1. Sport and physical activity in the life of a man with cerebral palsy:
Compensation for disability with psychosocial beneﬁts and costs
Cadeyrn J. Gaskin a
, Mark B. Andersen b,*, Tony Morris b
Deakin-Southern Health Nursing Research Centre, Deakin University, 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Victoria 3125, Australia
School of Sport and Exercise Science and the Centre for Ageing, Rehabilitation, Exercise and Sport, Victoria University, PO Box 14428, Melbourne, Victoria 8001, Australia
a r t i c l e i n f o
Received 19 August 2008
Received in revised form
10 December 2009
Accepted 10 December 2009
Available online 23 December 2009
a b s t r a c t
Objectives: We explored the meanings and experiences of sport and physical activity in the life of a 30-
year-old man with cerebral palsy (Ben).
Design: Life history.
Method: We interviewed Ben about his life, with a particular emphasis on understanding the meanings
and experiences of sport and physical activity in his life. We interpreted his stories using Erikson's (1985)
model of psychosocial development.
Findings: Ben had a strong sense of inferiority, which seemed to have stemmed from social isolation
during his early school years. Through participation in sport and physical activity as an adult, Ben was
partially able to address these feelings of inferiority. Ben strongly identiﬁed with Olympians and Para-
lympians, in whom he saw achievement and social connectedness personiﬁed. Although Ben became
physically ﬁtter, more socially connected, and less stressed through engaging in sport and physical
activity, these achievements did not compensate for his feelings of inferiority, and he characteristically
set tougher goals for himself after the elation of meeting previous goals had passed. Through devoting
substantial time to sport and physical activity, Ben seemed to be avoiding or bypassing some of
the psychosocial challenges of young adulthood (e.g., forming strong friendships and romantic
Conclusion: The life history of Ben illustrates the beneﬁts and costs of trying to compensate for disabilities
through sport and physical activity. In Ben's life, sport and physical activity both promoted and impeded
Ben's psychosocial development.
Ó 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
During the last three decades, the maturation of the disability
movement has enabled more sporting opportunities to be provided
for people with disabilities and a parallel increase in their sporting
achievements (DePauw & Gavron, 2005). Organisations, such as the
Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association,
have been active in the support and promotion of sport for people
with disabilities, from grass roots levels to the world stage. With
greater numbers of people with cerebral palsy performing at elite
levels, there is likely to be increasing demands for the services of
sport and exercise psychologists. Although reviews of research on
people with disabilities (e.g., Hanrahan, 2004; Martin, 2005), along
with practical advice on consulting (e.g., Hanrahan, 2007), appear
in the sport and exercise psychology literature, there is a dearth of
information on the experiences of sports people with cerebral
palsy. Studies that focus on the meanings and experiences of sport
and physical activity in the lives of people with cerebral palsy
would sensitise many sport and exercise psychologists to the issues
that athletes with cerebral palsy may raise during counselling or
In the few studies in which the meanings and experiences of
sport and physical activity of people with disabilities have been
investigated, researchers have tended to focus on the broad,
somewhat superﬁcial, themes in their data. From the quotations
provided in the papers, however, several deeper intra- and inter-
personal issues of social oppression seem to be present, such as:
compliance with advice from medical practitioners (Henderson &
Bedini, 1995), internalized ableism (the incorporation of prejudices
against people who are not able-bodied), identiﬁcation with people
who do not have disabilities (Hutzler, Fliess, Chacham, & Van den
Auweele, 2002), poor self-image (Peganoff, 1984), and sexual/
romantic concerns (Guthrie, 1999; Guthrie & Castelnuovo, 2001).
Insights into these issues, and how they manifest in the context of
sport and physical activity, may be gained through studying the
lives of people with disabilities.
* Corresponding author. Tel.: þ61 3 9919 5413; fax: þ61 3 9919 4891.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (M.B. Andersen).
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Psychology of Sport and Exercise
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/psychsport
1469-0292/$ e see front matter Ó 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Psychology of Sport and Exercise 11 (2010) 197e205
2. The use of psychological approaches in the study of people with
cerebral palsy could be criticised for positioning them as social
deviates in need of treatment from the medical profession (Thomas,
2007). Such approaches can be at odds with the social oppression
paradigm that many disability writers have advanced in various
forms (e.g., Corker & Shakespeare, 2002; Hughes & Paterson, 1997;
Oliver, 1983). Contemporary disability writers have argued,
however, that psychology may have much to offer in advancing
emancipatory disability studies (e.g., Goodley & Lawthom, 2006;
Marks, 1999; Reeve, 2006; Thomas, 1999). Introducing the concept
of psycho-emotional disabilism to the disability literature, Thomas
(1999) recognised that not only do social barriers place limits on
what people with disabilities can do, the imposition of such
restrictions shapes their “inner worlds.”
Although cerebral palsy is primarily a physical condition, living
with such a disability can have a profound inﬂuence on an indi-
vidual's psychosocial development (Reeve, 2006; Thomas, 1999).
Some issues that have emerged during psychotherapy sessions
with clients who have cerebral palsy (and their parents) are: anger
at themselves, at their cerebral palsy, or at the judgmental and
unaccommodating world around them (Blotzer, 1995); depression
stemming from their attempts to achieve alongside able-bodied
people (Feuerstein, 1995; Lantican, Birdwell, & Harrell, 1994);
independence versus dependence, coming from the need to rely on
others to perform tasks for them (Blotzer, 1995; Olkin, 1995);
parental non-acceptance of disability (Acquarone, 1995; Donovan,
1995); social barriers to sexual intimacy (Joseph,1991); and suicidal
ideations (Olkin,1995) and attempts (Jureidini,1988). In these cases
of psychotherapy, it was common for people with cerebral palsy to
present with one or more of these issues. Because sport and
physical activity do not sit apart from a person's life, at least some of
these issues may be expected to be present in the study of the
meanings and experiences of sport and physical activity for adults
with cerebral palsy.
