A team of researchers, representatives from disability and physical activity organizations, and parents of children and adolescents with disabilities worked together to produce Canada’s first-ever comprehensive summary of national physical activity data for children and adolescents with disabilities.
Led by Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE), the panel of experts used a set of previously established benchmarks from the Global Matrix, an internationally recognized framework for grading physical activity trends in children and adolescents, to grade 13 indicators of physical activity participation through a disability-specific lens.
“For the first time ever, we were able to synthesize all national-level data examining the movement behaviours of children with disabilities,” says Arbour-Nicitopoulos. “Based on available evidence, children and adolescents with disabilities received a grade of D for overall physical activity, F for active play and a C+ for organized sport and physical activity.”
Almost 40 per cent of the report card, including indicators for physical literacy and fitness, received an incomplete grade.
“These data gaps in the measurement of physical activity highlight a major need to improve national monitoring and surveillance by collecting more evidence on the accessibility and quality of programs and infrastructure in key settings that are known to support physical activity in children and adolescents,” says Arbour-Nicitopoulos. “Our report card puts children and adolescents with disabilities at the forefront, as opposed to being an after-thought or subsumed with more ‘general child population’ data.”
The report makes the following recommendations to increase the physical activity of children and adolescents with disabilities:
• Prioritize children and adolescents with disabilities in policies and funding. Increase funding commitments across all levels of government and existing accessibility legislation.
• Improve monitoring of key settings with more evidence on the accessibility of physical activity and sports programming (including physical education classes) in schools and community settings, and more data on the accessibility and inclusivity of infrastructure (e.g., recreation and sport facilities, parks and playgrounds).
• Remove ableism from existing reporting benchmarks. Many of the existing benchmarks of the Global Matrix promote a one-size-fits-all approach. This approach does not acknowledge the many ways children and adolescents with disabilities move, learn and play. Physical activity guidelines should be customized for children and adolescents with disabilities. For example, the benchmark for Overall Physical Activity should include light intensity physical activity because it is an important component in the daily movements of children and adolescents with disabilities.
• Address measurement gaps. Use valid tools and multiple data collection methods for measuring the physical activity of children and adolescents with disabilities to avoid a limited and biased representation. Measurement should focus on both the quantity and quality of physical activity participation. For children and adolescents with disabilities, being ‘present’ at a program is not the same as actively participating, having fun and feeling satisfied.
“We know that participation in physical activity provides health and developmental benefits for all children and adolescents,” says Arbour-Nicitopoulos. “Yet, many social, institutional, community and policy barriers continue to limit the participation of Canadian children and adolescents with disabilities in physical activity.
“Our hope is that these recommendations and calls to action can move the needle on physical activity research, practice and policy for children and adolescents with disabilities.”
This research was supported by a Partnership Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for the Canadian Disability Participation Project, the Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities and ParticipACTION.