Three interrelated themes were constructed based on the data analysis: “It’s kind of embarrassing”: Experiences with support; “I don’t want to be different”: Equipment, activity, and rule modifications; “I like to be a part of the conversation”: Autonomy and choice in PE; and “I would rather be like the other students”: Discussing disability. In each theme, participants described either and/or both positive or negative experiences with teachers who either did or did not implement the suggested strategies. While the participants were questioned about all 16 strategies listed in Table 1, they either had no experience with, or neutral feelings about, half of the strategies. As such, experiences related to arrival/departure instruction, warm-ups, differentiation, demonstrations, fitness testing, and feedback do not appear in the results below. Each of the eight remaining topics evoked salient memories associated with feelings of varying degrees of ‘inclusion’ in participants’ PE classes, and appear throughout this section.
“It’s Kind of Embarrassing”: Experiences with Support
The engagement of support personnel, in the form of paraprofessionals, teacher aids, and/or adapted PE teachers, in the integrated PE space was among the most common suggestions for ‘inclusive’ strategies in the professional literature (Lieberman, et al., 2017; Williston 2017). This suggestion was supported by Phillip’s experiences, as he reported having adult support provided to him by either an aide or physical therapist who was actively engaged with him throughout PE and helped him to feel safe and included. He shared:
It makes me feel included more to have an aide because they are worried about my safety at all times. When I was younger and my teacher tried harder to include me, my aide only had to monitor some things, because everything was already relatively safe. But as things were getting more dangerous for me when my teachers stopped making modifications to things, they would have to be with me more. Sometimes my physical therapist comes and helps modify things too and that helps because then I don’t have to worry about possibly hurting myself.
It is important to note that Phillip’s perspective and concern over safety may have been unique due in part to his diagnosis of osteogenesis imperfecta or ‘brittle bones’ (reflective notes), as well as the multiple injuries he experienced in PE over the years (reflective notes). Alice had a somewhat different perspective and recalled feeling more included when her aide was not actively involved with her throughout her entire PE class. Instead, she felt it benefitted her most when the aide sat off to the side and waited until she requested help. Alice explained how grateful she was to have support that was flexible and allowed her to retain some control:
They do activities with me sometimes and they help me do some of the things I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. I’m grateful that I have someone who is able to help me and I’m glad that I’m able to be included in it with that way. They sit to the edge until I need help, they wait for me to tell them that I need something. That makes me feel very glad, makes me feel good that I’m able to do and decide that stuff for myself.
Interestingly, while Alice described positive experiences attending PE with her aide, she had strong negative feelings about PE classes that her adapted PE teacher attended. Alice mentioned him several times throughout the interview, each time relating his presence to feelings of embarrassment, discomfort, and decreased value and acceptance (reflective notes). Alice described how:
Coach H makes me feel less included because he has me do other exercises or he doesn’t have me do things right. He doesn’t have me do things similar. He does not treat me similar to everyone else. He treats me like I’m younger than I am. With him I usually do things off to the side or in a different room, but I prefer being in a separate room with him because I would rather not be seen doing something so different from everyone else, especially when he tells me to do something like patty-cake. Though if he is called an adapted PE coach, shouldn’t he be working on making PE more adapted instead of working off on the side with me?
In contrast to Phillip’s positive experience with paraprofessional support staff, Alice’s narratives did not support the use of this ‘inclusive’ strategy. Instead, Alice’s desire to be in a separate room so that her peers would not see her working with her adapted PE teacher was similar to the feelings that Ramen Noodle and Gordon had about paraprofessional support in their PE classes. Gordon shared that “having another adult makes you feel like you’re the center of attention and I don’t like to be the center of attention,” and Ramen Noodle described how when a paraprofessional was supporting her, “I think that other people think I can’t do things by myself, even though I can.” In each of these instances, the participants viewed the support they received from adults as having a negative impact on the perceptions that their peers had of them, hinting that any increased access to the curriculum achieved in using this strategy was not worth the negative influence on feelings of acceptance or belonging (reflective notes).
Ramen Noodle’s disdain for having paraprofessional support during integrated PE influenced her to favor peer buddies, another commonly explicated ‘inclusive’ strategy (Wang, 2013). She shared that:
Adults are for helping other people and it makes me seem like I can’t help myself, and it is kind of embarrassing. I’d rather have a friend or classmate helping because it’s like, ‘oh that’s just a friend helping her out’ and you don’t feel ashamed with that.