To gain a deeper understanding of the meanings and experi-
ences of sport and physical activity for people with cerebral palsy,
as well as the possible relationship between sport, physical activity,
and other aspects of their lives, it may be useful to consider
unconscious intra- and interpersonal processes. Marks (1999)
proposed that psychodynamic theory could contribute to disability
studies through facilitating the exploration of the relationships
between identity, social location, interpersonal dynamics, and
bodily and psychic experiences. People with cerebral palsy face
many difﬁculties and delays in accomplishing developmental tasks
(e.g., demonstrating autonomy, identity formation, social and
romantic connection), and the most developmentally compre-
hensive psychodynamically-oriented theory comes from Erikson
(1985). His in-depth life-long developmental formulation of
psychodynamic theory, with its emphasis on unconscious
processes, family dynamics, and the wider social context across
time, may be a suitable lens through which sport and physical
activity in the lives of people with cerebral palsy may be examined.
Because many of the psychosocial stages outlined in Erikson's
model have substantial physical components (e.g., displaying
competence at physical tasks, such as walking), meeting the
challenges inherent in these stages may be more difﬁcult for
people with cerebral palsy than for the general population.
Engaging in physical activity, thereby preserving or enhancing
physical function, may positively inﬂuence their capacity to meet
Erikson's psychosocial challenges.
Regardless of social factors that may inﬂuence physical activity
participation, the motor impairments of people with cerebral palsy
limit the types of activities they can perform and the extent to
which they may be involved in those activities. Although disability
researchers working within a social oppression paradigm have
typically left impairment unproblematised, some writers have
strongly argued that impairment needs to be considered in fully
understanding the experience of disability (Crow, 1996; Thomas,
2007). People with disabilities have their own meanings and
experiences of impairment, which are not always positive, neutral,
or irrelevant (Crow, 1996). Recognition of the importance of
people's experiences of impairment is demonstrated through the
inclusion of research that focuses on both the experience of
impairment and sociocultural issues in the disability studies liter-
ature (e.g., Smith & Sparkes, 2004; Zitzelsberger, 2005).
To appreciate why some people with cerebral palsy engage in
sport and physical activity, it may be useful to consider their past
patterns of involvement. Adopting a life history approach (e.g.,
Denzin, 1989a) would be useful in revealing such patterns and for
highlighting the inﬂuence of sport and physical activity on
psychosocial development. Although the life history approach was
conceived in sociology, we have chosen a psychological perspective
for our work, which makes our study similar to the case study
research found in counselling psychology and more frequently
being used in sport and exercise psychology (e.g., Andersen &
Fawkner, 2005). The life history approach and Erikson's (1985)
formulation of psychodynamic theory are complementary and
promote the construction of rich insights into the meanings and
experiences of sport and physical activity in the lives of people with
This paper represents one study in a broader program of
research in which we investigated physical activity in the lives of
people with cerebral palsy. Another life history from this research
program, more centered on exercise than competitive sport, has
recently been published (Gaskin, Andersen, & Morris, 2009). In the
present study, we explored the life history of an adult with cerebral
palsy who was extensively involved in sport and physical activity in
Australia. The aim of the study was to understand the meanings and
experiences of sport and physical activity in his life.
The participant (Ben, not his real name) was a 30-year-old
Caucasian man with mild cerebral palsy. Ben was competing in
swimming at state and national levels at the time we interviewed
him for this research. His typical cerebral palsy gait when he
walked was the only noticeable sign that he had the condition.
Ben's father and mother were 20 and 18 years old, respectively,
when he was born. He has one elder brother (by 18 months). His
father was a mechanic, and his mother's time was spent raising her
two sons as they were growing up.
We used Denzin's (1989a, 1989b) approach to conducting life
history research to guide the present study. The focus of the study
was on Ben's experiences of engaging in, or attempting to engage
in, sport and physical activity, as well as his perceptions of other
people and events in his life that may have contributed to how he
handled and interpreted those experiences.
The ﬁrst author, who interviewed Ben, has cerebral palsy, which
is noticeable in his ﬁne motor control, gait, and speech patterns. At
the time that we conducted this research, the ﬁrst author was
completing a doctorate under the supervision of the second and
C.J. Gaskin et al. / Psychology of Sport and Exercise 11 (2010) 197e205198
3. third authors. He had been involved with various physical activities
throughout his life.
The human research ethics committee of Victoria University
gave approval for this study to be conducted. After coming across
an internet article about our research, Ben emailed us to ask about
being involved in our studies. We welcomed his involvement and
the ﬁrst author conducted one interview with Ben. The interview
took place at Ben's place of work outside of normal working hours.
Ben chose to participate in the interview at his place of work
because he felt comfortable there, and it was a convenient place to
conduct the interview, for both Ben and the ﬁrst author. Ben was
interviewed about his participation, or attempted involvement, in
sport and physical activity throughout his life. During the interview,
Erikson's (1985) formulation of psychodynamic theory guided
follow-up questions and probes. Although the starting point for the
interview was the meanings and experiences of sport and physical
activity, follow-up questions and probes often explored other
aspects of Ben's life, which appeared related to his involvement, or
lack thereof, in physical activity. The interview lasted approxi-
mately 4 h and was audio-tape recorded. We used the transcription
of the interview and the ﬁrst author's ﬁeld notes and impressions as
the data for the analysis.
Using Denzin (1989a) as a guide, Ben's life was woven “into and
through the researchers' interpretations of that life” (p. 58). We
carefully read the interview transcript and extracted patterns of
meaning and experience from the text. We then interpreted these
patterns using Erikson's (1985) theory of psychosocial develop-
ment. Erikson proposed that there are eight stages of psychosocial
development. At each stage, there is a nuclear conﬂict (critical
turning point in psychosocial development), which represents an
opportunity for the development of new ego qualities. The
psychosocial stages that are relevant to this study are: latency
(childhood), puberty and adolescence, young adulthood, and
In the latency stage, children make their entrances into school
life and are confronted with the conﬂict of industry versus inferi-
ority (Erikson, 1985). Children begin to receive systematic instruc-
tion in the skills and uses of tools that will assist them in becoming
productive members of society. The danger in this stage is that
children do not develop their skills and competences for using tools
and, instead, end up with a sense of inadequacy and inferiority.
