Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Performance or Participation...Pluralism or Hegemony?
Images of Disability & Gender in Sports 'n Spokes Magazine

Marie Hardin
Penn State University
Center for Sports Journalism
222 Carnegie
University Park, PA 16802
Email: mch208@psu.edu

Brent Hardin
University of Alabama
Department of Kinesiology
103 Moore Hall
Box 870312
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Email: bhardin@ua.edu


The purpose of this study is to examine the photographic images of Sports 'n Spokes magazine to explore the relationship between sport, disability and gender. Photographs in 24 issues of Sports 'n Spokes were collected and examined via content analysis. A recording instrument was developed by the researchers to code 2,141 editorial images. The instrument was adapted for use with images of disability and the categorical variables were: (a) gender of the subject; (b) disability; (c) type of sport participation; (d) competition in sport; (e) motion; and (f) camera angle. The findings indicate that men dominated photographic coverage in Sports 'n Spokes and were more likely to be depicted in dominant photos and as sports competitors than women. Women were more often depicted as non-sporting, and women were depicted less often as competitors. However, the magazine includes women to a much greater degree than mainstream (able-bodied) sports magazines. The magazine also reflects pleasure/participation (versus power/performance) as a valid sporting value.

Keywords: disability sports, Sports 'n Spokes magazine, gender and sports


Mainstream U.S. culture, for its entire obsession with sports, has historically ignored or marginalized sports involving groups considered physically "less than ideal" by its culturally hegemonic standards. The two groups that have most persistently been framed as unfit for American-style sport have been women and people with disabilities. Women's sports receive far less coverage than do men's, and U.S. mainstream media continue to shun disability sports and the world's second-largest sporting event, the Paralympics.

Meanwhile, participation in sport by these groups is rising. When Title IX was signed, 1 in 27 girls participated in high school sports; in 1998, one-third of American high school girls participated in organized sport (Sport Illustrated for Women, 2002). During the 1990s, participation by teenage girls on their school sports teams increased 31%, and female participants on NCAA teams increased 38% (Sports Illustrated for Women, 2002). Sports participation among people with disabilities in the United States has also increased. Paralympic participation has steadily grown over the decades; the 2004 Games drew 4,000 athletes, including 238 Americans, from 136 countries (USA Paralympics, 2004). Participation in sport "demonstrates that individuals with disabilities are more able and similar to their non-disabled peers than stereotypes suggest" (Taub, Blinde, & Greer, 1999, p. 1471).

Athletes with disabilities, however, are not treated similarly to able-bodied athletes. U.S. sport is defined in hegemonic terms, requiring able ("ideal") bodies to engage in competitive activity with a premium on power and performance (Curry, Arriagada, & Cornwell, 2002). This definition of sport has privileged able-bodied men while keeping athletes with disabilities from participation, revenue, or visibility. Female athletes with disabilities face a double-bind; they are excluded both for their femaleness and for their disability (Blinde & McCallister, 1999).

Although invisible in U.S. mainstream media, disability sports are visible in the disability press. A range of websites, magazines and newsletters provide some coverage of sport participation by people with disabilities. These outlets, from Ragged Edge Online to Paraplegia News, originate within the disability community. One publication, Sports 'n Spokes, is devoted exclusively to disability sports. Sports 'n Spokes is a primary venue for images of disability athletics.

How does the disability press–namely, Sports 'n Spokes–present sport? Is the traditional, hegemonic image of sport rejected in favor of a more inclusive ideal? This study analyzes images of disability athletics in Sports 'n Spokes in light of hegemonic definitions of sport in the United States from a feminist cultural perspective. We ascertain how ideas about gender and disability, in relation to sport, are presented to people with disabilities and discuss the implications of such ideas.

A feminist cultural approach was deemed most useful for this study because it acknowledges structures that may be oppressive to women and other marginalized groups and recognizes the interlocking oppressions embedded in disability, gender, sexuality, and ability classifications (Garland-Thompson, 2002; Hargreaves & McDonald, 2000). This approach is especially useful for Disability Studies because it addresses the politics of the body, the privilege of normalcy, multiculturalism, and the social construction of identity (Garland-Thompson, 2002).

Hegemony, Sports and Media

The theory of cultural hegemony has been the focus of cultural scholars for the past several decades. Hegemony serves a culture's most powerful economic groups by obtaining consent for their leadership through the use of ideological and political "norms" made ubiquitous through institutions such as media and sport (Altheide, 1984; Condit, 1994; Croteau & Hoynes, 2000; Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Holtzman, 2000). Hegemonic ideas are presented as universally valid, and alternative views are suppressed or appropriated into the dominant frame (Artz & Murphy, 2000; Condit, 1994).