Alice, on the other hand, felt it was more challenging to solicit help from a peer than an adult, because “a person would rather have your friends see them as able to do things”, hinting at concerns over being accepted by her peers. While their preferences and experiences were in opposition to each other, the underlying feeling driving their perceptions was centered on social capital and peer perceptions rather than access to activities in the PE curriculum (reflective notes). Gordon also felt that having a peer buddy assigned to him was not desirable, but for a slightly different social concern. He did not want his peer to miss out on his own PE experiences, and said that “I don’t like it because then he isn’t doing the exact same thing everyone else is doing because he is helping me.” Ramen Noodle, Alice, and Gordon all seemed unable to separate their own needs from concerns over how these types of ‘inclusive’ strategies might be perceived or experienced by their peers without disabilities (reflective notes). In fact, Phillip was the only participant to mention his own PE experience when discussing peer buddies. Similar to his feelings on adult support, Phillip’s main concern was his safety. He agreed with Alice and Gordon that the implementation of peer supports was not beneficial, but for a different reason. Phillip described that “having a peer buddy isn’t helpful because with an aide there is a lot of medical stuff, so other students don’t really know how to help me.”
“I Don’t Want to be Different”: Equipment, Activity, and Rule Modifications
Like engagement of support personnel, equipment, activity, and rule modifications proliferate ‘inclusive’ recommendations intended to help enhance participation in PE in the extant literature (Ellis et al., 2009; Nagro et al., 2016). Much like the experiences described in the first theme, participant narratives surrounding the concept of modifications varied, often in direct contrast with one another. Generally, participants felt that meaningful modifications that did not change the nature of an activity promoted feelings of ‘inclusion’, but that inappropriate or nonexistent modifications led to feelings of exclusion or marginalization.
Alice and Phillip both reported having teachers who implemented this strategy, and both felt that it enhanced their feelings of acceptance, belonging, and value, supporting the strategy’s use in integrated PE classes. While whole-group modifications were preferred, Phillip felt more valued and included when his teachers simply made an effort to modify activities, regardless of what the outcome was. He explained that:
Having modifications helps me feel more included, especially when they give the whole class the same modification. I feel good about the changes that they make when I don’t stand out. But I would also be okay if it was just me that had something different because I would know that they were trying to include me.
Alice, however, was a bit more discerning in her approval of modifications. She reported that modifications only helped her to feel more included when she was able to do an activity in a manner similar to her peers, giving her a sense of legitimate participation (reflective notes). She described contrasting experiences with modifications, one being a throwing activity that allowed her to be successful and competitive alongside her peers, and the other being a soccer activity that left her questioning the value of her participation. She described that:
Some changes to activities make me feel more included because I’m doing the same thing. During games when we throw the ball at people, I am allowed to get closer to people in order to hit them. It makes me feel more included partly because it’s fun to be able to hit people with the ball. So, you’re successful, and it’s fun. I like it because it’s a competitive game where you’re really able to win and participate in it. Some other modifications just don’t work really very well. Like in soccer, they put a big plastic thing in front of my chair and the ball would be too small and would catch under my chair. Plus is takes a lot of work to get the big plastic thing on and if you don’t have it just the right way to hit the ball it doesn’t work. If what I’m using is different than everyone else, I’m not really playing the same game anyway, it’s different.
Ramen Noodle and Gordon also reported negative experiences with the utilization of this ‘inclusive’ strategy in their PE classes; however, their perspectives targeted principle rather than about specific modifications they experienced (reflective notes). Ramen Noodle, for example, shared that “I don’t like things that change the activity. If the teacher changed [the activity] I wouldn’t like it and I’d be like ‘oh, this is boring, I want to do what everyone else is doing.” Similarly, Gordon explained how modifications diminished his sense of belonging, sharing that “I feel left out when the teacher changes activities for me. I do not want an advantage. I would rather not win and not have an advantage than have a change made for me.”
Whereas Alice, Ramen Noodle, and Gordon each provided examples of how the utilization of modifications made them feel less included, it is also important to note that a lack of appropriate modifications was also noted as leading to feelings of embarrassment, confusion, and pointlessness. Maggie, for example, wished that her teachers did provide modifications to activities, and felt that she was on display even more when things were not adapted. She wrote:
When things come up that I can’t participate in, I get embarrassed. People want to know why I can’t do it. They stare. I wish I wasn’t in PE on those days and wish I was somewhere else. I don’t want to be different and when I can’t do something or have to do it really differently it makes me embarrassed (written prompt).
Phillip described similar feelings, and described a situation where the lack of modification excluded him from an activity (reflective notes), yet nothing was done to remedy the situation:
During year my PE teacher handed me and my personal aide a jump rope. I was very confused since I utilize a wheelchair daily and jumping rope is impossible. Overall, I have never truly felt included in PE (written prompt).
