The "ivory tower" is gradually beginning to open its doors to students with disabilities. Although scholarship on the learning experiences of students with disabilities at university is burgeoning, there is an absence of qualitative craftsmanship that has investigated the physical activity experiences of these students, most particularly in the Canadian context. Using Pierre Bourdieu's theoretical framework as a lens to consider both the bodily and social effects of disablement, I adopted a thematic analytic approach to describe the activity experiences of 12 disabled students at the University of Manitoba (UofM) in Winnipeg, Canada. The students described threatened body-self relationships. They also regarded on campus physical activity as a site of both pleasure and pain. Finally, the students explained what inclusive physical activity means within the context of higher education. By describing the movement experiences and desires of disabled university students at the UofM, this study contributes toward the ongoing struggle for inclusive higher education.

Located deep in the heart of the Canadian Prairies on the ancestral land of now colonized Indigenous people, the University of Manitoba (UofM) in Winnipeg is situated in the land of ice and snow. Due to legal mandates that are enshrined in contemporary human rights codes, today, more students with disabilities are attending university and have gained access to the centuries old "ivory tower" (Promis, Erevelles, & Matthews, 2001). Given that the rhetoric of support has not been met by the reality of provision (Barnes, 2007), these students' educational needs and physical activity experiences have not been attended to. In this article, which was inspired by Pierre Bourdieu's theoretical insights, I explore the physical activity experiences of disabled students at the UofM. In doing so, I attempt to investigate the complex nexus between education, disability, and the moving body.

Review of the Literature

Universities have, at times, acted as spaces for radical social upheaval (Barnes, 2007; Oliver & Barnes, 2010). For example, Anti-Vietnam protests in the United States and Anti-Apartheid activity in South Africa were led by enraged youth seeking radical change (Barnes, 2007). Despite these exceptions, however, universities have most often been a source of guarded conservatism, serving to educate an elite, white, male minority (Barnes, 2007; Oliver & Barnes, 2010). Further, Barnes (2007) states that "the university has contributed relatively little in terms of nurturing our understanding of social citizenship for disabled people" (p. 138). Thus, with respect to the education of students with disabilities, the university has adopted a reactionary stance. Despite this troubled history, disabled students are entering the university in greater numbers, with some studies suggesting that this group now comprises about 17% of the student body (Neubert, Moon, & Grigal, 2004). Mental health conditions are the fastest growing segment (Barnes, 2007; Wilson, Getzeland, & Brown, 2000). Disabled students are more likely to be male (Wilson, et al., 2000), older than their "healthy" peers, have invisible disabilities, and come from privileged socio-economic backgrounds (Barnes, 2007). Disabled students are less likely to complete a university degree. Upon graduation, disabled students encounter a longer job search, are more likely to be unemployed, and are more likely to find employment in a field unrelated to their university training. Thus, the struggle for inclusive higher education is far from over.

Students with Disabilities and Participation in Campus Physical Activity.

Although participation in campus-life activities, such as physical activity, is a central component of the university experience, Hedrick and Broadbent (1996) suggest that "we have abhorrently neglected the physical activity pursuits of those with disabilities" (p. 137). This statement aptly summarizes the poor state of evidence on the physical activity experiences of disabled students on university campuses. There is now a burgeoning literature on disability itself (Barnes, 2007; Oliver & Barnes, 2010) as well as the importance of both sport (Brittain, 2004) and physical activity for disabled people (Taub, Blinde, & Greer, 1999). However, the complex cross-road between disability, education, and physical activity is an unexplored nexus, particularly in the Canadian context. "Inclusion" is most often conceptualized as the removal of architectural barriers (Schleien, Germ, & McAvoy, 1996). Thus, it is unsurprising that campus physical activity has not featured more prominently in the current way that inclusive university spaces are envisioned. While building ramps and adding curb cuts are important steps to take, they are in themselves not sufficient to ensure inclusion (Schleien et al., 1996).

Three central themes characterize the findings from research that has examined the activity experiences of disabled students. Most research focuses on the architectural, transport-related, programmatic, attitudinal, and personal barriers that these individuals face in their efforts to be active. Neubert et al. (2004) developed a survey to investigate the activities and outcomes of disabled students at the post secondary level, from the perspective of Maryland teachers in the United States. Only about 60% of the teachers felt that disabled students' participate in campus life programs, such as physical activity. Entrance exams, negative attitudes from professors, lack of accommodation, and prohibitive costs were formidable barriers that prevented disabled students from being able to fully engage in educational and campus life experiences. Promis et al. (2001) conducted open-ended questions with disabled students at South State University in the United States. Although South State University regularly espouses inclusion discourse, the students struggled to attain a sense of belonging and could not access activity programs. There was also a lack of diversity in the type of activities that were offered. Students' desired a greater repertoire of activity choices. Further, the students desired participation in integrated programs that would facilitate a sense of "normalcy" with mainstream university peers. Problems with the scheduling of, and transport to, activities also hindered participation. The students felt that an advisory board of disabled students on campus would help to inform the design of accessible activity options (Promis et al., 2001). As a part of an accessibility services review for the Virginia Commonwealth University program in Virginia, USA, Wilson et al. (2000) conducted descriptive interviews with multiple stakeholders, such as accessibility services staff and disabled students. Many issues were raised in this program review, such as the importance of faculty accommodating the learning needs of students, conceptualizing inclusion as more than the removal of architectural barriers, appropriately staffing the disability office, and better coordination and communication of adapted learning needs. There were vast discrepancies between staff and student opinions, in that students did not experience the disability supports which staff felt they provided (Wilson et al., 2000).