Sport and Sport Media
Sport has been viewed by scholars as a powerful hegemonic institution in the United States. The rise of the industrialist-capitalist era separated sport from its group and community origins for the purpose of selling it (Sage, 1990). Sport is an industry that uses the private appropriation of labor for a profit (Hardin & Hardin, 2004). Sport media is an ideal site to reinforce American capitalist values such as respect for authority, individualism, sacrifice "for the team," and hard work. American culture glorifies tales of the "rugged individualist" by rejecting interdependence as weak and undesirable (Barr, 2000). Autonomy and physical fitness–ideal attributes of the American worker–are idealized (Ashton-Shaeffer, Gibson, Autry, & Hanson, 2001).

The link between capitalist-defined sport and the ideal body reflects emphasis on a "normalized" body in the larger culture (Hahn, 1988). According to Hahn, a "moral order of the body" has been imposed on American culture (p. 29). People with disabilities, by virtue of their lack of a "normalized" body, are subordinated and thus excluded from the material rewards.

Hegemonic Definitions of Sport
The definition of sport is not universal; its existence, shape, and presence are all contested activities (Coakley, 2004). Definitions of sport are cultural; societies that emphasize cooperation over competition are not likely to value competition in sport, and vice-versa. In the United States, sport has historically involved notions of institutionalized competition combined with rigorous physical activity or complex physical skill (Coakley, 2004; Curry et al., 2002); as recent ESPN poker programming suggests, perhaps the highest premium is on hyper-competition and a "winner take all" approach. DePauw and Gavron (1995) note, however, "The term 'sport' as used in other countries encompasses much more than competitive sport" (p. 6).

Focus on competition serves hegemonic ends, emphasizing the "naturalness" of a hierarchical social structure topped by able-bodied men. Focus on competition also excludes the activities of people who have neither the resources, the organization, nor the desire to make their activities competitive. Thus, the impression is created that activities of select groups are more important that the activities of others; "this, in turn can contribute to the marginalization of groups" (Coakley, 2004, p. 23). Media coverage of U.S. sport frames competitive, or power/performance sports, as the only ones that "count" (Curry et al., 2002; Ralph Nader, 2002). This model leaves out the "physical activities in which average citizens participate" (Ralph Nader, 2002). Instead, it emphasizes "a set of values, based on money, marketing, commercialism, greed and profit" (Ralph Nader, 2002).

Coakley (2004) describes power/performance sports as those whose purpose involves overcoming an opponent, setting a record, and using the sculpted body for performance. Hard work, pain, risk, and dedication are prerequisites. Depictions of such sports have been criticized because they emphasize a narrow ideology about ability and gender, reinforcing cultural hegemony (Curry et al., 2002). Competitive sport participation, assumed in U.S. culture as universal, is more widely encouraged and expected by men than by women; female participation in such sports rattles the gender order (Curry et al., 2002; Lenskyj, 1994). People with disabilities are likewise sidelined by a definition of sport that requires competition by those deemed "most fit"; many Americans would find the idea of people with disabilities (especially women) competing ludicrous (DePauw, 1997; DePauw & Gavron, 1995).

Even so, the adoption of sport as defined by its capacity for displays of power and performance are evident in disability-oriented athletics. The most notable phenomenon of late is that of Quad Rugby, the fastest-growing wheelchair sport in the world (Lindemann, 2004). As Lindemann writes, Quad Rugby (nicknamed "murderball") is a sport that encourages players to "transform the stigma of physical disability into performances of hyper-masculinity, reifying patriarchal notions of gender and sport" (p. 1). The sport emphasizes power and values such as toughness and the ability to play through the pain (Lindemann, 2004).

Radical and cultural feminist analyses of sport and sport depictions challenges the assumption that values such as cooperation or community-building are less important than winning (Lenskyj, 1994; Tong, 1998). A feminist model of sport suggests that competition be recast as the challenging of one another in a supportive environment and that sport be understood as providing a sense of community to participants (Lenskyj, 1994; Theberge, 1987). Non-competitive sport has value, providing pleasure and social connections to participants (Curry et al., 2002). Such sports are more easily integrated by gender and ability. Radical and cultural feminists believe that instead of women agitating the current competition-focused athletic system, "the entire system must be dismantled and reconstructed" (Birrell, 2000).

