Physical Education for Students with Disabilities

Physical education with students with disabilities. Creative RF/Getty Images

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),  states that physical education is a required service for children and youth between the ages of 3-21 who qualify for special education services because of a specific disability or developmental delay.

The term special education refers to specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents (FAPE), to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including: instruction conducted in the classroom and instruction in physical education.

The specially designed program will be outlined in the child's Individual Education Program/Plan (IEP). Therefore, physical education services, specially designed if necessary, must be made available to every child with a disability receiving FAPE.

  • Physical Education for a special needs child will develop:
  • Fundamental motor skills and patterns;
  • Skills in aquatics, dance
  • Individual and group games and sports (including intramural and lifetime sports).

One of the fundamental concepts in the IDEA, Least Restrictive Environment, is designed to ensure that students with disabilities recieve as much instruction and as much general education curriculum with their typical peers as possible.  Physical education teachers will need to adapt instructional strategies and activity areas to meet the needs of students with IEP's.  

Adaptations may include narrowing the expectations of students according to their needs.

 The demand for performance and participation will naturally be adapted to the student's ability to participate.

The child's special educator will consult with the physical education teacher and classroom support staff to decide if the physical education program requires mild, moderate or limited participation.

Remember that you will be adapting, modifying, and changing the activity and or equipment to meet the needs of the special needs students. Adaptations may also include larger balls, bats, assistance, using different body parts, or providing more rest time. The goal should be for the child to benefit from the physical education instruction by experiencing success and learning physical activities that will build the foundation for life long physical activity. 

Adaptive P.E.:  In some cases a special instructor with special training may participate with the general education physical educator.  Adaptive P.E, needs to be designated as an SDI (specially designed instruction, or service) in the IEP, and the Adaptive P.E. teacher will also evaluate the student and the student's needs.  Those specific needs will be addressed in IEP goals as well as SDI's, so the specific needs of the child are addressed. 

Helpful Suggestions

1. Consult with parents and specialized support staff.
2. Do not require students to do activities they are not capable of.
3. Don't have student selections for teams and games that will leave the special needs child the last to be selected.
4. Whenever possible, create tasks that the child with a handicap is capable of performing, this helps self-respect.


5. There are a wealth of resources online and with associations concerned with exceptional children. Search out these resources.

Remember, when working towards inclusion, you will always need to think:

  • How can I change this activity to suit the student?
  • How can I adapt this activity?
  • How can I modify this activity?

Think in terms of action, time, assistance, equipment, boundaries, distance etc.

One special educator I worked with told me that she had tremendous success with Yoga when working on adaptive physical education. When searching for activities to support your learners with disabilities, try searching the term: Adapted Physical Education or Activities or Lesson Plans.

Questions To Ask Yourself:
How will you assess the physical activity?
Can you involve a teacher's assistant or parent volunteer?


How will you ensure the rest of the class involves your student with a handicap?