However, when disabled students are provided with adapted, high quality physical activity on campus, they report many personal and social benefits. Giacobbi, Stancil, Hardin, & Bryant (2008) adopted a mixed-methods approach to examine the relationship between physical activity and quality of life among 26 people with disabilities in the United States, many of whom were university students. The descriptive statistics demonstrated that this particular subgroup of people with disabilities was more active than comparable cohorts. Qualitative data revealed that physical activity enhanced the psychological, physical, and social health of the students, as well as social opportunities and quality of life. Mentorship-based programs that incorporate a peer-to-peer physical activity component may be a beneficial approach. Taub et al. (1999) conducted a qualitative study with 24 disabled male college students in the United States to explore their use of physical activity. Sport participation allowed them to demonstrate physical competence, changing deeply held beliefs about the inherent "sickness" of the disabled body. Through enhanced musculature, sport participation also improved men's perception of their physical appearance. Sport participation liberated the disabled body by demonstrating its capacity to engage in graceful movements. Sport participation for disabled college men may allow them to manage stigma and resist notions of a "spoiled" identity. Blinde and McClung (1997) conducted a qualitative study with 11 disabled participants to explore perceptions toward an accessible, individualized, university-based physical activity program. The program enhanced perceptions of the physical self by allowing the participants to move the body in novel ways. The program changed the inherently negative way that the participants viewed the body, such that it was no longer regarded as a "traitor." The program enhanced social interaction by facilitating opportunities to meet new friends. The social and physical benefits of the program appeared to transfer to other contexts. Although not an empirical paper, Johnson (2000) discusses the importance of out of classroom activities, such as physical activity, for students with disabilities. Such activities contribute toward the development of critical skills—such as teamwork and a sense of belonging — that may not be acquired in classroom environments.

Finally, many scholars have demonstrated that activity for disabled students is neither simple nor straightforward. In doing so, these scholars illustrate the way in which activity may be considered a site of contestation that is associated with both enabling and constraining features. Although not directly related to disabled students, Rimmer, Riley, Wang, Rauworth, & Jurkowski (2004) conducted a qualitative study that explored the barriers and facilitators to physical activity from the perspective of people with disabilities, architects, fitness and recreation specialists, and city park district planners in the United States. Utilizing focus groups as a method, Rimmer et al. (2004) found that there are both constraining and enabling factors to physical activity for people with disabilities, such as the built and natural environment, finances, equipment, information, emotional and psychological factors, and physical activity policies. Using a Foucauldian inspired qualitative approach, Ashton-Shaeffer, Gibson, Autry, & Hanson (2001) explored 15 disabled people's experience of a sport camp in the United States; many were university students. In their daily lives, participants were subject to able-bodied surveillance. This ableist gaze was experienced as judgmental and oppressive. By resisting stigma, participation in a sport camp provided participants with an opportunity to display embodied resistance against the oppressive ableist social order. Sport participation equipped disabled participants with a sense of empowerment. Although sport can be a site of endangerment for disabled persons, it can also serve as a source of resistance.

What is missing? Research limitations

It is evident that few scholars have explored the nexus where disability, education, and activity collide. Although people with disabilities understand the benefits of activity, they face architectural, programmatic, financial, transport-related, social and personal barriers. Despite the undue focus on architectural barriers, the oppressive ableist social gaze that constructs the disabled body as weak — as the antithesis of mobility — are formidable challenges. When disabled people are active on campus, they experience a range of personal and social benefits. Sometimes, activity is a site of contestation offering both enabling and constraining experiences.

Those scholars who have invested the activity experiences of disabled students have tended to rely on survey methodologies, program descriptions, and case studies rather than empirical methodologies. With a few notable exceptions (Promis et al., 2001; Taub et al., 1999), most of the qualitative studies do not adhere to conventional qualitative traditions and are thus lacking in philosophical and theoretical content. Rather than specifically investigating the activity experiences of currently enrolled disabled students, all studies have utilized a university-aged disabled population who are active. All studies occurred in the United States, which is characterized by different health care and educational systems. Although some would suggest that privatization is gradually encroaching upon the Canadian health care system under the current conservative rule, Canada still adheres to the model of "universal health care" that was first implemented in the Canadian Prairies in the 19th century. Thus, people with disabilities in Canada receive free medical care and social service assistance. Additionally, colleges and universities are distinct educational entities in Canada. Some would suggest that the Canadian university system is characterized by far less heterogeneity in relation to the United States. As such, the health care and educational experiences of Canadian disabled students are likely to be quite different from the narratives reported in other studies. I sought to build on this small, non-Canadian literature by exploring the activity experiences of disabled students at the UofM.

Producing Knowledge: Research Design

In the winter of 2013, the Research Ethics Board at the UofM approved the "Accessibility on the Move" study. The Director of Student Accessibility Services at the UofM — who leads the coordination of learning accommodations for disabled students — sent a recruitment script using the list serve to explain the study. Over the course of six months, 16 students contacted me by email directly, either to request further information about the study or to express interest in participating. After four people declined, a total of 12 participants formed the final sample.


This study was informed by the thematic analytic tradition (Braun & Clarke, 2006), and theoretical insights from the French philosopher and sociology of the body scholar, Pierre Bourdieu (1979).

Disability and the Body as a Bearer of Value: Theoretical Framework

Scholars have turned to Bourdieu's critical social theory to study disablement for a variety of reasons. The social model of disability has been critical to overcoming the myopathy of the medical model that has so often described disabled people in demeaning ways that connote deficiency. The social model has promoted an ideological shift in which the source of disablement is "located" in oppressive social environments. However, by adhering doggedly to environmental barriers, social model thinkers may be guilty of promoting social reductionism and determinism. A critique has been leveraged regarding the dualist ontology that the medical versus social model debate provokes (Allen, 2004). The social model's undue focus on only the material basis of oppression may overlook the very real plight of disabled people in everyday environments (Allen, 2004). Thus, contemporary scholars have turned to novel frameworks —such as Bourdieu's critical social theory — as a way to side step the body versus environment approach to the study of disablement. Although originally proposed as a class-based theory (Allen, 2004), Bourdieu's social theory has been taken up by those interested in disability scholarship, such as children and parents managing visual impairments (Allen, 2004) or young men living with muscular dystrophy (Gibson, Young, Upshur, & McKeever, 2007). It elegantly considers the inter-relationship between disabled bodies and broader social and cultural values (Gibson et al., 2007).