According to DePauw (1997), such a change in the definition and meaning of sport is necessary for full accommodation of people (especially women) with disabilities. However, she writes:

It is indeed difficult to envision such a fundamental shift in sport because such a change requires reconceptualization of basic and underlying tenets of sport and especially our socially constructed views of body, ability, athletic performance and sport (p. 225).

Difference and Mediated Sport

Gender and Sexual Difference

The most-examined subordinate group in relation to the body, sport, and hegemony has been women. Scholars have produced volumes of research that leaves little doubt about the marginalization of women in sport (Messner, 2002; Schell, 1999). The media reinforce the hegemonic notion that sport is a rite of passage for (able-bodied) men (Cuneen & Sidwell, 1998; Duncan & Sayaovong, 1990; Lumpkin & Williams, 1991; Salwen & Wood, 1994).

Media framing of female athletes as "sexually different" has received considerable attention (Hall, 1996). Sexual difference is the term used to describe the presentation of girls and women as naturally (biologically) less suited for sport than men. Sexual difference is signified by the female body, which has been deemed as "disabled" in relation to sport because it does not match the ideal (able-bodied male) body (Garland-Thompson, 2002).

Sports are presented as socially acceptable or unacceptable for women based on how they conform to traditional ideas about roles for the female body (Kane, 1988; Koivula, 1995). Non-contact sports that emphasize feminine ideals of grace, beauty, and glamour, such as figure skating and gymnastics, receive more favorable coverage and so do individual sports over team sports, which have traditionally been considered more masculine (Daddario, 1994; Duncan, 1990; Hardin, Lynn, Walsdorf & Hardin, 2002; Kane, 1988).

Photos of athletes have been the most powerful mediated conveyors of sexual difference (Duncan, 1990; Rowe, 1999). The use of fewer photos of women (relative to men), downward camera angles, and photos that show women in passive poses all reinforce the idea of women as sexually different, and thus, less suitable for hegemonically defined sport (Cuneen & Sidwell, 1998; Duncan & Sayaovong, 1990; Hardin et al., 2002). Further, Curry et al. (2002) found that women less often than men appeared in magazine photos that depicted competitive ("power/performance") sports.

Further, photos of female athletes often go beyond reinforcing sexual difference by sexualizing female athletes: placing them in provocative poses and in various states of undress; for instance, U.S. soccer player Brandi Chastain and U.S. volleyball player Gabrielle Reese have both been photographically depicted in "hetero-sexy" poses (Schell, 1999; Shugart, 2003). That phenomenon is not directly addressed by the photo analysis in this study.

People with Disabilities and Ableism
Research on visual representations of people with disabilities and sport shows a pattern of almost complete exclusion. Studies of sports magazines revealed little-to-no representation of athletes with disabilities (Hardin, Hardin, Lynn & Walsdorf, 2001; Hardin, Lynn & Walsdorf, 2003; Maas & Hasbrook, 2001; Schell, 1999).

Coverage of the Paralympic Games has also been sparse in the United States. Coverage of the Salt Lake City Paralympics in 2002, which drew athletes with disabilities from all over the globe, was virtually non-existent in U.S. media except for coverage by the A & E network (Golden, 2002). Golden, who interviewed sports reporters at the Olympics and the Paralympics, found that many American journalists did not view disabled sports as valid because the journalists believed the disabled athletes could not be competitive. Golden quoted an American broadcast reporter about disabled athletes and the Paralympics who said:

They can't compete on the same level as the Olympic athletes, so it's a bone they throw to them to make them feel better. It's not a real competition, and I, for one, don't see why I should have to cover it (p. 13).

Golden (2002) found that major American newspapers published from zero to five articles apiece on the 2002 Paralympics, compared with hundreds of stories during the Olympics. Although newspapers in other countries, such as Britain, Germany, and France, publish more articles covering the Paralympics, scholars say the coverage reflects emphasis on an able-bodied ideal for Paralympic athletes (Thomas & Smith, 2003) or an undue emphasis on the "power/performance" standard (Curry et al., 2002): national success and medal rankings (Schantz & Gilbert, 2001).

Several studies, including those by Thomas and Smith (2003) and Schantz and Gilbert (2001), examined photographic depictions of disabled athletes in newspapers. Both studies found that many of the photos hid the athlete's impairment. Further, Thomas and Smith (2003) found that almost half of male Paralympians and slightly more than half of female Paralympians were depicted as passive (motionless).

