Does International Law Recognize the Right of Children with Disabilities to Play Sports?

International law is clear: vulnerable people require additional protections.[1] In 1989, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as an intended turning point in the rights of children within international law.[2] Since its inception, the CRC has improved the recognition of international human rights of children, and it expressly included children with disabilities within its scope.[3] Moving beyond identified fundamental rights, does international law recognize the right of children with disabilities to play sports?

In short, international law recognizes that children with disabilities have the right to sports. The principles outlined in the CRC are: “a) the best interests of the child (Article 3 CRC); b) respect for the views of the child (Article 12 CRC); c) the right to life, survival and development (Article 6 CRC) and; d) non-discrimination (Article 2 CRC).”[4] Although the CRC does not explicitly outline the rights of children with disabilities and sports, Article 23 of the CRC does require that children with disabilities have the right to “enjoy a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child’s active participation in the community.” [5] In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the first legally binding international instrument to address the rights of persons with disabilities and sports.[6] The CRPD’s expressed purpose is “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.”[7] Article 30 of the CRPD specifically includes the right to “participation in cultural life, recreation, and sport.”[8] Article 30 goes on to explain that States shall take appropriate measures “to ensure that children with disabilities have equal access with other children to participation in play, recreation and leisure and sporting activities, including those activities in the school system.”[9]

However, international law distinguishes between recognized rights and enforceable rights. Article 30 of the CRPD successfully brought the right to sports for people with disabilities from a sideline issue to one formally recognized in international law.[10] However, the biggest flaw in Article 30 is that it does not recognize the right to sports as a justiciable right.[11] States only have an obligation to make sports available without discrimination because “states do not have an obligation, under available treaty and customary law, to avail non-disabled persons on their territory of a right to sport or recreation.”[12] In other words, States cannot discriminate against children with disabilities and prohibit them from playing sports, but States are not required to take affirmative steps to ensure that sports are accessible.[13]

            The full enforcement of these rights matters because children with disabilities can and do benefit when sports are made accessible to them. “Sport or participation in physical activity can be a powerful tool to address various inequalities and barriers identified by disabled people.”[14] For all children, sports can create opportunities for belonging, cooperative relationships, and teamwork.[15] However, for children with disabilities, access to sports can also lead them to realize their full potential, advocate for societal changes, and live integrated with their communities.[16] In addition, expanding access to sports for children with disabilities can help reduce stigmatization by placing focus on capability rather than on a child’s disability.[17] Most importantly, sports are uniquely capable of offering a sense of belonging, play, and personal bests for kids “who have more challenges than solutions, more questions than answers, and more places where they don’t belong than those where they do.”[18]

In addition, ensuring that children with disabilities have the right to sports can also serve as a transformative tool for children that cross multiple social intersections. For example, approximately 93% of women with disabilities around the world are not involved in sports.[19] Similarly, children of color or other marginalized communities experience a collision of ableism and racism that can create dehumanizing settings in educational and athletic settings.[20] “Ultimately, sport is both part of the problem and part of the solution in furthering human rights and development goals. Therefore, even in the absence of express recognition as a substantive right, sport is, and is likely to remain, a means by which other ends may be [realized].”[21]

In conclusion, international law recognizes that all children have a right to play sports regardless of their ability, but it fails to require States to take additional steps to ensure that sports are accessible for children with disabilities.[22] Participation in sports promotes physical, emotional, and social well-being for all children. However, integration only goes so far. “True inclusion should make the child feel that they belong, and accommodations should be made to include the child with disabilities in sport.”[23]



[1] Ilias Bantekas, The Rights of Children with Disabilities: The Need for a Sui Generis Regime under International Law, 49 N. Ky. L. Rev. 1, 1 (2022).

[2] Maya Sabatello, Children with Disabilities: A Critical Appraisal, 21 Int’l J. Child Rts. 464, 464 (2013).

[3] Id.

[4] Supra note 1, at 1.

[5] G.A. Res. 44/25, Convention on the Rights of the Child (Nov. 20, 1989).

[6] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Disability and Sports (last visited Feb. 19, 2023), https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/issues/disability-and-sports.html#:~:text=Through%20sport%2C%20persons%20with%20disabilities,cooperation%20and%20respect%20for%20others.

[7] Supra note 2, at 464-65.

[8] G.A. Res. 61/106, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Dec. 13, 2006).

[9] Id.

[10] Matthew S. Smith & Michael Ashley Stein, Article 30 of the CRPD as a Vehicle for Social Transformation: Harnessing the CRPD’s Potential for Persons with Intellectual Disabilities 287 (E.J. Kakoullis & K. Johnson eds. 2020).

[11] Ilias Bantekas, The Right of Access to Sport and Recreation for Disabled Persons under International Law: What Does It Really Entail?, 45 Loy. L.A. Int’l & Comp. Rev. 157, 159 (2022).

[12] Id.

[13] See id.

[14]José Frantz et al, Physical Activity and Sport as a Tool to Include Disabled Children in Kenyan Schools, 14 Sport Soc’y 1227, 1228 (2011).

[15] Id.

[16] Supra note 6.

[17] Id.

[18] See Darrin Steele, Why Make Room in Sports for Kids with Developmental Disabilities?, Aspen Institute (Feb. 25, 2015), https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/why-make-room-in-sports-for-kids-developmental-disabilities/.

[19] Supra note 6.

[20] Soyoung Park et. al, Reconceptualizing Assistance for Young Children of Color With Disabilities in an Inclusion Classroom, 41 Topic Early Childhood Special Educ. 57, 58-59 (2021).

[21] Danielle Ireland-Piper & Kim Weinert, Is there a ‘Right’to sport?, 1 Sports L. Governance J. 1, 11(2014).

[22] Supra note 14, at 1234.

[23]Id.