Bourdieu studied both individual and social group "practices." For Bourdieu, human practices are the sum total of our thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and particular tastes toward the broader social world in which we are a part. Unlike psychologists who view thoughts and behaviors as emanating from the cavern of our minds — or sociologists who see human action as determined by the environment — Bourdieu (1979) regarded human practices as neither the product of human consciousness or environmental determinism. Rather, Bourdieu (1979) believed that the 'economy' of human practice is forged in a dialectical relationship between personal tastes and social structures (Allen, 2004: Gibson et al., 2007). These thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs gradually sediment into an engrained "habitus." This bodily orientation reflects the sum total of the dispositions that we have acquired toward the world in which we live (Bourdieu, 1979). Since past experiences 'sediment' in this bodily disposition toward the world, the habitus not only encapsulates traces of the past in the present, but serves as guiding postulates for how to behave in the future (Allen, 2004). For instance, many disabled people avoid or withdraw from physical activity. For Bourdieu (1979), this may reflect both internal psychic reflections about the disabled moving body and acquired experiences in institutions — such as schools — that have shaped the physical activity habitus for disabled people over time. Because the habitus appears natural—and masquerades as an inherent prefixed disposition that is 'just the way things are' (Gibson et al., 2007) — it is difficult to see its socially constructed nature.

Bourdieu (1979) believed that the habitus unfolds in multiple "fields", that is, social microcosms that include the family, the health care system, and the educational system. Social fields are sites not only for the display of the habitus, but also, the reproduction of material inequalities. For instance, disabled people are underrepresented on university campuses and typically take a longer period of time to graduate. This may reflect a field-specific process which demonstrates the reproduction of ableism in the educational spatial field over time.

Bourdieu (1979) discussed the accumulation of various forms of "capital" that individuals acquire in different social fields. Capital can be defined as any resource that is considered to mark the body as bearing value in a social field. There are different kinds of capital that individuals may have in particular social fields. Physical capital may include one's total attractiveness and aesthetic appeal. Social and cultural capital may refer to the network of relations that individuals are connected to and the range of available cultural opportunities. Not all forms of capital are visible. The metaphoric value that bodies have in social fields — basically, to be a body that is regarded as "worthy"— was for Bourdieu, a very important source of invisible value known as symbolic capital. Because the disabled body departs from normative standards of desirable aesthetics in an appearance driven culture that is focused on the 'body beautiful,' they may lack both physical and symbolic forms of capital, in which their bodies are marked as unintelligible. Bourdieu's theoretical framework may offer a fruitful way of thinking about disabled identities as those that are neither pre-given nor freely chosen. Disabled people likely have plural identities that are both psychic and social, formed in the complex interplay between individual experience and the social world. Theoretical strands from Bourdieu's social theory offer exciting new possibilities to think through the physical activity experiences of disabled students at the UofM, while also side-stepping the dualistic 'body versus culture' mentality that has so long pervaded disability studies (Edwards & Imrie, 2003; Gibson et al., 2007).


Twelve students pursuing fulltime or part time studies at the UofM, including ten undergraduates and one graduate student, participated. All students were also registered with Accessibility Services at the UofM. The participants' degree program and future academic aspirations varied. For instance, students were pursuing degrees in the Faculty of Psychology, Kinesiology, Science, Nutrition, and Business. While some students hoped to pursue a graduate degree or other professional program upon graduation, others desired to apply their skills in the work field immediately upon graduation. On average, the students were slightly older than their peers (average age = 26.4). Eight women and four men participated. Although most participants were single, some were in long-term relationships. Participants were not asked about their race and culture. However, to the researcher — who is a "visible minority" — most participants appeared to be Caucasian. Three participants had emigrated from the Middle East and Europe to flee political warfare, and appeared to be "bodies of color." The participants had a broad range of disabilities. These included cerebral palsy, musculoskeletal diseases, viral meningitis, visual impairments, hearing impairments, chronic gastrointestinal disease, and chronic mental health conditions. One of the participants with a visual impairment had a prosthetic eye, which she felt enhanced her aesthetic appeal. Three of the participants used wheelchairs or walking canes to facilitate mobility. Two of the participants used augmented communication devices to participate, such as voice recognition software. Disability was not "visible" in all cases. While most of these disabilities and illnesses were congenital, others were acquired later on in life through accidents or illnesses.

Methodological tools

All participants gave their informed and written consent to participation. The participants engaged in a 60 to 90 minute semi-structured interview with me. Convenient times for the interviews were arranged for all students in my office. The interview guide was developed using relevant literature and my own research interests. However, the interviews were informal and participants were encouraged to pursue novel topics that were of interest to them — such as dating with a disability. Since most of the research in the field of disability studies has done little to emancipate or liberate disabled people (Barnes, 2007), academics are encouraged to form relationships with disabled people and their communities. I will need to take strides to ensure better activity experiences for disabled students on campus and forge truly collaborative academic-activist-disability relationships. However, I tried to work toward the goal of more emancipatory research by soliciting participants' input on the design of the new "Active Living Centre" at the UofM, that is, a new "state of the art" athletic facility that is currently being built on campus. In the hopes of bettering activity conditions for students with disabilities on campus, I compiled a report of recommendations from the participants for the Active Living Centre.

Data analysis

The audiotaped interviews were transcribed verbatim by a research assistant and subjected to a thematic analysis (TA). At root, TA is a qualitative method designed to identify, analyze, interpret, and report patterns in qualitative data. Although TA has not gained the same degree of notoriety as other qualitative research canons — such as grounded theory — it is a rigorous analytical method in the social sciences and psychology that can be used to make sense of rich qualitative data.