The Intersection of Gender and Disability
Research on disability (and disability in relation to sport) has focused on disability as a unitary concept — as the master, exclusive status for people with disabilities; the irrelevance of gender was often assumed (Asch & Fine, 1988). However, feminist Disability Studies define disability as a dimension of socially constructed identity and a type of embodiment that interacts with the material and social environments" (Garland-Thompson, 1997). Three sets of social dynamics intersect in the gendered experiences of people with disabilities: stigma, gender as an interaction process, and the primacy of the body in the performance of gender (Gerrschick, 2000). Disability erodes privileges that accompany gender status; for instance, it dissipates much masculine privilege, and it removes the "pedestal" that is the flip side of sexism against women (Gerrschick, 2000). Although disability contradicts hegemonic definitions of the masculine body (strength, independence), it parallels definitions of the feminine body (deviance, weakness) (Garland-Thompson, 1997).

The Disability Press

Exclusion of oppressed groups from coverage by dominant media sources has historically led to the development of niche media; Ransom (1997) argues that the disability press has formed during recent decades out of the same necessity as the Black press and the women's press formed during the early 20th century. The disability press performs an important function for people with disabilities by providing discourse essential in helping people with disabilities forge a group identity and challenge able-bodied paradigms (Haller, 2000a; DePauw, 1997; Ransom, 1997). More than 100 disability-focused publications exist in the United States; many circulate to less than 5,000 subscribers while others have circulations of 30,000 or more. Some target readers interested in particular disabilities (such as mobility impairment), and others seek a more general readership (Ransom, 1997).

Only a few scholars have studied media produced by and for people with disabilities (McCoy, 1999). One study, Ransom's (1997) interviews with U.S. disability publication editors, is helpful because it explores their motivations, and it analyzes the function of disability publications. Ransom found that many publications offered progressive views of disability by framing it as a civil rights issue. Publications with a "political/activist" function had editors that embraced the concept of "disability rights" and expressed their desire to change the attitudes of people in regard to disability.

Ransom (1997) concluded that some U.S. disability publications, however, offer alternative views of disability either because they focus on a very narrow niche and treat disability as incidental (Amputee Golfer Magazine, for instance), or they seek, through their stories and photos, to assimilate people with disabilities into the dominant culture. Such "mainstreaming" publications seek to offer readers opportunities to participate in employment, education or "other activities available to American citizens" (Ransom, 1997, p. 8).

Such a mainstreaming approach may fail to challenge the basic assumptions that have kept people with disabilities from participating in opportunities available to able-bodied Americans (Baynton, 2001). McCoy (1999) argues that people with disabilities have been trained to adopt the dominant discourse of the culture and thus subordinate their own voices. According to Baynton (2001), they silence their voices and seek to remove themselves from the negative stigma the dominant discourse places on disability; they seek to disassociate themselves from those people who "really are disabled" (p. 51).

Sports 'n Spokes
Although other disability publications provide either limited commentary on sport (Ability) or may focus on a niche (Amputee Golfer), Sports 'n Spokes is the only general-interest disability sports magazine in the United States. Sports n Spokes, owned by Paralyzed Veterans of America, covers wheelchair competitive sports and recreation activities primarily for individuals with spinal cord injury, spina bifida, amputation, and other ambulatory disabilities. The magazine has a paid circulation of slightly more than 10,000 and an estimated readership of 25,000 (PVA Publications, 2003). The publisher estimates that 65% of readers are male, 68% are wheelchair users, and 70% of readers are between 25 and 54 years old (PVA Publications, 2003).

A qualitative study using interviews with 10 competitive wheelchair athletes explored their relationship with Sports 'n Spokes (Hardin & Hardin, 2003). Athletes reported using the magazine to affirm their role as "athlete," to connect to the disability sports community and to find information they needed. The study quoted one athlete as saying: 'It's all about people like me. They're in chairs, and they're doing all kinds of sports' (Hardin & Hardin, p. 254). Interview participants said they enjoyed reading about other athletes they knew in the magazine. However, at least one athlete thought the magazine wasn't serious enough about competition and didn't offer the kind of critical sports analysis he saw in mainstream magazines.

Sports 'n Spokes has struggled with striking a balance between competitive and "recreational" sports that pleases its readership. Editor Cliff Crase wrote about the tension between different types of coverage in the May 2005 issue. He discussed specific complaints from readers about "way too many recreational articles" in a previous issue and the magazine's efforts to fix the "problem." He went on to write:

It's interesting to see the reaction from faithful readers who are passionate

for their particular sport or game. The nimrods think there is too much coverage of fishing and competitive sports...As the saying goes, you can please half the readers some of the time, but you can't please all the readers all the time. Not to say we don't try (p. 8).


