Stigma associated with disability poses significant social justice challenges; including exclusion from education and employment (Mackelprang, 2013). This study examines how youth with disabilities navigate stigmatization through their participation in wheelchair basketball teams. Stigma can be defined as socially undesired differences that can separate and discredit individuals in the larger society (Goffman, 1963). Persistent experiences of stigmatization can lead to youth’s internalization of stigma, and dehumanize them as incapable and dependent, which violates the basic human rights to autonomy (Henderson & Bryan, 2011). Although the international and national human rights movement has promoted social inclusion of people with disabilities (United Nations, 2006), many are still excluded from social participation. Wheelchair basketball that highlights strengths of players with disabilities can shift public perception of disability to focus on their ability, and hence eliminate stigma (Rugoho, 2019). This study aims to illustrate how youth’s engagement with wheelchair basketball enables them to navigate stigma, and contributes to reframing perceptions of disability in the larger society.
We examined interviews with seven out of eight players and two coaches from one U.S. college wheelchair basketball team. They participated in one hour semi-structured, audio-recorded individual interviews on any impacts of wheelchair basketball on their understandings of disability and others’ attitudes toward them, including stigmatization. All interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed by two independent coders. Any disagreements were solved through discussion. Through repeated readings of transcribed interviews with players, emic codes were induced using analytic induction techniques (Schwandt, 2007). Perceptions of coaches were used to critique our interpretations. The credibility of our findings was critiqued by professionals knowledgeable about wheelchair basketball for the purpose of peer debriefing (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).
Our findings illuminate stigmatization experienced by participant youth, and how their involvement in wheelchair basketball has expanded their social opportunities and participation. They reported others’ stigmatizing attitudes that devalued them as incapable, and social exclusion due to accessibility issues. Introduction to wheelchair basketball, however, changed the youth’ understanding of disability from deficits to one of their “characteristics”, and provided them with social opportunities, including playing in basketball games at public facilities, and access to a higher education that opens up their future employment opportunities. They also described changes in others’ understandings of disabilities, from “disability” to “ability,” after watching competitive wheelchair basketball games, which motivated them to exert efforts in raising awareness of wheelchair basketball, including through the use of social networking services and media.
The case of a college wheelchair basketball team has implications for social changes. The access to opportunities for youth with disabilities in a field in which they can gain strength (e.g., but not limited to, wheelchair basketball) facilitates their social inclusion, expands their social network, and shifts general perspectives of disability to their ability. Currently, however, not everyone has access to such opportunities. Social Work research and practice should include advocacy for the development of opportunities for social participations of youth with disabilities and their access to these resources, which can lead to positive social changes.