Thematic analysts are encouraged to make their values explicit. Since TA is compatible with both realist and constructivist epistemological positions, it offers much theoretical freedom. As a researcher, I adhere to a social constructivist and interpretivist epistemology. Rather than a true fact, I recognize that knowledge may best be considered as an ever-changing cultural production. For instance, humans did not always know that the earth is round. The notion that "the earth ends at the horizon as far as the eye can see" was a deeply entrenched view that changed with the progression of knowledge. Rather than a true account, I also recognize that the knowledge produced in the research encounter may be considered as an interpretive venture that is produced in the interaction between the participants and myself. For me, a neutral scientific gaze and objective research stance are problematic terms. Rather, I reflexively consider how the self is embedded in the research questions that are asked. I am critical of the notion of individual experience. Rather than one disabled experience, I consider how ideographic experiences in lived everyday contexts likely make for multiple disabled experiences. Further, I recognize that rather than one unassailable disabled identity, it is possible for disabled people to negotiate multiple identities. Since TA is not wed to any theoretical tradition, it is compatible with my constructivist-interpretivist epistemological roots and Bourdieu's critical social theory.

First, by reading the data corpus numerous times, the research assistant and I delved into the data. This data familiarization activity provided us with the opportunity to be immersed in the data. Secondly, each individual transcript was coded for recurring and pattered meaning units. At this very broad level of open coding, any frequently occurring meaning units were named with a code, with particular attention to those meaning units that departed from the dominant story line. Data not related to the study specifically was still subject to rigorous coding. Codes, for instance, included such things as "staircases" or "snow". We created a chart for each participant, which served as a way to record the codes documented within each transcript. Thirdly, we then read across the entire data corpus, grouping commonly coded pieces of data into provisional categories. Sometimes, this involved slightly refining the name of the code, to reflect a broader set of codes that explained the entire data set. Fourth, we named these provisional categories that "housed" similar codes, using a sematic label that encapsulated the meaning of each code in the category. For example, codes like "staircases" or "poor lighting" were grouped into the broader category of "physical barriers" that contained the meaning of all codes. Fifth, we then refined our list of provisional themes, which involved data sorting and reorganization to collapse many categories into one larger category that encapsulated its broader meaning. We relabeled these as broader themes using the same words that the participants did. Again, we created a chart of this process. This allowed us to visualize the commonly patterned themes across the data set, which of our participants mentioned the theme, and the data giving rise to the particular theme. Finally, we wrote explanatory descriptions for each theme and also examined the inter-relationship between themes. Seeking to go beyond the semantic level, we contextualized the themes by connecting them to broader theoretical concepts from the literature. In the presentation of the findings, below, I have made an effort to seek a balance between "telling the story with data" and my interpretation of the participants' narratives (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The findings are presented below and pseudonyms have been employed to protect anonymity.


The Body-self and Physical Activity at the University of Manitoba

First, the participants spoke about how disability deeply threatened the integrity of the body and the self at university. Second, the participants described on-campus activity is a site of contestation. Third, the participants discussed what they envision an inclusive physical activity environment on campus to encapsulate.

Disability and the Body-self. In discussing on-campus physical activity experiences, the participants also illustrated the profound ways in which disability threatens the body-self. Disability's effects on the body-self were inseparable from physical activity. "Disability hurt" the body-self for a variety of reasons, such as causing pain, physical limitation, embarrassment, and the loss of exciting opportunities. Pondering "why this is happening to me" was a part of the participants' reflexive musings about the body-self impact of disability.

Alexis is 18 years old and pursuing introductory courses before choosing a degree major. After developing a severe musculoskeletal disease that results in joint inflammation and pain, Alexis was forced to stop participating in competitive sports at the age of 14. To discuss how her disability has affected her body-self, Alexis recalls a family trip to Hawaii. Having to wear two large knee braces to facilitate better mobility during the vacation marks her young body as a spectacle in public space, and worsens how she sees the body-self.

It was my grandparent's 50th wedding anniversary last summer. So they're like "we want to go somewhere!" but they didn't want to go in the middle of the summer cause it was already nice and warm and hot you know. So we went in February and they all took us there. And so, but we did a lot of day trips you know. So I would wear my knee braces, to last longer walking.. I'd get self-conscious because I'd have two black knee braces on my leg … I felt like sad and upset, that like "everyone else is fine and I had to work so much harder, it's so much more difficult for me" sort of thing (Alexis).

Wearing knee braces in public spaces triggers lingering questions such as why disability has happened to her body and not other bodies. Reflecting on her depressed mood state, Alexis often asks … "this is kind of back to the depression sort of thing, 'how come my body doesn't work but theirs does?' sort of thing."

Nadiyah is in her early twenties and living with vision loss. She emigrated with her parents and siblings from Afghanistan due to political turmoil. Nadiyah worries constantly about "being too fat," carefully monitoring her nutritional intake. Nadiyah explains that disability impacts the body-self by causing pain to the body. Nadiyah recalls a hospitalization and surgery back home when she was nine years old. Like Alexis, Nadiyah also contemplates searching questions about "why disability happens." Using religious discourses, she asks God why this has happened and recalls pleading with her father to "cut out" the diseased eye and stop her pain.

It was so much pain! And I remember telling my dad "why does God do this to people, like doesn't God love me or something?" Like what have I done? And I started crying and I'm like "I don't want to go through this anymore, like why me, why not someone else" right? … and then, I was in so much pain that I remember saying this "why don't you just get a knife and take this" but like oww .. why do I have to go through this! Take a knife and take it out! Like I was literally saying that … Like I never seen my dad cry, he's a dad, like you never cry. That's like scary when you see your dad cry. So I've never see my dad cry, so I was in the hospital for a whole month when that bacteria thing was happening. I was in so much pain.

Cloe, who lives with chronic gastrointestinal disease, expresses a hurtful body-self relationship. Disability hurts Cloe by causing stomachaches and embarrassing gut sounds that draw undue attention to the body in public spaces. Explaining that she has "bad body image," she also remembers praying at the bus stop in high school each morning. Specifically, her prayer was a plea to "let me get through the day" at school with no disease symptoms.

I don't have a good body image, especially when I am bloated and its like "I'm not pregnant!" So I remember back in high school, while waiting for the bus. Well I'm not a very religious person but I guess in high school I was turning towards religion and I remember I would say a prayer for the bus to come, "get me through this day" cause I would at the time, not knowing what I had and not understanding what I had and going on, you know, I was dealing with diarrhea in high school or just being unable to control my stomach a lot of times … it was just the worst.

