Disability and human flourishing through leisure: Enabling ‘ability’ beyond inclusion

By Graham Condie

PhD Candiate at University of Edinburgh
Leisure Studies Association Student Representative

The word ‘inclusion’ is gaining momentum and recognition amongst leisure, sport and tourism scholars. Particularly, within a disability context, perceptions and attitudes are slowly changing. Although, what seems to be missing or has received limited attention is the human experience element. Of course, this area of study has begun to be discussed within Therapeutic Recreation research as well as in some social psychological areas of leisure studies. However, such an area seems to be discussed in small amounts (and sometimes, I would argue, none at all), in everyday studies or discussions of leisure, whether that is in a sport, tourism, events, physical activity or a general everyday leisure context. Similarly, we live in times whereby political, economic and, sometimes, social landscapes are continuously changing, affecting our behaviours and attitudes towards and within life. Therefore, as a researcher in this field and a person with a disability (who also knows other people/friends with disabilities), I feel that not talking about this issue may exclude individuals with disabilities further in our society. Consequently, I want to use this blog to try and discuss this human experience area of disability and leisure studies.

Disability and ‘excluding’ the personal and social meaning of leisure

The idea that leisure can be good for us is nothing new. Of course, some leisure experiences can have a negative effect on us (such as drugs and large amounts of drinking or boredom), encouraging us to pursue and experience ‘risky’ activities which can negatively affect our health and wellbeing (Caldwell, 2015). However, other leisure experiences can also be good for us (such as walking or socialising with friends), benefiting our mental, physical and social wellbeing, as well as letting us experience our identities and allowing us to experience our own autonomy (Kleiber et al., 2011). Because we are all ‘living beings’ with emotions regardless of gender, disability, sexuality, race, religion or economic background, we all require leisure (and meaningful leisure experiences to that) to live well, to help us to characterise our lives and to have positive wellbeing (Kleiber and McGuire, 2016). Unfortunately though, in reality, whilst work and other tasks/situations in our private lives can act as constraints, so too can social attitudes and perceptions of other people (Watson, 2018).

Over the centuries, people with disabilities have often been stigmatized, overlooked and judged, because of the ‘difference’ with their levels of function and with their bodies. Discrimination, in some cases, has been normalised whereby in different time periods, cultures and societies, people with disabilities have been sidelined, abused or even killed, due to the perception that having a disability is not normal and/or a sign of evil and/or incapability (Barnes, 2010). Furthermore, a disability was (and, sometimes, still is) considered as a ‘personal tragedy’ – something of which ruins any persons’ hopes and capabilities of having a meaningful, self-fulfilling, enjoyable life, driven by their own wants, desires and interests (Oliver, 1996). Therefore, it has been easy for people within society to place the power of judgement over individuals with disabilities – assuming their needs, desires, capabilities and even worth, without actually seeing individuals with disabilities perspectives of everyday life or who they are behind their disability (Oliver, 1996; Oliver and Barnes, 2012).

In a leisure context (yet again, whether that is in a sport, tourism, events, physical activity or a general everyday leisure context), the negative perception of disability has meant that the ‘person’ behind the disability has often been ignored and their personal, emotional and social experiences of leisure overlooked. Consequently, such an approach has failed to undertake the basic point of disability and leisure research – that is to promote and identify the individual with the disability as a person with their own tastes, personalities, wants, desires and motivations (Devine and Piatt, 2013). Devine and Mobily (2017) note that within leisure studies, only two discourses of disability have been broadly presented within leisure studies so far. Firstly, is the negative ideas of the ‘difference’ with one’s bodies and functions, reinforcing a narrative of incapability, needing ‘fixing’ or special treatment (Devine and Mobily, 2017; Devine and Piatt, 2013). But, secondly, is the other attitude that everything is about access, inclusion and removing environmental and social barriers (Devine and Mobily, 2017). Whilst there has been research on access, disability sport and the benefits of different leisure activities for example, which promotes individuals with disabilities perspectives of leisure (Buhalis and Darcy, 2011; Devine, 2003; Groff and Kleiber, 2001), individuals with disabilities have often been viewed and interpreted as the ‘other’. In other words, individuals who do not match the traditional notion of being human compared to other people within society (Devine and Mobily, 2017). Consequently, the subjective nature of each individual’s leisure motivations, behaviours and experiences, has been overshadowed by either the need to be inclusive or the need to reject individuals because of their ‘differences’.

