Beyond Disability Awareness Toward a Trend of Disability Competency

Jun 04, 2013
Tagged with: Beyond Disability Awareness Toward a Trend of Disability Competency

I read an article recently that appeared on Disability Scoop that highlighted a story about a family that was turned away from their fitness facility because the professionals did not know how to accommodate the needs of a person with a disability.  My first reaction was one of frustration and empathy for the individual and family.  I also have been turned away from facilities and have been told politely but firmly, “I am sorry but ‘we’ do not serve someone with your specialized needs.”

The article got me thinking again about Disability Awareness.  Within the Health, Disability, and Wellness fields, a working definition of Disability Awareness is “creating a positive attitude and increased empathy toward people with disabilities.”[i]  Our Health, Disability, Fitness and Wellness Fields, in my view, need to broaden their current definition of Disability Awareness.   No individual, regardless of whether they have a disability, should be turned away from a facility due to a lack of awareness from professionals about how to accommodate individual needs.   Our Health, Disability, Fitness and Wellness fields need to advance a framework and mindset that turns Disability Awareness into a framework of Disability Competency.  Examples of such competencies include: effectively communicating with people with disabilities, understanding the values and needs of people with disabilities, and identifying and using specific strategies to accommodate individual needs.

Existing literature identifies stages of Disability Awareness training.  Stage one of training includes “exposure” or bringing a professional in contact with the notion of disability.  This includes providing information about various disabilities or disability characteristics.  Stage two includes experiential learning which consists of direct interactions with individuals with disabilities, simulations, or group interactions.   Stage three includes the strategy or implementation phase, where a professional carries out a plan that includes providing needed accommodations.  Stage three also includes a point called “ownership”.  Ownership is the culmination of stage one and two where a professional actively facilitates inclusion of a person with a disability from their exposure and learned experience.  The implementation stage uses accommodations and supports which are designed to level the playing field for an individual with a disability.  Through the provided accommodation or support, the individual is able to participate equally with their peers.[ii]   The professional “owns” the accommodation and related problem-solving process by taking responsibility to ensure the accommodation is successful – that is, from the provided accommodation, an individual with a disability is able to participate equally with their peers.

When I started to look at available research on Disability Awareness training, the following trend was highlighted, “Most disability awareness training is conducted as workshops; often one-shot workshops, compared to multiphase problem-based learning.”[iii]  My translation of this point is that professionals need more time and hands-on practice to learn effective accommodation strategies.   Available literature identifies the need for “cooperative, multidimensional, training formats” for professionals. Training ought to include interactive sessions with follow up.[iv]

The framework of Disability Awareness training needs to expand beyond the current notion of increasing the comfort and sensitivity level of a professional about disabilities.  Professionals need to be taught hands-on strategies to:

  1. Effectively interact with individuals with disabilities,
  2. Effectively assess and identify potential accommodations, and
  3. Effectively implement accommodations and related supports for individuals with a variety of disabilities.

For a professional to reach the defined “ownership stage” of disability awareness and go beyond that to a stage of competency; training sessions need to develop and expand  beyond “one-shot opportunities” and allow for hands-on learning, practice, and repetition.

Professionals need training and forums which offer specific opportunities for creative problem-solving.  Such problem-solving forums would allow for the presentation of multiple scenarios and vignettes.  Each scenario would necessitate different levels of accommodation.  By working through the scenarios, professionals would learn and identify effective strategies that they could use in practice to accommodate individual needs.

I suspect if the professionals highlighted in the Disability Scoop article had such training, and further developed the disability competencies outlined here; we would likely be highlighting more positive outcomes for the family, staff, and facility.



[i] Foley, J.T, Tindall, D., Lieberman, L., & Kim, S. (2007). How to develop disability awareness using the sport education model. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 78(9), 32-36.

[ii] Wilson, S., & Lieberman, L. (2000). Disability awareness in physical education. Strategies, 13(6), 12, 29-33.

[iii] Darling-Hammond, L. (2005). Teaching as a profession: Lessons in teacher preparation and professional development. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(3), 237-240.

[iv] Hall, Elizabeth W.. “The Effects of Disability Awareness Trainings with Career and Technical Educators Teaching in High Need Rural Schools.” Rural Special Education Quarterly. American Council on Rural Special Education (ACRES)-RSEQ. 2007.

Author: Kerry