When asked to elaborate on this experience, Phillip went on to explain that he would have preferred to participate in an alternate activity rather than sitting and watching his peers for the entirety of the jump rope unit. Alice’s experiences echoed this sentiment, as she agreed that in some circumstances, doing something different was favorable to an activity that was simply inaccessible. Alice wrote that:
I personally feel that if it is not something I’m able to do in a similar fashion to my peers I should be given an alternate activity. One activity like that is run day. On run day everyone runs around the field. During that I drive around the field in my chair. There is no point to it since all I am doing is driving around in big circles (written prompt).
More than anything, the participants in this study wanted to feel like valued and legitimate, successful members of their PE classes, and while modifications were one tool utilized in an attempt to promote these feelings, they did not provide a clear solution (reflective notes). Rather, the findings supported modifications as an ‘inclusive’ strategy only when they were implemented meaningfully and with respect to the individual student’s needs and desires (reflective notes). Ramen Noodle’s response to the written prompt seemed to best summarize the collective feelings of the group, as she wrote “I don’t want to sit out! I want to play the games with my friends” (written prompt).
“I Like to be a Part of the Conversation”: Autonomy and Choice in PE
The concepts of autonomy and choice were discussed with regard to both modifications and establishing teams and partners in PE. The relevant strategies discussed in this theme were those that allowed the students with disabilities to collaborate with their teachers to identify potential modifications (Lieberman, et al., 2019; Nagro et al., 2016), and for the teacher to establish partners and teams for activities rather than allowing students to self-select their groupings (Lieberman, et al., 2017). Overall, the participants supported the use of both of these strategies, with few reporting positive experiences with their implementation and most reporting negative experiences without their implementation.
While modifications were scarce in the recollections of most of the participants (reflective notes), Agnes, Alice, and Maggie all agreed that having some choice in the modifications they used, or in the activities in which they participated, had the potential to increase feelings of inclusion. Agnes shared that “having choice in PE made it better,” and Maggie said that “I like when I have two choices and I get to pick what I want to do.” Alice expanded a bit more on the concept of collaboration with her teacher, saying that “I would rather be asked whether there is another way to do things, I like to be a part of the conversation and help come up with solutions.” Phillip unfortunately, could not recall a time that he was given an opportunity to weigh-in on his experience, but echoed Alice’s desire to collaborate with his teachers. He said that “my teachers in middle school didn’t give me any choices or ask for my input. I would have been comfortable having conversations with them and providing ideas about things that might help instead of just not being included.” The participants in this study seemed primed and ready to advocate for themselves and aid in enhancing their participation in PE, but unfortunately, it appears they were not often given the opportunity to do so (reflective notes).
Student input was also discussed in relation to the establishing of partners and teams in PE, and interestingly, none of the participants recalled having an experience where their teachers implemented the recommended ‘inclusive’ strategy. Instead, Alice, Maggie, and Ramen Noodle described the feelings that they associated with having to find their own partners and groups to work with in PE. While their experiences did vary, the feelings that they described seemed to support the idea that allowing students to choose their own groups was not a beneficial practice. Alice was in favor of selecting her own groups and said that “it helps me to feel included that it’s easy for me to find a partner,” whereas Maggie and Ramen Noodle disagreed. Maggie shared that “it’s kind of hard when I have to pick my own. I don’t know where to go. I like when teachers pick.” Ramen Noodle’s similar feelings about this topic were salient enough that she wrote about them on the written prompt before even engaging with the interview questions, noting “when they are doing something where they are picking people, I am not usually picked. This makes me feel sad that I’m the last one to be picked”. Ramen Noodle then reiterated these feelings of non-acceptance when asked about her experience during the interview, saying that “I don’t get picked as often as everyone else. Makes me feel bummed. Makes me feel less included. I never get picked. I’m always the last one to get picked for a team, makes me feel sad.” A common thread in the first two themes was the participants’ fear of negative peer perceptions, first with support personnel drawing attention to them, and then with concerns about looking different or standing out when participating in activities. In each, participants perceived that their peers might see them as ‘less than’ due to their disability status, a fear that may have been warranted given the data in this current theme (reflective notes). Maggie and Ramen Noodle’s difficulty finding partners and teams in their PE classes, when left to their own devices, suggested that their peers do possibly view them as less capable or desirable of a teammate.