These feelings may result in children despairing and regressing to
a prior stage of psychosocial development. Socially, this stage can
be one of the most decisive. Achieving industry involves doing
things alongside or in cooperation with others. Competence (belief
in one's ability to perform important tasks) is the ego quality that
represents successful completion of this psychosocial stage.
Puberty and adolescence mark a period where many of the
battles of earlier years are re-fought, with often well-meaning
parents as adversaries (Erikson, 1985). This stage encapsulates the
nuclear conﬂict of identity versus role confusion. Adolescents
readily and strongly identify with their idols and ideals. They
protect their identities by forming strong associations with like-
minded people, and through the exclusion of others who are
“different.” Adolescents who experience role confusion may have
minimal direction as to where their lives are heading (e.g., have
difﬁculty in settling on an occupation). Fidelity (the ability to
maintain loyal relationships despite differences in value systems) is
the ego quality developed from successful resolution of this stage.
For young adults, the identities that they developed in the
previous stage are ready to be joined with the identities of others
(Erikson,1985). The nuclear conﬂict, in this stage, is intimacy versus
isolation. Intimacy requires abandonment of the ego in situations,
such as in close afﬁliations, in sexual unions, in close friendships, in
physical combat, in experiencing inspiration from teachers, and
in intuition from self. If young adults fear ego loss through engaging
in such situations, isolation and self-absorption may develop. The
danger, at this stage, is that the avoidance of contacts that involve
commitments to intimacy may lead to isolation. Love is the ego
quality that represents the successful passing of the nuclear conﬂict
at this psychosocial stage.
In middle adulthood, mature people turn their attention
towards guidance of the next generation (Erikson, 1985). Although
popular thought focuses on the dependence of the younger
generation on those who are older, the mature adult also needs
guidance and encouragement from younger people. The nuclear
conﬂict at this stage is generativity versus stagnation. Generativity
refers to the establishment and guidance of the next generation.
Some people have special gifts and apply them to other directions,
rather than to their offspring. The danger of this stage is that
stagnation occurs. Care for the new generation is the ego quality
that comes from the successful negotiation of this stage.
We do not have access to material from Ben's challenges in the
ﬁrst three stages of psychosocial development (i.e., oral-sensory,
muscular-anal, locomotor-genital). Through conversations with his
mother in the months prior to the interview, Ben learned that he
was an unwelcome addition to the rural town in which he was born.
His mother faced the prejudices of being an unmarried teenager
who was having her second child; she and Ben received little
assistance from relatives. Support was not forthcoming from
medical practitioners, either, who advised that Ben should be
institutionalized because of his cerebral palsy e a common practice
in the 1970s. His parents were not satisﬁed with the medical
practitioner's advice, however, and choose to raise Ben themselves.
Ben's ability to tell his own story starts with the latency period
and the challenges of industry versus inferiority. His stories from
his primary school years demonstrate that he was struggling to
achieve in various facets of his life, especially in the school envi-
ronment. Ben was the ﬁrst child with disability to be fully inte-
grated into mainstream classrooms in the rural town in which he
lived, and he faced a variety of challenges. The teachers were not
trained to accommodate a student with a disability, and did not
seem to know how to integrate him into the classroom environ-
ment. Academically, Ben struggled to succeed, and recalled
receiving report cards with a number of failing grades. Socially, his
classmates usually avoided him, and he had no male friends. Boys
teased him, he believed, because he was different. Despite many of
Ben's classmates not associating with him, he did have two close
female friends, who played an integral part in his early life. He
fondly recalled how they would spend a lot of their free time
together, especially during weekends. They also spent their
lunchtimes together, when they would sit, talk, and eat their lunch.
At school, Ben had limited involvement in physical activity. His
ﬁrst teacher would carry him around because she feared that he
might fall and break a bone. When Ben participated in organized
physical activity, he had negative experiences. When he was in the
swimming pool, for example, Ben used to stand in the water, beside
the pool edge, until he became cold and was taken out of the water.
He could not swim, and his teachers did not expect him to perform
this activity. Ben could not demonstrate competence in such
physical activities and, when he tried to perform them, he said he
C.J. Gaskin et al. / Psychology of Sport and Exercise 11 (2010) 197e205 199
4. felt inferior to his classmates. He avoided attending sports events,
because he perceived that his teachers did not want him to
participate in such occasions.
In the school playground, boys did not include him in the games
they played (typically cricket in the summer and rugby union in the
winter). Ben was not competent at competing in these sports, and
was not aware of any other forms of physical activity he could
pursue. The signiﬁcant adults in Ben's life did not positively rein-
force his attempts at physical activity, and he usually avoided any
Ben also had negative experiences with physical activity outside
of the school environment. He attended physiotherapy and was
prescribed exercises to improve his walking. For Ben, these exer-
cises were unpleasant, because they were painful to perform. This
experience further discouraged him from performing physical
After school, Ben's two female friends tried to get him involved
with physical activity. On separate occasions, his friends encour-
aged him to ride a bike and roller skate down a hill, all rather
unsuccessfully. The attitudes of Ben's friends towards his involve-
ment in physical activity, however, challenged his preconceptions
that he was unable to be active. Although Ben remained relatively
sedentary, this social support from his friends may have been
inﬂuential in his decisions to attempt physical activity in later life.
Ben stated that his teachers' comments on his report cards
showed that he was not at ease within the classroom environment.
The teachers wrote that he was not applying himself to his work,
and was being disruptive in class. Ben reported developing feelings
of inferiority at primary school, which were compounded when he
was held back a year because of poor academic achievement.
