New Research Examines Perceptions of Wheelchair Sport

Health and Human Performance Professor Studies Ways to Increase Resources, Support of Wheelchair Athletes

Rugby athletes are thought to be the toughest in sports.  Wearing minimal padding to protect against the maul, they’re a scrum of toughness and athleticism.  A University of Houston professor is exploring how that perception of athletes changes when the toughness comes from a wheelchair. 

“The way people perceive the sport may be quite different just knowing the athlete has a disability,” said Michael Cottingham, assistant professor in the department of health and human performance. “How do you react to the sport? How do you perceive the athleticism of the individuals?  Do you perceive it as inspiration? Would you be likely to attend an event?”Cottingham

Cottingham, whose research interests include promotional strategies in sport, is examining consumer behavior and perceptions about athletes with disabilities, namely how disability sport can increase its support in resources and fan base.

“There’s a lower level of expectation of athletes with disabilities, and when they exceed that we often call that ‘inspiration,’” he said.  “How do we raise the expectation in order to perceive them more as athletes, rather than just inspirational stories.”

Cottingham is measuring perception by showing a series of videos to more than 400 students.  Each short video contains the same information about a table-tennis athlete and his national and international successes.  In one video, the champion’s story includes information about his impoverished childhood.  In another, it shows him in a wheelchair. 

“Groups will see one of the videos then fill out a survey that examines their emotional response to the stories,” he said. “They’ll also be asked about their interest in seeing him play or in following his activities on social media.” 

The study also will include focus groups. 

Cottingham says while there is theory about perceptions of athletes and persons with disabilities, there isn’t any empirical data about the issue or about the influences that may lead to support.

“Sports has a means to social change and a lot of the research suggests that athletes are on the forefront of disability-culture movement because they’re out there and want to be recognized in society,” he said.

His research coincides with a summer camp he’s directing along with the UH Adaptive Athletics student organization.  The Wheelchair Rugby Camp is planned for June 13-16 at the UH Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. Athletes of all levels are invited to participate but must be 14-25 years old.  For more information or to register, visit:

“It’s important to create opportunities for young athletes with disabilities, especially because there aren’t any true strictly college rugby programs out there,” he said.