing feelings of belonging, acceptance, and value in physical education. For this to be achieved, physical education teachers need to actively seek the perspectives of disabled children in their classes and consider them, together with the research evidence currently available, when engaging in the curriculum and pedagogical experimental that we have advocated for. Disabled children have valuable expert knowledge because they know their bodies and abilities best and have experienced teacher attempts to ‘include’ them in physical education lessons. For additional thoughts on these ideas, readers are encouraged to read, Towards a Conceptual Understanding of Inclusion as Intersubjective Experiences

To end, we are extremely grateful to Lee for shining a light on our book and inviting us to write a response. The book intends to support physical education teachers to navigate the very contested and complex terrain of ‘inclusion’. Whether we have achieved that endeavour or not is for physical education teachers, like Lee, to decide.

Signposting to further materials:

Get brand new resources, courses, research and insight delivered every week!