Although Disability Studies have increased in recent years as they have gained a "positive legitimacy" as an academic discipline, relatively few studies exist that examine messages in the disability press or images of disability as related to other axes of power, such as race or gender (Davis, 1997, p. 1). Discourse within the disability press is important because it illuminates the attitudes and values of the disability community in relation to the wider culture. Further, application of a feminist perspective to Disability Studies, which provides an investigation of how culture saturates (through disability and gender, and more) the "peculiarities of bodies with meanings," provides a holistic and useful approach that can be used to encourage social change where needed (Garland-Thompson, 2002, p. 3).

This study examines photographic images of disability in Sports n Spokes magazine. Sports n Spokes magazine was selected for study because it is widely considered the dominant disability sport magazine on the U.S. market for persons with physical disabilities. Sports 'n Spokes, however, does not attempt to cover sports involving all types of disability. It does not feature coverage of sports for people with cognitive disabilities, such as the Special Olympics, or of deaf sport, for instance. Thus, this research focuses solely on the interaction between sports and ambulatory physical disability.

Photographic images were chosen for several reasons. Photographs are powerful cultural communicators; they are "just as loaded with ideology" as text, making them as important as text for critical analysis (Curry et al., 2002). Photographs are also visual magnets that beckon readers more powerfully than does text; they offer a subjective message with a veneer of objectivity in a vivid, memorable and "easy to read" format (Duncan, 1990). Their messages are further strengthened by the ease with which they are consumed and by their repetition in mass media (Moeller, 1999).

Research Questions
Because little research exists on media images of disability sport or on the disability press, and none has been published that examines the magazine under study, two overarching research questions were drafted to explore the relationship between sport, disability and gender:

  1. How are people with disabilities presented in relation to sport? (Are they presented as active or passive, primarily as participants or competitors? Are they presented as empowered in relation to able-bodied individuals in the magazine?)
  2. How is gender presented as it intersects with disability? (Are women presented as active or passive, as participants or competitors? Are they depicted as sexually different?)

Content Analysis
Photographs in 24 issues of the magazine, published in 2000 and 2001, were collected and examined via content analysis. Content analysis was used to answer the research questions. Through content analysis relationships of the most salient clusters of images and information are gauged to accurately represent the dominant messages (Entman, 1993). Commonly defined as an objective, systematic, and quantitative discovery of message content, content analysis has also been determined as an effective way to examine media images of minority or historically oppressed groups (Hocking & Stacks, 1998; Wimmer & Dominick, 1991). The results of content analysis, however, must be understood within their limits. Content analysis cannot predict the interaction of a text with its audience, and it cannot uncover intentions of producers. Further, it does not account for the "ambiguous and contradictory" nature of gender-related media representations.

To better describe the results of the content analysis, images in various issues of the magazine that illustrative of the findings were examined and are used as examples. This method is particularly useful for helping to illustrate the different ways in which sport, disability, and gender are displayed in the magazine (Curry et al., 2002).

Data Collection

A coding instrument was developed by the researchers to code 2,141 Sports 'n Spokes editorial images. Individuals in photos were coded as separate editorial images. Artistic models (computer-generated figures such as drawing of athletes, graphic representations) and crowd shots (of more than 20 people) were not coded.

The instrument used categories from the work of Cuneen and Sidwell (1998) and Duncan and Sayaovong (1990), exploring media images of sexual difference in sport, and was adapted for use with images of disability. The categorical variables were: (a) gender of the subject; (b) disability; (c) type of sport participation (individual or team); (d) level of competition; (e) motion; (f) camera angle; and (g) relative size of photo (dominant or non-dominant). For descriptions of each coding category, see Table 1. These categories were chosen because they allow analysis for the ways in which difference may be emphasized in relationship to gender, disability and sport. For instance, difference in camera angles in relationship to gender or disability would reflect differing framing of power (with the "up" angle conferring power in the photo subject, and the down angle conferring it on the viewer); differences in how sport type, motion and competition are presented by gender would reinforce notions of sexual difference and ableism if one group were more often depicted as active and competitive, for instance, in relationship to another (Hardin, Hardin, Lynn, & Walsdorf, 2001).