These feelings of inferiority seemed to pervade other areas of his
life. Ben said he had developed a sense of worthlessness that
inﬂuenced his interactions with family members. In the evening,
for example, Ben stopped contributing to family dinnertime
discussions, because he felt he had nothing to add to these
conversations. His parents intervened by asking him to think of
three topics each night that he was willing to discuss. Unfortu-
nately, the consistent message Ben received in his school envi-
ronment, that his input was not valued, somewhat overwhelmed
his parents' efforts to enhance his conﬁdence in contributing to
Ben's other sources of social activities, with children his own
age, were camps and a horse-riding program for children with
disabilities. At these activities, Ben felt that he had found kindred
spirits. At this stage in his life, he did not know what disability he
had, but he knew he had a physical condition, and he identiﬁed
with other children with disabilities. Ben felt they were like him,
and they understood what he was experiencing.
When Ben was 11, he and his family moved to another small
town, which meant that he attended a new school. This move
marked a new beginning for him. Academically, he started to excel,
receiving A and B grades in many of his subjects. It was not only
Ben's grades that changed. His stories about this time seemed to
take on a different quality and sounded reﬂective of a boy who was
more at ease in his environment, and with himself. Ben felt that he
was treated more as a person at the new school, and he was
relieved that he was “normal,” like his classmates. For the ﬁrst time,
Ben had male friends. Having male friends meant that he was
involved in physical activity during playtimes and lunchtimes,
instead of sitting and conversing, as he had done with his female
friends at his previous school.
These newfound levels of competence, however, did not extend
to his performance during organized physical activity. In physical
education classes, he was required to engage in activities that were
beyond his capabilities. For example, he was asked to walk on
a balance beam in gymnastics and to run cross-country races. Ben,
begrudgingly, was involved in these activities (and, in his eyes,
failed), and when it came to swimming, he would revert back to his
pattern of avoidance, and sit on the side of the pool.
Like his perceptions of his teachers from his ﬁrst school, Ben felt
that his physical education teacher did not like him. Here, he may
have been projecting his own negative feelings about his involve-
ment in physical activity onto his teacher. From Ben's description, it
seems that the teacher appeared to treat Ben in the same way as
other children. In doing so, however, he was required to participate
in activities where he could not show competence, where he had
low self-efﬁcacy for the skills involved, and where his inferiority to
his classmates was exposed.
Although Erikson's (1985) psychosocial stages are loosely con-
nected with age, this association does not imply that individuals
naturally progress from one stage to the next upon reaching certain
ages or milestones, nor that prior stages are completed when
individuals reach the next stage. In Ben's case, the challenges of the
latency stage are ones that continued to be prominent in the stories
from his adolescence and young adulthood. A deep sense of infe-
riority, originating in his early school years, seemed to pervade
much of his life.
At 16, Ben and his family moved again, which meant that Ben
had to adapt to yet another school environment. In social terms,
Ben reported regressing back to the days of his ﬁrst primary school.
He had only one friend, a female, with whom he spent most of his
At this time in Ben's life, he became more aware of televised
sport. The sports coverage on television was also different from that
shown in other regions where he previously lived (e.g., Australian
Rules football received more air time than rugby union). In contrast
to his avoidance of sport in the past, Ben started following and
enjoying sport. Perhaps more important, however, he seemed to
begin to identify with the sport people he saw on television. The
sports people were what he was not, but what he possibly wanted
to become. They were ﬁt, active, successful, and accepted by society.
Ben, however, was physically inactive, disliked how his body looked
and moved, and had only a small social network.
A year later, Ben and his family moved again, which presented
him with one more school to attend. Ben was held back a year,
because of curriculum requirements in this different state, and so
spent 2 years at this school. Ben regarded these years as the best
school experience of his life, because he had the most friends he
had ever had. He attributed this change in fortune, with regard to
the number of friends he had, to the increased maturity of his
classmates, as compared to the students in previous years. For Ben,
one aspect of normalcy was participating in sporting activities
during breaks between classes. As in his second school, when he
had male friends, he was involved in lunchtime sporting activities.
Playing sport, then, also presented the opportunity for social
Ben's identiﬁcation with sports people grew stronger when, in
1992, he saw the Paralympics, for the ﬁrst time, on television. This
event made him aware that people with disabilities could be
involved in sport. Even so, seeing these images did not immediately
motivate Ben to engage in competitive sport or demanding physical
After Ben had ﬁnished high school, he and his family returned to
live in the area where he went to his third school, and he started
seeking employment. Despite going to a region that had high
unemployment, Ben was optimistic about the possibility of getting
his ﬁrst job. He did not disclose that he had a disability in his job
applications, but perceived that potential employers discriminated
against him when they met him in job interviews and realized that
he had a disability. He was frequently asked what was wrong with
C.J. Gaskin et al. / Psychology of Sport and Exercise 11 (2010) 197e205200
5. him. Ben responded to the repeated rejection of his job applications
in two ways: through anger and depression. Anger manifested
following his attempts to seek assistance from an employment
agency, where he was “enraged” because he was denied help to ﬁnd
work on the grounds that he was insufﬁciently impaired. The rages
that Ben talked about seemed like expressions of frustration with
the apparent hopeless circumstances in which he was ﬁnding
himself, rather than verbal attacks on other people. In the main,
however, Ben became depressed through being unable to ﬁnd
work. He questioned why he should have this disability and why he
should have to prove himself to society. The rejection by employers
seemed to bring to the fore previous rejections by teachers and
classmates. Once more, Ben said he felt alone and unwanted. Ben
also said he saw his hopes of living independently, like his brother,
diminishing, and he faced the undesirable prospect of living with
his parents for the rest of his life.
In this period of Ben's life, the challenges of the adolescent stage
seemed to be overlapping those of the latency period. Ben's feelings
of inferiority seemed to have been compounded by his emerging
identify as a disabled person who was dependent on others. Ben
seemed greatly uncomfortable with this identity, but, faced with
the challenges of his social situation, seemed unable to create
a different role for himself in society.