Josiah is in his early 30s and pursuing entry-level university education. As a result of viral meningitis that resulted in paralysis and some brain damage, Josiah adopts mechanistic body-object language to describe the body-self impact of disability. For Josiah, disability hurts the body-self by limiting the physical strength that he once had. Since he fell ill at the relatively late age of 22, memories of this more "masculine" muscled body linger for Josiah. He now sees the body as a functional entity rather than a living, fleshy corporeal being. During the interview, Josiah asked me to watch the movie "Avatar" as a film-based rendition that reflects his body-self relationship. He draws on the discourse of Cartesian dualism to state that the "real me is in my mind and has "long left my body."

My body is like a piece of meat … I guess the arm and chest and back is okay but I don't like the look of my legs and stomach, too much … Cause I look at them and like "god you're pathetic". Cause they used to be, they used to look good, muscular, but now they're like little pins … well strength, arms are pretty strong but the legs are weak …. like your body is you, and now this thing is just a vehicle … Like I guess I'm depressed. Like, (in the hospital) I thought to my, I was pretty mad at my mom, like "why didn't you just let me die?"

The participants drew on past experiences to explain their complex body-self relationships. Disability hurt the participants for a variety of reasons. To understand their impaired body-self, the participants sometimes posed broader questions of the universe. Body-self relationships were inseparable from physical activity on campus.

The Physically Active Body on Campus: A Site of Contestation

The students explained that movement experiences at the UofM are simultaneously a site of pleasure and pain.

Physical Activity as a Space of Constraint. The participants worried that being physically active on campus would increase the risk of injury and compromise safety. Sometimes, the participants had "real fears" that were based on unpleasant memories of what had happened when being active. In other cases, fears were "imagined", in which participants envisioned that they would severely injure themselves if they were active on campus. The participants feared not being able to comprehend the game or not being able to see and hear objects on the playing surface. For participants who had been disabled for many years, fear of activity accumulated over time, leading to a more expansive fear of being active on campus.

One participant in his late twenties with a visual impairment states that …"I'm interested in swimming right now but I don't have time again and I'm afraid all the time" (Khalil). Similarly, Jodie has a visual impairment. Jodie also expresses how a lack of safety in active spaces leads to physical activity avoidance on campus … "Well when I first started school, they had me in regular gym class. Then that was up until grade six, then they finally asked me 'Jodie, do you feel safe in gym class?' and my answer was 'no' ". Carmen is in her early 30s and pursing a graduate degree. She has deaf-blindnesss and uses voice recognition software to communicate. Multiple factors color Carmen's fear of activity, including not being able to see objects in the field as well as her poor physical condition. For these reasons, she avoids taking physically activity risks on campus. At the age of 33, Carmen also perceives herself as too old for physical exertion.

I'm like physically … I don't ever take risks physically. It maybe a bit of a problem and I don't, there's nothing like physically damaged about my body I just don't … I live in my brain instead of my body. I don't do physical things. I'm a pussy … I forgot about my balance, that's getting worse. I would say, that could have to do with my disability because hearing and balance are attached so, I think it's bit of me and a bit of my disability. Mostly, I am scared of like hurting myself or you know losing too much weight or bending something the wrong way and breaking my arm or doing something my body can't handle because I don't know, I don't think you know my age, I'm 33 years old.

In other cases, the participants felt that the physical limitations imposed by disability itself, made it challenging to engage in activity. Jace is a student in his early twenties. Pursuing a science and business degree, Jace has an intellectual disability. Jace uses the example of martial arts to explain how he finds it challenging to visualize, integrate, and repeat movement patterns.

It's the hardest to learn the martial arts, to learn the movement, like moving myself. Cause I have to see it and internalize it and then express it. So seeing it is really hard, like learning it that way. And then expressing it is really hard. So it's really annoying.

Similarly, Lily's chronic intestinal disease often leaves her too fatigued to engage in physical activity. She prefers to utilize her limited energy store for more important physical pursuits, such as walking home from school rather than going to the gym.

It's kind of funny cause as you're going to the gym, sometimes it would help with the whole like you know de-stress but then if you want to go to the gym and your stomach is hurting and you're tired, you don't go cause you're like I have no energy. Yeah the little energy I have, I don't want it for that, I want to keep it for something else like getting yourself home you know?

Physical activity barriers were not just psychic or bodily. Some participants also discussed socio-economic barriers that make it challenging to be active on campus. Vincenzo is a 27-year old student of Italian ancestry who is pursuing a degree in business. Vincenzo, who has a visual impairment, states that … " So that financial thing, and obviously that's the first thing when I came here, is it, there's obviously those physical barriers, but it's the economic barriers that really get to the heart of it." The participants discussed both bodily and social constraints to physical activity at the UofM.

Physical Activity as a Site of Pleasure. Although the participants had limited past experience being active on campus — and reported a range of challenges to being active — they also alluded to the pleasurable aspects of moving the body on campus. The pleasurable aspects of moving the body included reducing stress, facilitating a relaxed bodily state, enhancing a sense of freedom, improving overall well-being, improving the aesthetic appeal of the body, and cultivating a more attractive self. Reflecting on how yoga makes his body feel, Josiah states that …. "those small tremors, they pretty much have gone away when I began yoga because it stretches out the muscles and I can relax." In addition to facilitating a better sense of well-being, Nadiyah feels that activity prevents her from becoming fat … "It is, I guess it makes you feel good when you exercise, you really feel good about yourself and it, it makes you look good, you're not going to look fat." Lily also discusses the "feel-good" benefits of activity for students with disabilities … " I feel like I have more energy when I exercise and just I feel better about myself and I just yeah I feel better". Talia, who is in her late twenties, is taking premedical courses. She lives with bipolar disorder, which entails managing exhausting fluctuations in mood. Talia states that … "activity makes me feel free and turns my mind off". Finally, Vincenzo disrupts the dominant assumption that disabled bodies are asexual and disinterred in romantic relationships. Vincenzo exercises not only to feel better, but to appear more attractive to members of the opposite sex.

