Learn about Physical Disability
Physical disability is a broad term that can include any condition that has a lifelong impact on a person’s ability to move or control their body movements. Young people with physical disability may need support to complete everyday tasks and participate in activities.
There are many different types and causes of physical disability. Physical disability can include:
- Paralysis (e.g. inability to move one or more limbs)
- Low or high muscle tone
- Reduced balance or steadiness
- Reduced gross motor control (e.g. challenges with walking, running)
- Reduced fine motor control (e.g. challenges with writing, doing up shoelaces)
Common causes of physical disability include acquired brain injury (e.g. after a stroke), spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, loss of limbs and muscular dystrophy.
By providing a safe and supportive environment, you can help keep young people with physical disability engaged and safe. With a little planning, you can ensure they have enriching opportunities to make friends, learn new skills and participate in the footy fun.
Players with physical disability will differ in the type and severity of their movement challenges. Some young people might walk independently but might need support with balance and coordination, making it difficult to run or complete multiple movements at once (e.g. coordinating handballing while running, or kicking the footy on the run).
They may require more time to complete tasks that involve running or physical activity, and they may benefit from extra practise to learn new skills.
Some players with physical disability will use mobility aids, such as ankle or leg supports, crutches, walking frames, or wheelchairs. Think about whether the footy field is accessible and suitable for these players.
My name's Gerard, I play footy, and this is my story.
When you're a kid, you see these people on the TV who are playing football, like wearing these jumpers and you wanna be like them. You have idols that you wanna be like. You know, when I was a kid, guys like Shane Crawford, Sam Mitchell, Luke Hodge, you know, those kinds of players. And I was born without the ability to walk, but I'm exactly the same, I still have, like I still saw those players, like I still had those dreams.
Physical disability is basically where someone needs a mobility aid to do something. So there are people who are like me, who are paralysed from the waist down, who need a wheelchair, you know, 24/7. There's people who may not need it 24/7, like, may be able to walk but can't walk a long distance. So the differences in paraplegia is basically where in the spine has been affected.
So I play footy for the Hawthorn footy club. So wheelchair footy, we play on a basketball court. We have two forwards, two backs, and a centre each.
What I've brought along here is one of the Indigenous jumpers that we played in this year. It was the same, obviously, jumper that the boys played in, in the AFL. So, to be able to play in that same jumper, is incredible.
I am in a wheelchair. I have certain limitations. I have certain strengths. But the person next to me also might be in a wheelchair, doesn't have the issues that I have, but also doesn't have the strengths that I have. And we're all different.
I have quite a high paralysis, so with me, my stability isn't fantastic. So if I was to come down here, I would have to push up with my, with my hands on my knees. Other people would be able to go down and come up, just with their trunk.
There's definitely things that I struggle with but I don't have the same struggles as other people on my team. It's not better or worse, it's just different.
I don't like using the phrase wheelchair-bound because you're not bound by your wheelchair. It's a tool that you need but it's not a limit to what you can achieve.
When I first started with footy, my coach was Jack Frost. He was incredible because he did research and he knows what sort of the basics of what different people with physical disabilities go through. He was open. He asked questions. He let us tell him what we needed.
The AllPlay Footy coaching course is just incredible to really give you that awareness of what can be done to include everyone, which is obviously the goal of sport. Be adaptable, be sensitive, and just be keen to include. And for coaches out there, if you're ever unsure about how to include someone, just ask the person. If we're playing on grass, that's no good for me. So can we play on a harder surface? And just those little, just again, those little things that you won't necessarily think about but are so important and will just make the person feel so included.
I remember I was at Waverley Park and I met one of our players, Denver Grainger-Barrass, and I messaged him afterwards 'cause I'm a big gratitude person. I said, you know, "Thank you so much for taking the time and chatting to me," 'cause that just means so much as a fan. Like, in that moment, I was a fan. And one of the things that he said that really resonated with me, he said just three simple words, "We are teammates.". So what he meant by that is, we're not playing in the same team, but we're playing in the same club. Like, we are Hawthorn players together. And that's really just the thing that is so important, including people in sport, saying that "You are part of this as well and we want you to be part of this. How can we make you part of this?"
This is my story, but everyone's story will be different. In the next section, you will learn how to support young people with physical disabilities to participate in sport. For example, you can make sure that the playing surface is safe and accessible for those with mobility aids.
Strategies and tips
If unsure, ask
If you’re not sure how to modify an activity for a player, ask them for the best way for them to be successful. All young people have their own unique strengths and abilities. Focus on what they can do, not what they can’t.
Let Parents or Siblings help
Parents and siblings know the young person best and might encourage them to be more involved and feel safe at play. Ask the player if they would like a parent or sibling to help. Some players (eg. young players) might be okay with this, but others (eg. older players) might not.
Change the Activity, not the Young Person
If an activity seems difficult, don’t attribute the problem to the player, instead, attribute it to the strategy. For example, you could say, ‘Looks like this activity might be difficult. I think we chose the wrong size target, let’s try it with a larger target’.
Allow alternate ways to play
If a player needs support to kick a drop punt, you could allow them to kick the ball off the ground, or practise kicking it off a stand.
Change the rules so everyone can play
Make changes to the rules where appropriate so everyone can play. For example, a handball could be equivalent to a kick and an underarm throw could be equivalent to a handball.
Offer all roles
There are many roles on the footy field. Young people can do other roles if they don’t want to join the game as a player, like throw the ball back in or umpire.
Allow more time to learn skills
Some players with physical disability may need more time and practise to learn to kick, catch or run.
Make eye contact at the young person's level
Think about how to have good eye contact with players who may sit at a lower height. For example, if a player uses a wheelchair, you could kneel down or sit on a bench.
Check in with the young person and their family
A discreet and brief chat post session with a young person with physical disability and their family can help identify what activities they enjoyed, and whether some activities can be further modified for next time.
AllPlay Footy is a joint initiative by Monash University and the AFL. AllPlay Footy was founded at Deakin University in 2015 and has been part of Monash Education since 2021. The AllPlay Footy content and resources presented here have been developed with people with lived experience of disability, consultants from National Sporting Organisations for People with Disability, psychologists and researchers, and are brought to you with funding from a Department of Social Services Information, Linkages and Capacity Building: Social and Community Participation Stream (2020-2024) grant. We aim to use language that is respectful to everyone.