To gain a sense of normalcy in his life, Ben rekindled his rela-
tionship with his female friend from school, and sought refuge with
her during most weekends. She emotionally supported him and
was someone, other than his parents, with whom he could talk
about his difﬁculties. The emotional support from his parents and
friend, however, was not sufﬁcient to compensate for his feelings of
inferiority, inability to gain employment, and deepening depres-
sion. Such was Ben's despair that he attempted suicide by drinking
cleaning ﬂuid e the main effect of which was that it put him to
sleep. The liquid appeared to have had minimal consequences for
him, apart from him waking up with a sore throat. Ben interpreted
his survival as a sign that he was meant to live. He remained
depressed after this attempted suicide, but did not have further
suicidal attempts or ideations.
To improve his vocation skills, Ben completed a bar course, in
which his grades were near the top of his class. This extra training,
however, did not immediately result in a job. It was not until he was
21, and he and his family moved once more, that he gained
employment. Ben's ﬁrst job was for 3 h per week as a glassier at
a lawn bowls club. His job was to pick up drink glasses. Ben said that
his desire to prove himself was strong. After the rejections of the
past, he was well aware of the perceptions that people typically had
in regard to his ability, and he wanted to show people how they
were wrong. At this point in Ben's life, his identity seemed to be
changing from someone dependent on others to that of a compe-
Ben divided his life in two temporal phases. That is, pre-23 years
of age, and post-23. He referred to the pre-23 phase as psycho-
logically damaging, where he believed he erected barriers to his
development. These barriers (e.g., difﬁculties at school, problems
ﬁnding employment) do not seem as if they were predominantly of
his construction. The origins of this turning point (i.e., age 23)
probably had roots in his growing awareness of sport during his
adolescence. Ben seemed reasonably unaware of these possible
connections, however, and was concrete in splitting his life into two
phases. As we have described, however, Ben's increasing interest in
sport developed at age 16, when he was exposed to a range of
different sports on television (e.g., Australian Rules football, rather
than rugby union) and intensiﬁed at age 19 through watching the
Paralympics on television. Four years later, at the age of 23, he said
he almost compulsively watched as much of the Olympics and
Paralympics from Atlanta as he could.
Ben's psychosocial development connected with the adolescent
stage of Erikson's (1985) model largely occurred at this time in his
life and seemed to be continuing when he was interviewed. He saw
sports people (Olympians and Paralympians, in particular) as
embodying the ideals that he wanted for himself, and he began to
form a strong athletic identity.
Following the Paralympics, Ben was interested in ﬁnding out all
he could about the Games. In essence, he was probably trying to
ﬁnd out how he could participate in sport for people with disabil-
ities. For Ben, involvement in physical activity was something he
associated with being healthy and normal. It took him 6 months to
join the gym, however, because of insecurities about whether
a person with cerebral palsy should join the gym, and how other
members would react when they saw him exercising.
Ben approached the gym methodically, in that he started off
with lighter weights and gradually increased the weight he could
lift. He also focused on his own progress, rather than on the weights
that other people were lifting.
Still 23 years old, and training in the gym, Ben decided to learn
to swim. The choice of sport in which to participate seemed at odds
with his feelings towards, and past experiences with, swimming.
Ben said he hated swimming because of bad memories he had from
when he was at his ﬁrst school. When he spoke about swimming,
his body image issues were evident. There seemed to be a large
incongruence between Ben's amount of physical (body) compe-
tence and his internalized ideals regarding well-functioning bodies.
Part of the motivation to swim came from a Paralympic swimmer,
who had greater physical impairment than Ben. He rationalized
that if someone, who was more physically impaired that he was,
could swim, then so could he.
Learning to swim was confronting for Ben. He was in a class with
children, who asked him why he could not swim, or walk, as they
did. After six swimming lessons, Ben was able to swim a lap of the
25 m pool unaided. From that point, he was determined to set new
benchmarks and to swim further. One of Ben's underlying moti-
vations to swim was to change, because he said he did not like who
he was. Ben felt that he had erected psychological barriers that
prevented him from engaging in new activities (e.g., going to the
gym), and he was determined to dismantle such obstacles to his
Ben felt he gained physically, socially, and psychologically from
exercising in the gym and pool. His goals were primarily directed
towards getting aerobically ﬁtter and increasing his strength. Ben
said he increased his ﬁtness to that of an elite marathon runner, and
had dropped his body fat to 5%. This percentage of body fat falls at
the lower end of the range of healthy body fat percentages of male
national and international level athletes who compete in sports
where leanness is desirable (e.g., body building, gymnastics,
wrestling; Nieman, 2003). His decisions to be involved with sport
(swimming, in particular) seemed to have stemmed from a ﬁxation
with childhood traumas (e.g., attempting to swim, social isolation
from classmates), rather than his stated (more superﬁcial) goals of
becoming physically ﬁtter, more socially connected, and less
Ben's concerns about how other people would perceive his
involvement in the gym did not come to fruition. He experienced
a socially supportive environment, in which some people openly
admired his gym training. He met other gym members and would
spend time conversing with them during each workout. The gym
and pool became places where he could relieve stress, especially
when he experienced difﬁcult days at work.
In a short space of time, when Ben was 23 years old, he also met
several Olympians and Paralympians who inspired him to keep
swimming and to take up the sport competitively. Given his level of
identiﬁcation with these sports people, he did not need much
C.J. Gaskin et al. / Psychology of Sport and Exercise 11 (2010) 197e205 201
6. encouragement to dedicate more time to swimming. At the pool
where Ben swam, an Australian Olympian was also training. Ben
spoke with him one day and found out that the Olympian was
covering a far greater distance in his training than he was. This
conversation inspired Ben to increase the distance that he swam
from 50 to 100 laps per day. To be like an Olympian or Paralympian,
Ben reasoned that he had to begin training like one.