As a person with a disability and as a male, it'll be different from other people … I'm more working out and keeping active more, more reasons just to be healthy, having a healthy, having good cardio, making sure my hearts strong and, just more to that and a lot of it too right, that social structure … Hmm … Well the truth is .. To attract the opposite sex. I mean, that, I mean I'm not going to deny it. That's a big thing why I'm working out, and I use that as motivation too right so

Although it is not without its challenges, the students illustrated that there can be pleasure associated with engaging in physical activity on campus.

What we want: How Disabled Students Envision Inclusive Activity Spaces on Campus

The participants proposed suggestions for how to enhance activity opportunities for disabled students on campus. First, the participants concurred that the physical activity space currently on campus is not inclusive for disabled students. There is a need to "open the door" to participation by ensuring that the space is physically accessible. A student comments on how it is not even currently possible for students with mobility impairments to enter athletic facilities at the UofM.

I'm thinking first about the outside of the physical activity centre if I can say it's that. Like .. I don't even know how to get someone who used to a wheelchair into this building. I have no idea. Can you do that? (Cloe).

Ruby is in her late twenties and pursing a degree in Recreation Management. She has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Although she loves being in the water, Ruby reflects on her inability to swim at university due a lack of wheelchair lifts in the pool …. "I cannot walk, that is sometimes annoying. Yes. I cannot go to this pool here so, I don't know why they don't have a lift". Vincenzo concurs, stating that …

I would I outright say that … That the campus and gym is not accessible to people with disabilities, I'd say no, there's definitely … Areas where there's ramps, people in wheelchairs to go to, I've noticed there's certain signage's where they're had large numbers or larger texts … Well now do I say that the University of Manitoba, Fort Garry campus is barrier free … Absolutely not.

The participants suggested that specialized training and knowledge about exercise is needed for them to engage in campus physical activity. They envisioned being active on campus with a physical activity mentor who would possess both the knowledge and skills to create adapted physical activity. Carmen states that … "I'm assuming we're talking about like — you kinesiology guys who have trainers and personal trainers and people teaching physical classes here. Guys with expertise and not random people."

The participants varied with respect to whether individualized or group-based activity would be helpful on campus. Some students felt that given the diversity between disabilities — and great individual differences — activity should be individually tailored, offered on a one-on-one basis.

To be honest, I really think some sort of one on one program would help because we really need individualized training and individualized service cause we have to book interpreters and things like that, so it's really have to be one on one, or you know maybe one on two, but it would have to be something really individualized with somebody we knew (Carmen).

Other students suggested that small group-based activity would not only be more enjoyable, but create a sense of camaraderie since "we are all doing the same thing." Group-based activity would also provide opportunities to mimic others thus facilitating ease of learning.

I think it better when it's a group setting. Cause it's like other people are doing this with me too. So it's as long as it's like if I have somebody to follow like they're beside me or something. I can kind of watch what they're doing and just mimic them. That makes it easier. But I definitely like being around people (Jodie).

Lastly, some students proposed philosophical questions to enhance accessibility. The building of the new "Active Living Centre" is a contemporary topic among students at the UofM. It is hoped that this "state—of-the-art" athletic facility will facilitate excellence in athletic training, performance, and research. Some students proposed that the building of the Active Living Centre presents a genuine opportunity to ensure inclusive activity on campus. Vincenzo mentions that when inclusion is envisioned at the beginning of the building process, it is "so much easier" then to go back later and incur the costs of retrofitting an already built structure.

I noticed that the U of M is building their new exercise kind of thing. So when I heard about this, I'm like, "with other research studies I've been doing too, it's good to, get this done before all that gets built cause once things get done, it's harder to change." For accessibility. So if you can, get it in there before it all goes up, it'll be easier … There's definitely, there's a big opportunity happening right now with the building of that new facility, it's tremendous amount of opportunity and if we don't capitalize on that now … It's just gonna bring us back to square one and there's no where they're going to tear down that whole building and rebuild it.

UofM students discussed how disability greatly threatened body-self relationships on campus, effectively changing how they view themselves. Threatened body-self relationships were inseparable from on-campus physical activity experiences. Physical activity for disabled students on campus was a site of both pleasure and pain, enablement and constraint. The students discussed architectural, programmatic, and philosophical changes that should be made to the UofM to make it a physically active space for disabled people. These findings are discussed below in the context of the literature.


This qualitative study confirms and extends existing scholarship in the areas of disability, education, and physical activity. Although disability had positive aspects — such as helping the participants to acquire resiliency — the students uniformly explained the various ways in which disability hurts and threatens the body-self. The challenges of disability to the body-self pose several intriguing questions for future scholarship.

First, for disabled university students, the experience of physical activity on campus cannot be separated from how they view their bodies and themselves; when describing activity experiences, the participants often drew on body-self experiences with disability to explain physical activity pursuits. Since physical activity is an inherently embodied practice, it is not surprising that the participants constructed their activity experiences against the broader backdrop in which they view their bodies and themselves. Future investigators should consider the fundamental inter-relationship between activity, the body, and the self when disabled students narrate their physical activity experiences. Scholars should be prepared theoretically and methodologically, not only to address physical activity, but also body-self relationships.

Secondly, disabled students' negative body-self relationships appear to be formed over time, against a cultural context that reveres the able-body and demonizes "non-normative bodies." The disabled body is always hyper-aware of itself and its limitations. As Paterson and Hughes (1999) suggest … " unlike the non-impaired body which is customarily unaware of itself until it is confronted by pain, the impaired body is permanently stunned into its own recognition as a consequence of the disablism which permeates everyday life" (p. 608). Because the disabled body is constantly aware of itself, it can be said to "dys-appear". Indeed, so long as it troubles space, the disabled body is rarely forgotten. The participants talked about how disability causes stigma, pain, and physical and social losses. It is important to perhaps consider this painful embodiment not only as the "truth", but also as a function of how normative able-bodied discourses have constructed the disabled body as a problem. The participants come to understand their bodies and themselves in a world that perpetually shuns them and provides little opportunity for positive self-recognition. Paralleling Simone de Beauvoir's feminist gender analysis, Paterson and Hughes (1999) purport that disabled persons fail to recognize themselves in public's spheres because "their projects" — that is, their interests and their adventures — are not evidenced in our culture. Changing the disabling cultural discourses that entrap the disabled body is critical to chipping away at the long-sedimented habitus that disabled students uphold; that they are after all, undesirable bodies and selves. Using Bourdieu's social theory, disabled students did not recognize themselves as bodies that bear value at university.