“I Would Rather be Like the Other Students”: Discussing Disability
The final theme addresses the suggestion that teachers should discuss a student’s disability status both with them (Wang, 2013), and with their peers (Williston, 2017). Among the participants, only Ramen Noodle had a conversation about her orthopedic impairment with her teacher at the start of the school year and found it helpful. She explained that:
Okay, well they asked like what I needed and if there was anything that I needed, just come up to them and tell them. And we talked about the stuff that I needed, and it was mostly with my mom and not me. Sometimes they’d ask me one or two questions though and then I’d answer it. I felt like they just wanted to know that if I needed help with anything, just come and ask. I thought it was helpful.
Not only was Ramen Noodle the only participant to have experience with this strategy, but she was also one of only two participants who believed it to be beneficial. Phillip, who largely described feelings of exclusion, an inability to participate, and a lack of control over his experiences in PE, expressed positive feelings toward disability disclosure. Phillip seemed to crave some collaboration and communication with his PE teachers (reflective notes) as he shared that:
None of my teachers have asked me about my disability. I think only one teacher had ever heard of what it was. I would feel more included if they asked me about what I need and how I could participate more.
In contrast, Gordon, Agnes, and Maggie did not support the utilization of this ‘inclusive’ strategy and felt positively about not discussing their disability with their teacher. Maggie was glad that her teachers did not talk to her or ask her questions and said that given the choice, she would want to share the bare minimum amount of information with them (reflective notes). She said that “I do not want to talk to my teachers about having spina bifida. I just want them to know that I can’t do running.” Likewise, Gordon felt relieved that his teachers did not address his orthopedic impairment with him. In his written prompt, Gordon attributed his feelings of inclusion in his PE class to this, and wrote:
I like when teachers don’t talk to me about my disability and just treat me like everyone else. I like that they do not treat me differently because I do not like being singled out. I do not need much assistance in the games we play, and they treat me just like everyone else.
Gordon expanded on this further during his interview, saying that if his teachers did ask, he also gave them as little information as possible, saying “I would not be open to having a conversation with my teachers about my disability. If they asked, I would just tell them ‘my doctor told me to wear this leg brace and arm brace, bye!’” Agnes thought positively about her teacher’s lack of inquiry about her orthopedic impairment and felt more included because they did not seem to know about her disability (reflective notes). Agnes shared that even if they did ask, “I would not tell them. I’m scared that I’m going to be treated differently.” Gordon and Agnes’ concerns about being treated differently were validated by Alice’s account of her own experiences (reflective notes). Her PE teacher approached her with questions about her disability, and she preferred that they had not. She explained that:
I would rather be able to focus on my work instead of answering a bunch of questions. I like to be able to be immersed in my work and I like to be able to do it similar to what everyone else is. I would rather be like the other students and just get on with my day.
Gordon’s and Agnes’ level of comfort with the idea of disability disclosure seemed to track with their narrative responses in the previous themes (reflective notes). They each described not wanting modifications to be made for them. Specifically, Gordon felt most included when he did not have any sort of support personnel and Agnes enjoyed having choice in the activities she participated in during PE. They both appeared comfortable with their level of participation without the implementation of “inclusive” strategies; therefore, they did not see a benefit to discussing their orthopedic impairments with their teachers. Although there was some disparity among the participants regarding whether they wanted to discuss their disability with their teacher, there was one ‘inclusive’ strategy that unanimously elicited negative responses from those who had experience with it.
Gordon, Alice, and Phillip were vehemently opposed to the practice of a teacher discussing disability with students without a person with a disability present (reflective notes). Gordon’s opposition to this idea was even stronger than to the possibility of a one-on-one conversation with his PE teacher (reflective notes), explaining that if a conversation about his disability was required, that the information should come from him. He described an experience from years earlier where a teacher discussed his disability with his classmates in his absence Gordon felt embarrassed that the discussion did not provide his classmates an accurate representation of his disability, thus he does not like the idea of it happening again in the future. He said that “I would rather tell people myself, face-to-face. If the teacher doesn’t know everything, she could say something that’s not true.” For Alice and Phillip, being talked about rather than included in the conversation, led to peers treating them differently and lasting experiences of marginalization (reflective notes). Phillip described an experience when:
I’ve had teachers tell my classmates things about my disability when I’m not there, and then everyone treats me differently, like I couldn’t do as much, or they had to be nice to me. They thought they were being helpful, but it just made me mad.
Alice, too, experienced a shift in treatment after her teacher’s seemingly well-intentioned talk with her peers (reflective notes). Like Gordon, Alice stated that if the conversation had to occur, she would rather be involved, sharing that “nobody wants to think that a group of people’s talking about them when they’re not there, and now people give them special treatment and they don’t know why.”