As a member of the Olympic Club for Sydney 2000 (a marketing
initiative that aimed to encourage Australians to be involved in the
Olympics through providing members with opportunities to attend
exclusive lead-up events, meet Olympic athletes, and purchase
tickets to events), he took the opportunity to travel to Brisbane to
meet another Olympic swimmer. On the train ride to Brisbane, Ben
was greatly affected by a chance meeting with a Paralympic soccer
player. The reason that this meeting was profound for Ben was that
he interpreted it to mean that he was on the right path through life.
The experience seemed to be quite spiritual for him. Although Ben
described himself as agnostic, he believed there was something or
someone who was looking out for him.
About 2 months after meeting the Paralympic soccer player,
a new manager was appointed to the gym where Ben trained. The
new manager was a Paralympic gold medalist in swimming.
Meeting this Paralympian was another profound moment for Ben,
and further evidence that he was experiencing something
extraordinary and seemed to help conﬁrm that he was on the right
path. Ben and the Paralympian, however, did not speak with each
other for a while. He felt too embarrassed and awed to approach
one of his idols. He would sometimes see the Paralympian watching
him swim, but nothing was said until he approached Ben. During
their conversation, the Paralympian told him that he thought he
was talented and should start competing.
To receive coaching for his technique, Ben joined a swim squad.
His inclusion in this squad, however, presented him with a further
concern. He knew that the other swimmers were children, and he
was uncertain as to how they would react to him being in the
squad. Given that he had difﬁculties making friends with children
when he was a child, he was unsure whether the children would
accept him. His concerns, however, were not realized. The children
in the squad were enthusiastically supportive of his inclusion; they
welcomed him into the team and were friendly towards him. Ben
initially did not want to swim competitively, but exactly 6 months
after joining the squad he went to Sydney to get his disability
classiﬁed, so that he could compete.
The trip to Sydney gave Ben an opportunity to see the Olympic
Village and Olympic Park. More important, however, was that he
was able to attend the Australian National Athletics (track and ﬁeld)
Championships. It was at this competition where Ben ﬁrst saw live
events that included athletes with disabilities. He experienced both
anger and relief when seeing these athletes. The anger was directed
towards himself for building so many psychological barriers that
restricted his development, as well as towards others (e.g., school
teachers) for not advising him about ways in which he could ach-
ieve through sport. Ben seemed to be relieved that he had discov-
ered how he could participate in sport for people with disabilities
and that he had made it this far.
From the age of 23, Ben experienced positive development in
many facets of his life. Not only was Ben demonstrating compe-
tence in the gym and pool, he also took opportunities to extend his
hours of work at a lawn bowls club, and to learn other operational
aspects of the organization (e.g., bar work, cellar duties, managing
staff). Earning his own money meant that he had the resources to
leave home and live independently of his parents. He now could
fulﬁll his wish of independence that he had had since ﬁnishing
school. At this stage of his life, Ben said he had everything he
wanted. He had a place of his own, a job, and a full life with his gym
training and swimming. Two years later, however, the relationships
between staff and management at the lawn bowls club became
strained. Management reacted by changing the hours that staff
worked, and Ben's hours were halved.
Another of his profound moments occurred at his ﬁrst swim-
ming competition in March 2000, which was at the new Olympic
pool in Sydney. For Ben, being at the Olympic pool and seeing his
name on the main scoreboard was a huge moment. He may have
been overawed and stressed by the personal signiﬁcance of the
occasion, and he was disqualiﬁed from his ﬁrst race for not
touching the wall when he was performing the tumble turns. He
sorted out his technique, and went on to win his next four races.
After he had ﬁnished racing, he rang his parents to tell them of his
Apart from the competence that Ben demonstrated through
swimming, he beneﬁted from the friendliness that other swim-
mers, ofﬁcials, and supporters showed towards him at the swim-
ming competition, and from seeing the conﬁdence that other
swimmers with disabilities exuded. Ben felt at ease around other
people with disabilities, which was reminiscent of how he felt
when he participated, as a child, in a horse-riding program for
people with disabilities. Being a person with a disability seemed to
be an important part of his identity. In contrast to the rather
limited view of what people with disabilities can achieve that
various people in authority (e.g., potential employers, teachers)
seemed to have projected onto him, Ben was coming into contact
with many successful people with disabilities who were acting as
positive role models for him. He identiﬁed strongly with these
Ben received his ﬁrst trophy at his swimming club's annual
awards evening. This moment held substantial meaning for him. He
had recently won four competitive races, but up to this point in his
life, he had never won a trophy for his involvement in sport. Ben
received a small trophy from his coach, which was for the swimmer
who had put in the most effort for the year. Winning this trophy
caused him to reﬂect on how, at his ﬁrst school, the teacher had
handed out awards for those students who had swum speciﬁc
distances (e.g., 50 m, 100 m, 200 m). Ben did not receive a certiﬁ-
cate, because he could not swim. This trophy represented public
recognition that he had displayed competence in a physical activity
setting, and had accomplished something other people did not
think him capable of doing.
At 27 years of age, Ben had become frustrated with his job. He
was not getting opportunities to perform other roles, which was
restricting his development. Finally, Ben quit his job, which was
a relief for him. The day after Ben quit his job, he received a letter
from the Sydney Olympic Games Organising Committee inviting
him to work in the Athlete's Village at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
This invitation was a dream come true for Ben, and it provided him
with the opportunity to be around the athletes with whom he
identiﬁed so deeply. He regarded receiving this invitation as
another profound, and almost spiritual, moment, in that he
believed someone was looking out for him.
Going to Sydney for the Games was also a decisive stage in Ben's
life for another reason. He had decided to continue to live in Sydney
following the Games. To him, this move represented the biggest
risk he had taken in his life. Ben had 10 weeks of work guaranteed,
during the Games, and was determined to ﬁnd a job after the
Games had concluded.