When reflecting on the challenges that disability poses to the body-self, the participants engaged in self-reflection. They frequently pondered about "why disability has happened to me?", seeking to understand the reason why one body has disability and another body does not. Some participants drew on a discourse of religion to propel this line of inquiry. Asking God why disability happened or praying to God for solace and peace was part and parcel of participants' self-questioning about disability, the body, and the self. While medical and social accounts of disability have risen to notoriety today to explain the cause of disability, this should not imply the absence of religious discourses in the quest to understand disabilities' elusive meaning (Davis, 2006). Prior to the rise of the modern medical movement in the 19th century, religious interpretations were the central way in which sense making about disability occurred. While there were multiple interpretations of disability through a divinity lens, the notion that disability may be a sin for a certain wrongdoing was central to this perspective (Davis, 2006). Today, it is thought that medico-socio accounts are the dominant explanatory frameworks employed to understand disability (Davis, 2006). Rather than the divine discourse of disability being "over," multiple discourses rise and fall discontinuously in dominance over time, culture, history, and place. Since 21st century students of the technological generation sometimes draw on religiously inspired discourses of disability to explain their body-self relationships, contemporary scholars should be prepared to engage with these students' explanatory frameworks.

In describing how disability affects the body-self, some participants talked about "my body" while others discussed "the body". Stemming from Germanic philosophy, "Lieb versus Korper" notions of embodiment provide a fruitful way of theorizing this finding. Discussed originally by the phenomenologist Maurice Meurleau-Ponty (1945), Leib refers to the "lived, felt and fleshy" body. This living breathing being is engaged with the world of which it is a part. In stark contrast, the Korper body is a functional body-object. In a mechanistic sense, Korper embodied relations reflect "having a body rather than being a body." University students with disabilities adopted the language of both Korper and Leib to describe their relations to the body-self (Paterson & Hughes, 1999). This might mean that while some participants have an embodied sense of disability, others regard the disabled body as a more functional unit that is external to the self. Korper relations to the body might reflect some disabled students' sense of disembodiment. Further, Korper relations to the body might illustrate the contemporary time in which we live, where the body has been "lost" as a source of scholarship. Further research is needed to understand University students' Korper versus Leib embodied relations.

My findings support and extend scholarship on how sport and physical activity for disabled persons might best be considered as a complex site of contestation, one that is simultaneously a site of both pleasure and pain (Ashton-Shaeffer et al., 2001: Rimmer et al., 2004). Rimmer et al. (2004) use an ecological approach to think about the barriers and facilitators that disabled persons face in their efforts to be active. Similarly, Ashton-Shaeffer et al.'s (2001) Foucouldian-inspired scholarship attests to the ways in which disabled bodies turn away from the oppressive scrutiny of able-bodied surveillance in activity spaces. At the same time, they use their active corporeality to contest stigma about what the sick body can do (Ashon-Shaeffer et al., 2001). My findings support and extend this work. For instance, the participants felt that being active on campus reduced stress, enhanced wellbeing, and facilitated a sense of freedom. They also drew on dominant exercise discourses to highlight instrumental health benefits from exercise, such as managing weight and enhancing aesthetic appeal. They drew on hetero-normative notions of gender to describe how the bodily benefits of exercise make one more appealing to the opposite sex. Some scholars suggest that this discursive device is disproportionately used by disabled men who "already feel emasculated enough" by their disabilities (Brittain, 2004). In describing these activity-based benefits, the participants also contested disabling discourses that perpetuate the notion that disabled bodies are asexual and not interested in relationships.

However, physical activity for university students on campus was by no means always a pleasurable pursuit. Indeed, all of the participants described the numerous challenges they faced in their efforts to be active. Some of these challenges were inter-personal — at the psychic level of belief. Other participants referred to broader, socio-cultural challenges in their contexts. For example, the participants had an overwhelming fear of being injured during activity; this was an engrained facet of their habitus and belief system. Many researchers have reported physical activity fear among disabled persons — some founded fears and others perceived (Moola, Faulkner, Kirsh, & Kilburn, 2008). It is likely that activity fear and low self-efficacy for activity is influenced both by the way in which the participants see their physical abilities, as well as through learned social interactions with others that have contributed toward fear of moving the body. It is necessary to provide disabled students with physical activity opportunities on campus that are not only enjoyable, but provide them with safe, mastery-filled opportunities to re-conceptualize how they see the moving body. The physical limitations of disability itself, such as fatigue, low vision, or difficulty integrating sensory information, were also named as formidable body-based barriers to physical activity. This underscores the need for adapted activity programs on campus that reduce the impact of disablement. For instance, games that utilize audio rather than visual information, such as "bell balls" which make sounds, may facilitate participation in on-campus activities for those with visual impairments.

Physical activity challenges for disabled university students were not just psychic and bodily. They also occurred at the level of the environment, in the broader context. Socio-economic barriers to participation, including the cost of registering for gym memberships on campus, were described as formidable barriers. Since disabled Canadians face socio-economic hardship (Shier, Graham, & Jones, 2009), ensuring free physical activity program access on campus is imperative. Thus, the participants support and extend the scholarship of Ashton-Schaeffer et al. (2001) and Rimmer et al. (2004) to show that physical activity on campus is at one and the same time, a place of pleasure and pain.

