Women, Disability, and Sport and Physical Fitness Activity: The Intersection of Gender and Disability Dynamics

By Blinde, Elaine M.; McCallister, Sarah G. | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Women, Disability, and Sport and Physical Fitness Activity: The Intersection of Gender and Disability Dynamics


Blinde, Elaine M., McCallister, Sarah G., Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


Our understanding of the gender dynamics surrounding women's entry and experiences in the realm of sport and physical fitness activity has significantly expanded in recent years (Birrell & Cole, 1994; Nilges, 1997). In particular, much has been written regarding the masculine hegemony embedded in sport and the concurrent negative evaluation of women's physical capabilities in this context (Bryson, 1987; Willis, 1994). A focal point of much of this work is the gendered female body (Cole, 1994; Hall, 1996; Theberge, 1985). Perceptions of the female body as weak, inferior, and lacking physical competency are central in this evaluation process (Hall, 1996; Messner, 1988).

As a result of these perceptions and beliefs, women have encountered various forms of resistance, marginalization, trivialization, and stigmatization in their attempts to construct meaningful experiences in sport and physical fitness activity (Bryson, 1987; Theberge, 1985). These social processes reinforce the importance of assumed physical differences between men and women and promote images of male domination and superiority (Willis, 1994).

Although researchers have increasingly focused on women in the sport domain, our understanding of the sport and physical fitness activity experiences of women with disabilities is limited (Sherrill, 1993a). In particular, the intersection of gender, disability, and sport and physical fitness activity has rarely been examined (DePauw, 1997a). Gender and sport dynamics may be more complex when examining the experiences of women with physical disabilities (Blinde & Taub, 1999; DePauw, 1994). As the female body is central in determining women's marginalized role in sport and physical fitness activity, societal views of the body may be even more problematic for women with physical disabilities (DePauw, 1997a, 1997b). Perceptions of the disabled body as weak, passive, and dependent further distance it from the sport and physical fitness activity domain, where physicality is central (DePauw, 1997b).

Women with disabilities generally experience the "double handicap" of being a woman and having a disability (Deegan & Brooks, 1985). The intersection of sexism and disability discrimination situates women with disabilities in a unique social constellation (Fine & Asch, 1985). Although we have seen an increased focus on the dynamics of gender and disability (Deegan & Brooks, 1985; Fine & Asch, 1988; Hanna & Rogovsky, 1993; Lonsdale, 1990; Morris, 1993), our understanding of how these multiple forms of oppression come together in sport and physical fitness activity is limited.

Existing work exploring the experiences of women with disabilities in sport and physical fitness activity has often focused on participants in organized sport or elite-level athletes (Brasile, 1988; Brasile, Kleiber, & Harnisch, 1991; Hopper, 1986; Horvat, French, & Henschen, 1986; Sherrill, 1993b). Although research has highlighted the experiences of a small number of women with disabilities, findings cannot be assumed to generalize to the vast majority of women with disabilities who participate in less structured sport and physical fitness activities.

Henderson and Bedini (1995) conducted one of the few studies exploring the physical activity experiences of adult women with physical disabilities who were not athletes or elite-level sport participants. In their interviews of 16 women with mobility impairments, Henderson and Bedini examined how this group experienced physical activity, recreation, and leisure. In general, these women reported various perspectives from which to view the value of these activities, including leisure, therapeutic gains, and maintaining mental and physical health. On the other hand, some respondents indicated that these activities had limited value in their lives. In a related study, Henderson, Bedini, and Hecht (1994) interviewed 30 adult women with various sensory and physical disabilities about their physical activity participation. …

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