Ben was extremely proud of his involvement in the Games. His
description of his journey to the Games seemed to resonate with an
account that an Olympic or Paralympic athlete might give. These
times were extremely emotional for Ben, because he began to
realize how much he had achieved in his life and that his efforts
C.J. Gaskin et al. / Psychology of Sport and Exercise 11 (2010) 197e205202
7. Two weeks after the Olympics had concluded, Ben was back at
the Olympic Village for the Paralympics. He became angry,
however, when he was told that he only had ﬁve shifts during these
Games. Ben's name, however, was put on a list of workers who
could cover shifts if other people could not work, and he ended up
working the entirety of the Games. His anger, at originally being
given a small number of shifts, manifested because he was being
prevented from attending the Games for the sports people with
whom he strongly identiﬁed. Ben felt that these were his Games,
and he was determined to be a part of them.
Ben beneﬁted from his identiﬁcation with Paralympic athletes
with regard to the support the Paralympics received from the
Australian public. Many people, who did not go to a large number of
Olympic events, because of the cost of tickets, went to the Para-
lympics to watch sport at the elite level. The Australian public's
support and acceptance of Paralympic sport seemed to translate as
approval of Ben and his swimming. He, vicariously through the
Paralympians, possibly received some of the acceptance from
people outside of his family that he had been looking for as a child
With the Olympics and Paralympics over, he set about ﬁnding
a new job. Ben was unemployed for about a year when an
employment agency, which specialized in ﬁnding jobs for people
with disabilities, found him a job performing a variety of admin-
istrative tasks within a large organization. His days were occupied
with full-time work and training, either in the gym or pool.
Through gaining employment, he continued to see himself as
a person with ability, rather than a person with a disability. At the
time of the interview, his manager was also encouraging him to
undertake study at university to increase his skills and to gain the
knowledge to perform a greater number of roles in the future. In
this job, Ben seemed to have broadened his identity from a prime
focus on sport and disability to viewing himself as a person who
also had a career.
Ben's swimming developed strongly, and at the time he was
interviewed he had won many state titles and had swum times that
placed him within the top 50 in the world (taking his disability
classiﬁcation into account). Although he was achieving at a high
level through sport, his successes did not seem to bring a lasting
sense of competence. In Ben's life post-23, there was a distinctive
pattern of setting goals, achievement, elation with his display of
competence, recognition of the ever-present feelings of inferiority,
and setting more demanding goals. This pattern was most evident
in his sport participation. Ben was severely critical of himself for not
achieving more in his sporting career. Although he identiﬁed many
social barriers to sporting participation throughout his life (e.g.,
children when he was at school, teachers), Ben seemed to blame
himself more than the social contexts in which he developed for his
perceived underachievement. At the time of the interview, partic-
ipation in the next Paralympics was his major goal. Following his
long-standing pattern, however, it is doubtful that even performing
at international level would allay his feelings of inferiority.
The year before the interview, he went back to the area in which
he ﬁrst lived for a swimming competition. He said he had some
unﬁnished business with his ﬁrst school, and wished to swim in the
area once in his life. Ben wanted to demonstrate his competence to
those people who had made him feel inferior. Although the people
who contributed to his sense of inferiority as a child probably were
not at the competition, swimming in the area and medalling in
races was enough for him. While in the area, Ben also went and
visited his ﬁrst school. Being at this school again was emotional for
him; he had a deep resentment of the staff and students who were
at the school when he was young. Ben described how he stood at
the pool's edge and screamed, “You didn't think I had the ability,
and now I've done it, despite what you thought.”
The pool was signiﬁcant as a place where Ben could not display
competence when he was a child. He had received little tangible
support and encouragement from the teachers, who were
supposedly there to guide his development. Yet, as a young adult,
Ben demonstrated his competence at swimming in emphatic
fashion, by winning numerous medals at state championships. On
that day, the pool represented those people who had restricted his
development and expressed doubt over his potential to achieve.
Ben seemed to be indirectly confronting his ﬁrst teachers. More
broadly, his release of frustration also seemed to be directed at the
doctors and extended family members who had negatively
appraised his future when he was young.
During the interview, Ben's interest in the politics of disability
came through. His dissatisfaction with some elements of govern-
ment policy, with reference to people with disabilities, was obvious.
He had strong views on the unfairness he perceived there to be in
some policies, such as employment and funding of Paralympic
athletes. Ben's interest in advocating for disability issues seems to
have its origins in helping himself through assisting others.
Through his involvement in swimming, Ben met many children and
young people with disabilities. He did not want to see these people
exposed to the same injustices that he had experienced while
growing up. By advocating for others, especially young people, Ben
appeared to be helping himself mend his own past. He perceived
that there was a potential role for him in advocating for people with
disabilities, but he wished to obtain a university degree ﬁrst.
As with the adolescent stage of Erikson's (1985) model, the
young adult stage of psychosocial development (with the conﬂict of
intimacy versus isolation) seemed also to have been delayed. As an
adult, Ben appeared to be displaying behaviors that were more
consistent with the latency and adolescent stages of psychosocial
development. At a chronological age when Erikson suggested
individuals typically form close bonds with others (e.g., friends,
romantic partners, work colleagues), he seemed to be avoiding
such involvements. He seemed consumed with his sporting
endeavors, which were important in his identity formation. Ben's
most intimate relationship was with his mother, rather than with
friends, romantic partners, or workmates. A signiﬁcant reason for
the lack of a romantic relationship was his avoidance of intimacy
for fear of getting hurt. This fear had been present in previous
attempts at engaging with others (e.g., joining the gym). Ben was
aware of how this fear prevented him from becoming close to
others. Erikson warned that the avoidance of intimate relationships
could result in isolation and self-absorption. During the interview,
Ben spoke about being obsessed with himself and considered
himself a loner. Ben's mother was the only person with whom he
had a long-term intimate relationship. She appeared to be the ﬁrst,
and sometimes only, person he would call to share his joys and
sorrows (e.g., winning events at his ﬁrst swimming competition).