When discussing how to make the UofM an inclusive physical activity space, the students discussed architectural, programmatic, and philosophical changes. In addition to attending to transportation and scheduling— which is well documented in the literature as important to meeting the physical activity needs of disabled persons (Blinde & McClung, 1997) — the participants commented on how the current athletic facility is completely inaccessible to those with physical disabilities. Architectural changes, such as building ramps, ensuring that buildings are equipped with accessible elevators on all floors, removing snow in the wintertime, and adding a hoyer lift to the pool for wheelchairs, were named as important architectural changes. Indeed, researchers have noted the importance of making architectural changes to building design (Chard & Couch, 1998).

Interestingly, however, the participants underscored the sentiments of other researchers who suggest that architectural changes alone are not sufficient to ensure inclusion (Schleien et al., 1996). Necessary changes are thus not only those that can be seen. Indeed, given the great financial costs associated with architectural change, it is perhaps important to conceptualize inclusion in a much broader sense. Participants also proposed important programmatic changes to facilitate inclusive activity on campus. While preference for individual or group-based activity varied across the group, having an activity mentor was noted as important to facilitating inclusive physical activity. This mentor was thought to not only facilitate adapted physical activity, but serve as a source of motivation. Other scholars have also noted the importance of peer-to-peer physical activity mentorship (Blinde & McClung, 1997). The participants did not mention other common recommendations for the delivery of inclusive physical activity. For example, Blinde and McClung (1997) purport that providing physical activity choices is particularly important, in light of the fact that people with disabilities are often the recipients of unwanted paternalism. Further, novel activity choices — in which participants can choose from a range of enjoyable options — is recommended. Particularly since disabled persons face great social isolation, focusing on the total social development of the participant is critical to inclusive physical activity (Blinde & McClung, 1997).

The students proposed two novel suggestions for inclusive campus physical activity that may inform future research. First, they believed that a kinesiology expert with specific exercise knowledge would be the best physical activity mentor. They drew on a discourse of scientism and expertise, illustrating their belief that there are physical activity experts and non-experts. This finding provokes interesting questions. On the one hand, adapted physical activity courses that train undergraduate students to become "experts", have historically been under-featured and undervalued in the dominant kinesiology knowledge hierarchy (Moola, Norman, Petherick, & Strachan, 2014). Adapted physical activity, rather, has tended to be regarded as less important than "critical courses" such as biomechanics and physiology. Thus, the fact that disabled students see adapted physical activity knowledge as important to enjoyable physical activity programming, can be viewed as a success for Canadian inclusive physical activity courses. On the other hand, other scholars suggest that a scientific discourse about exercise is problematic in that it establishes "expert-lay" power relationships about the moving body and may reduce movement to a scientific or rehabilitative function for disabled bodies (Moola et al., 2008; Wheatley, 2005), rather than an inherently pleasurable pursuit.

The participants offered philosophical sentiments about inclusive campus activity. They reflected on the construction of a new "Active Living Centre" as a way to discuss a broader conceptualization of what inclusion means. The participants suggested that if "disability design issues" feature centrally and inform building design in advance, there would be no need to "go back and deal with it later". They thus drew attention to a salient point; that physical activity inclusion for disabled people tends to be reactionary rather than transformative (Promis et al., 2001), in which we "deal with" the mistakes in our disabling culture after we have already made them. A truly transformative approach to inclusion would consider the needs of disabled persons from the inception of program and architectural designs.

This study points to both the theoretical and methodological contributions of Bourdieu's critical social theory as a framework to shed light on how disabled students negotiate physical activity on campus. The students discussed bodily-corporeal aspects of disability — such as how disability hurts the body-self and poses challenges to physical activity participation. The participants also poignantly illustrated the disabling features of contemporary social life that prevent enjoyable physical activity participation on campus, such as socio-economic barriers. They thus show that an either/or, medical versus social account of disability, may not be an appropriate explanatory framework to understand the dialectical relationship between the individual and society (Edwards & Imrie, 2003). Thus, by considering the profound way in which disability and social life are fundamentally imbricated, Bourdieu's (1979) framework allowed me to side step the medical versus social debate. Further, students discussed the profoundly negative impact of disability on the body-self. Against a broader cultural backdrop in which the able-body is revered, disabled students regarded themselves as bodies that bear less value. Bourdieu's scholarship helps us to understand how and why disabled students come to regard themselves as valueless bodies in a broader educational "field". Further, compromised body-self relationships and fear of actively moving the disabled body formed the content and structure of participants' habitus. As a result of accumulated experiences that have sedimented over time into an engrained habitus, the participants held beliefs, behaviors and ways of conducting themselves in social life which reflect the conception that disabled students are non-active, sedentary bodies. This deeply sedimented habitus formed the grounds on which the participants saw their bodies, themselves, and their physical activity on campus. This study, then, also serves as a call to other scholars to consider the contributions of Bourdieu's' social theory to study disablement.


Nadiyah comments that …. "most people don't even expect me to be doing studies at university". Further, the activity experiences of disabled university students on campus have not featured centrally in contemporary scholarship, a notable absence whose silence speaks volumes about whether we regard activity for these students as important. In this Bourdieu inspired qualitative study, I investigated the physical activity experiences of disabled students at the UofM in the Canadian Prairies —in the land of ice and snow. Students discussed the ways in which disability threatens the body-self and how on-campus activities are a site of contestation. They proposed architectural, programmatic, and philosophical suggestions to create inclusive activity spaces for disabled bodies on campus. Going to university and participating in on-campus activities are important "rights of passage" that mark young bodies as those that bear value in contemporary culture. "Oppression and exclusion" so often lie next to disability as uncomfortable, if not unwanted, bed-follows (Hughes, 2009) in both daily life and activity. This scholarship may contribute toward the ongoing dialogue about the importance of on-campus physical activity for disabled students as a means to ensure their full participation in university life. I hope that this work begins to crack away at disabled students' long sedimented habitus about their bodies, their selves and their on-campus movement experiences.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Ms. Carolyn Christie – the Director of Student Accessibility Services at the University of Manitoba – for her invaluable assistance during this study.


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