From just labelling disability leisure, to seeing it from the individual’s perspective: seeing disability and leisure differently

The place in which the human flourishing and experience comes into this discussion is not within the idea that through being inclusive, we are then automatically enabling the individual. Yes, social acceptance, understanding, inclusion or adapting activities have an important role to play. But, it is recognising, understanding and acknowledging the issues beyond this – the dynamics of individuals’ everyday lives and the different aspects of their lives which enables and disables them as human beings. For example, Darcy et al. (2017) notes that individuals with disabilities can experience a range of barriers to leisure participation, such as financial barriers, negative attitudes, getting the right support in place, inner personal doubts and a lack of available and affordable equipment – particularly within sport. Although, on the other hand, Dattilo (2015) also notes the opportunities which the individual can gain from accessible leisure experiences, such as the ability to experience social support, friendship, self-determination, expression, physical activity and skill development. Hence, the nature of individuals with disabilities leisure experiences is much more dynamic and complex than simply the need for a ramp, positive attitudes from others or other accessible, inclusive or adapted leisure experience features. As Mobily and Dieser (2018) advocates,because leisure helps in different areas of our lives such as personal development, social development, wellbeing and relaxation, we cannot deny this understanding from an individual with a disability perspective. Doing so, we will deny the idea the individual with a disability of being human, having human needs as well as a need to access leisure.


The discussion and awareness of access, inclusion as well as the impact of segregated activities and labelling, has been very beneficial in seeing and giving justice to individuals with disabilities within leisure studies. For example, saying ‘people with disabilities’ rather than ‘disabled people’, promotes the individual first and how they ‘have’ a disability, rather than they are ‘disabled’ as a person (Bullock and Mahon, 2017). Equally, the discussion around segregated activities (such as the Special Olympics) have informed us that they may allow and encourage some forms of leisure to be adapted to individuals’ accessibility needs and functional abilities (Bullock and Mahon, 2017). However, such activities may also exclude individuals from being with other people in wider society, without or with other forms of impairments (Devine and Piatt, 2013). In essence, these issues of access, inclusion, labelling and segregation, makes for an interesting discussion. Although, whilst labelling can define aspects of individuals with disabilities social worlds (Shakespeare, 2014), they can also lead us to assume the needs of individuals with disabilities and the issues imbedded within their lives. For example, issues that some individuals do not need assistance to go out into the community if it is accessible (where in fact some will do), or some would be able to compete within mainstream sport settings if made inclusive (where some will not be able to) (Bullock and Mahon, 2017; Darcy et al., 2017; Schleien et al., 2014). Hence, the question is then how should we think?

If one looks at the concept of ethics, they might find an answer. Sylvester (2009) notes that ethics is not just about ‘doing no harm’, but is also about understanding, respecting and giving justice to others and their situation. Similarly, Sylvester (2015) questions whether ignoring the meaning, purpose, value and problem of leisure for someone with a disability should be ignored, in compensation of trying not to adopt a medical understanding of disability. Likewise, Sylvester (2015) asks whether this really does give justice to the individual, or just encourages a lack of opportunities or support networks to be created. Consequently, for me, the answer is why cannot we do both – that is, why cannot we look at disability and leisure in an inclusive way, but still understand the dynamics of an individual’s life, them as a person as well as understand the dynamics and impacts of their leisure experiences.

Imagine yourself having a disability. You may have pain, mobility problems, lost confidence from having a lack of freedom to go out, you may feel patronised by others or developed loss of control over one’s life due to inaccessible housing, transport, leisure facilities, employment and opportunities to experience identity and self-determination. You know you are still you and you have the desire to experience what you want. But, you feel society is not inclusive enough, does not understand your unique needs and generalises you, grouping you just as another ‘disabled person’. Now, you are teaching disability in a leisure, sport, physical activity, tourism or events-based degree, to students who will become practitioners, managers or future researchers. What would you teach them about the situation above which encourages them to think about these different issues, whilst still seeing the individual as a person and having the right to autonomy, leisure and being their own person? Would it be on the basis that you did not just have a disability, but you were also a person? Would it be that you just needed an opportunity and possibly support to make meaningful leisure experiences happen, rather than just a piece of policy saying ‘leisure for all’? Or, would it be a discussion about how creating opportunities and supporting individuals can encourage enablement?

As a consequence of this alternative thinking of disability and leisure, the word ‘respect’ and the question ‘what is opportunity?’ comes to mind as what seems to be important in creating justice and opportunity is understanding and the discussion. Understanding and discussing by thinking and talking outside the box of what enables and disables the individual, not just to reinforce an idea of inclusion. But, to give justice to the person, their experiences of life and leisure, as well as how their experiences interact with their experiences of being human. Therefore, in ending this blog, I argue that similar to what is seen in feminist and LGBT leisure research, in order to understand, respect and include people with disabilities in leisure studies, we cannot just talk about inclusion, the politics of disability or argue the case against discrimination. We also need to see people with disabilities as individuals in their own right and understand their dynamic lived everyday and leisure experiences from their own perspectives. Additionally, we should not see their experiences of personality, inner wants and motivations as part of the characteristics of their disability. But, as their own human characteristics of who they are as a person and as a fundamental part of their leisure motivations and wants to flourish as human beings.


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