Although Ben mentioned the names of friends at times, there
seemed to be no longevity and regularity in communication with
these people. His self-absorption was clearly reﬂected in the stories
he told and in the scheduling of his time. Swimming and work were
central parts of his life. There was, however, a glimmer of hope in
Ben's stories. He was aware of how he closed himself off to other
people, and wished to become more open in his relationships with
them. There was a sense that Ben may achieve greater levels of
intimacy with others in the years to come.
Ben also seemed to be preparing himself for the psychosocial
stage of middle adulthood, in which attention is turned to the
establishment and guidance of the next generation. Through his
focus on helping others with disabilities (through advocacy and
speaking with young people who have disabilities), Ben seemed to
be avoiding or bypassing the challenges of the psychosocial stage of
young adulthood (intimacy versus isolation).
C.J. Gaskin et al. / Psychology of Sport and Exercise 11 (2010) 197e205 203
In the stories that Ben told, there is strong evidence that sport
and physical activity can promote psychosocial development in
a person with mild cerebral palsy. Through his involvement in sport
and physical activity as an adult, Ben seemed to be addressing the
challenges of the Eriksonian stages of latency and adolescence.
Ben's early struggles to show competence alongside able-bodied
people and his reactions to these experiences are reﬂective of the
issues discussed in psychotherapy with people who have cerebral
palsy, such as anger (Blotzer, 1995), depression (Feuerstein, 1995;
Lantican et al., 1994), and suicide attempts (Jureidini, 1988). In
contrast to many of his experiences throughout his early life
(pre-23 years), in which he struggled to show competence, swim-
ming was a task at which Ben could show industry. For Ben, sport
and physical activity was a way in which he could meet some of the
challenges of the latency period.
Ben used sport and physical activity to meet the challenges of
the adolescent stage of psychosocial development. His develop-
ment in this stage seemed to begin in his late teenage years and
may have been still progressing when he was interviewed. He used
sport and physical activity to improve his body image and he
installed sports people as his idols. His use of physical activity as
a way to improve his body image is reminiscent of one of the
outcomes of a brief swimming program for a 14-year-old girl with
a disability (Peganoff, 1984). In both cases, self-esteem seems to
have increased through improving physical function. The ﬁndings
from our research and Peganoff's case study provide strong support
for arguments that impairment needs to be included when devel-
oping understandings of the experience of disability (Crow, 1996;
Sport and physical activity may not be the panacea to the
challenges of living with a disability that Ben may have imagined.
His extensive involvement in sport and physical activity, along with
working regular hours, meant that the time he had available to
cultivate strong relationships was limited. Although it can be
difﬁcult for people with cerebral palsy to develop intimate rela-
tionships (especially romantic ones; Joseph, 1991), Ben seemed to
be largely avoiding being close to others. His deep sense of inferi-
ority saw him become self-absorbed in the hope of addressing
these feelings. Involvement in sport and physical activity, then, was
a way he could avoid attempting some of the challenges of the
young adult psychosocial stage.
Using Ben's life history, we have shown that not only do social
forces magnify the psychosocial challenges for people with
disabilities, their internalization of others' prejudices about people
with disabilities may also limit their development. This ﬁnding is
consistent with Thomas's (1999) concept of psycho-emotional
disabilism. Ben was aware that the perceptions he had of himself,
especially during adolescence and early adulthood, had restricted
his development. Although Ben's past experiences seemed to be
still limiting his psychosocial growth, our impression was that he
tended to blame himself too much for not having achieved more in
life and too readily discounted the inﬂuence of the environments in
which he was raised. When working with people who have
disabilities, sport and exercise psychologists need to appreciate
that sometimes their clients may have distorted perceptions of the
extent to which the environment has shaped their lives.
After reﬂecting on Ben's life, we feel slightly ambivalent about
his involvement in sport and physical activity. Swimming and gym
training seem to have resulted in many positive changes, such as
delayed onset of functional decline, improved ways of handling
stress, greater ﬁtness, improved body image, increased competence
and self-esteem, and more social connections. The extent of Ben's
physical activity participation, however, meant that he remained
isolated and did not form intimate relationships, because he
perceived himself as too busy with swimming. His sport and
physical activity had a dependency quality. His ﬁtness was never
enough; his accomplishments through his sport were never
enough. Paradoxically, sport and physical activity have helped Ben
grow and prosper, and at the same time they seem to have helped
arrest his development and keep him stuck in isolation and
perpetual longing for an elusive happiness with himself.
One issue that was dominant during the interview was the
inﬂuence of sport and physical activity in shaping Ben's identity. In
many Western societies, such as Australia, sport has a dominant
role in deﬁning hegemonic forms of masculinity in the mass culture
(Burgess, Edwards, & Skinner, 2003; Connell & Messerschmidt,
2005; Light & Kirk, 2000). The sporting images that Ben viewed on
television were greatly inﬂuential in his development. Based on this
ﬁnding, sociological investigations into the inﬂuence of sport and
physical activity on the construction of the gender identities of
males with milder forms of cerebral palsy appear warranted.
Another area for research that emanates from this study is the
potential inﬂuence of positive physical activity experiences on the
psychosocial development of children and adolescents with cere-
bral palsy. Since Ben was born, there has been a sizable growth in
opportunities for people with disabilities to be involved in sport
and physical activity (DePauw & Gavron, 2005). Such activities may
be of immense value in promoting the psychosocial development of
children and adolescents with cerebral palsy.
We speculate that the effect of the interviewer (the ﬁrst author)
having the same disability as Ben, and also being male, was positive
in eliciting rich material. From the interview, we learned that Ben
looked up to people with disabilities who were achieving goals in
life and identiﬁed strongly with such people. Ben may have viewed
the ﬁrst author in the same regard, especially given that the ﬁrst
author was completing a doctorate and Ben was considering
In closing, we would like to suggest that engaging in moderate
amounts of physical activity is most likely to be advantageous to the
psychosocial development of people with mild cerebral palsy.
Researchers may wish to consider further investigations of physical
activity in the lives of people with cerebral palsy, especially those
who perform moderate or limited amounts of physical activity.
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