Disabled children, inclusion, and physical education in Sweden

ImageKim Wickman, PhD, Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Education, Umeå University, Sweden

Is Swedish education inclusive and does it comprise inclusive teaching? Are schools able to handle normal variations of differences among children and young people in the subject of physical education and health? Is there any clear boundary between what are regarded as normal variations and what is perceived and understood as so divergent that there is a need for special measures?

In all Nordic countries it has been democratically decided to develop ‘education for all’ -policy (Haug, 1998; Nilholm, 2003). The basic idea is that all children should have an equal access to educational activities. During the past decade the Swedish state and the civil society have, for example, set more strict demands on the education system to work in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to fulfill the political goals stated in the Convention. In particular, it has been emphasized that disabled children should be guaranteed equal opportunities for educational and social participation (Skolverket, 2007). Such an example is the new Swedish Education Act, which among other things, strengthens children’s legal rights. Another example is the strategy for implementing the disability policy in Sweden 2011-2016; its purpose is to achieve concrete goals, efforts and results in disabled people’s lives. This implies, for example, that all students, regardless of impairment or development level, are to be offered education in the local school together with their peers (SOU 1974:53). This policy aims to recognise the diversity and variation among students. The school as an institution is thereby expected to adapt the school environment, the methods and the pedagogy to all students; the students should not adapt themselves to the school (see also DePauw & Doll-Tepper, 2000; Vickerman, 2012).

However, some critical voices have suggested that such developments have not changed practices in school subjects such as Physical Education (PE), which continue to disadvantage many young people, including disabled girls and boys with ‘special educational needs’ (Trondman, 2005; Jerlinder, 2010). Further, teachers need to be more proactive in preventing and identifying abusive behavior in PE lessons. Obviously, there is a discrepancy between the official documents and programs on the one hand, and the educational practices on the other (Sandahl, 2005; Ekberg, 2009; Jerlinder, 2010; Wickman, 2011).

Although the compulsory education and the voluntary sports movement have different goals with their activities, the dividing line between these objectives is unclear (Wellard, 2006). Many teachers have been or are active as leaders and coaches within the sport movement in their spare time, and many have also competed in different sports. This probably contributes to the fact that dominating norms, values ​​and ideals that characterize the sport movement are reflected in PE sports (Annerstedt, 2005, 2008; Olofsson, 2007). Studies have also shown that teachers themselves believe that the teaching of PE should be something else than what is conveyed in the voluntary sports movement. Children and young people develop early awareness of the bodies which are considered as viable for sports, which affects the way they perceive and understand themselves and each other in relation to sport. What is considered as a capable, functional and performing body also becomes evident in the teachers’ grading where it is mainly boys with experience from the sports movement that benefit while girls’ interests are overlooked when planning activities (Redelius, Fagrell & Larsson, 2009). It creates a situation where many young people are discriminated because of their physical performances, rather than because of their willingness to participate on equal conditions (Wellard, 2006).

In an ongoing study, my intention is to let young adults with impairments to have their say on what they characterize as examples of good sports environments. Since school is compulsory and therefore the teaching of physical education and health concerns all students, the study will be based on the young adults’ experiences of sports at school as well as on their spare time. 



Annerstedt, C. (2005). Physical Education and Health in Sweden. Introduction to the school system and P.E. in Sweden. I Pühse, Uwe & Gerber, Markus (red.), International comparison of physical education: concepts, problems, prospects. Oxford: Meyer & Meyer sport. S. 604-629.

Annerstedt, C. (2008). Physical education in Scandinavia with a focus on

Sweden: a comparative perspective. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, vol. 13(4), 303–318.

DePauw, K., Doll-Tepper. G. (2000). Toward progressive inclusion and acceptance. Myth or reality? The inclusion debate and bandwagon discourse. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly 17: 135–43.

Ekberg, L-E. (2009). Mellan fysisk bildning och aktivering – en studie om ämnet idrott och hälsa i skolår 9. [Between the Physical formation and Activation – a Study of Physical Education in School year 9, not available in English]. PhD thesis. Malmö Studies in Educational Science. Malmö högskola. 

Haug, P. (1998). Pedagogiskt dilemma : Specialundervisning. [Teaching Dilemma: Special Education.]Stockholm:Skolverket.

Jerlinder, K. (2010). Social rättvisa i inkluderande idrottsundervisning för elever med rörelsehinder: en utopi?[ Social Justice in Inclusive Physical Education for pupils with Physical Disabilities – Reality or Utopia?, not available in English]. PhD thesis. Örebro: Örebro universitet.

Nilholm, C.(2003). Perspektiv på specialpedagogik. Lund: Studentlitteratur. [Perspectives on Special Education, not available in English]

Olofsson, E. (2007). The Swedish sports movement and the PE teacher 1940-2003: From supporter to challenger. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 5(12), 163–183.

Redelius, K., Fagrell, B., & Larsson, H. (2009). Symbolic capital in physical education and health: To be, to do or to know? That is the gendered question. Sport, Education and Society, 14(2), 245–260.

Skolverket (2007). Kategorisering av elever med funktionshinder i Skolverkets arbete. [Categorization of Disabled Students in The Swedish National Agency for Education’s work, not available in English]. PM 2007-11-26.

Sandahl, B. (2005).Ett ämne för alla? Normer och praktik i grundskolans idrottsundervisning 1962–2002. [A Subject for All? Norms and Practices in Elementary School and Physical Education from 1962 to 2002, not available in English]. Stockholm: Carlssons Bokförlag.

SOU 1974:53. Skolans arbetsmiljö. [The Work Environments in School, not available in English]

Trondman, M. (2005). Unga och föreningsidrotten [Young People in the Sport Organization, not available in English]. Stockholm: Ungdomsstyrelsens skrifter.

Wellard, I. (2006) Able bodies and sport participation: social constructions of physical ability for gendered and sexually identified bodies, Sport, Education and Society, 11(2), 105- 119.

Wickman, K. (2011). Flickor och pojkar med funktionsnedsättning och deras rättigheter och möjligheter till ett aktivt idrottsliv. [Disabled Girls and Boys and Their Rights and Opportunities for an Active Sports Life, not available in English]In: Norberg & Pihlblad. För barnets bästa: En antologi om idrott ur ett barnrättsperspektiv. Stockholm: Centrum för idrottsforskning.

Vickerman, P. (2012). Including children with special educational needs in physical education: has entitlement and accessibility been realised? Disability & Society, 27(2) 249–262.

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