When necessary, the caption was consulted to help discern the identity of individuals, sport participation type or activity in photos. Images where gender or disability was not discernible, and the caption did not provide the necessary information, were coded as such ("cannot determine").

Data Trustworthiness

A critical component of content analysis is to ensure that data reflect consistency in the interpretation and application of the coding schemes and not the biases of coders. The research assistant involved with this study received a code book with definitions of categorical variables was trained to serve as a coder of the magazine photos. To confirm that the coding scheme was not limited to use by only one individual, images in four issues of the magazine were also coded by a researcher (Neuendorf, 2002). Holsti's reliability formula was used to assess coder reliability; overall reliability was 96% (Hocking & Stacks, 1998). The category with the highest reliability was camera angle (99%); the lowest reliability was for photo dominance (90%). Reliability for other categories fell in between. An intra-coder reliability test on two issues of the magazine was conducted at the beginning of and at approximately halfway through the data collection process. Intra-coder reliability, established by comparing coding sheets on identical data completed by the same coder at least 24 hours apart, resulted in a reliability rating of 96%.

Statistical analysis included frequencies and cross-tabulations with chi-square analysis; unless noted, all findings are significant at the p<.01 level.


Disability and Sport

Most individuals (73%) were depicted with a discernible disability. Twenty percent (430) of individuals did not have clear physical disabilities and 7% (154) could not be determined as able-bodied or as possessing a physical disability from the photo or caption.

Overall, people with disabilities in the magazine were presented as active sports competitors, especially in comparison to depictions of able-bodied individuals. Disability dominated cover photographs; 93% (27) were of persons with disability. Of the 1,557 photos of individuals with disabilities, 70% (1,088) were depicted as active. On the other hand, 56% (241) of the 430 persons without disabilities were presented as active. Likewise, persons with disabilities were more likely to be depicted as participating in sport and as competitive compared to persons without physical disabilities. See Table 2.

There was not a clear difference between persons with and without disabilities in relation to sport type. Persons with disabilities were depicted as participants in individual sports more often (57%) than they were in team sports, but persons without disabilities were depicted in individual sports almost as often (52%). People with disabilities were also not framed differently by camera angle than were able-bodied photo subjects; each group was depicted with a down angle in about 4% of images. These findings were not significant (X2 =1.165; df =4; p>.01).

Gender, Disability, and Sport

Men dominated coverage and were more likely to be depicted in dominant photos and as sports competitors than women. Women, however, were depicted as active at almost the same rate as were men. They were also depicted slightly more often than men (5% and 3%, respectively) as subjects of a downward camera angle, but these findings were not statistically significant (X2 =5.537; df =4; p>.01).

Men more often appeared in Sports 'n Spokes than women. Seventy-nine percent (1,678) of images were of men and 19% (403) were of women. It was difficult to discern the gender of 2.8% (60) of the images; these were coded as unknown. Men (77%) were more often depicted as having a disability than were women (60%).

Men were also far more likely to appear on the cover of Sports 'n Spokes. Of the 24 covers, 83% (20) were of men and 15% (4) were of women. Men were depicted in dominant photos at a higher rate than were women (see Table 3), although this finding was not significant (X2 =3.540; df =2; p>.01).

Women (18%) were more often depicted as non-sporting than men (10%). Women were also depicted less often as competitive than were men (54% and 72%, respectively). Further, they were less often depicted as involved as participating in team sports; 47% of male images and 32% of female images involved team participation.

The September, 2001 issue is exemplary of these findings. A feature titled, "They came to compete," about the National Junior Wheelchair Championships, contained three images of women and 13 images of men. One image of a female was non-sporting; the other two were of women participating in individual sports.

Discussion and Conclusions

The wheelchair athletes interviewed about Sports 'n Spokes magazine said they found in it validation of their athletic status (Hardin & Hardin, 2003). An analysis of its photos make their comments easy to understand: The magazine overwhelmingly presents people with disabilities as active and as sporting; able-bodied individuals are more often the spectators, for a change. The range of sports is impressive: a single issue (July, 2001) contained images of people with disabilities playing basketball, tennis, and sled hockey, fishing, scuba diving, racing, waterskiing and mountain climbing.

Another reason the athletes may have reported feeling validated by the magazine is that its images serve a mainstreaming function for disability sport. Disability sport is presented in such a fashion as to "fit into" American sport values. Photographic depictions of sport, disability, and gender in Sports 'n Spokes reinforce hegemony at least to a degree. Similar to Haller's (2000b) findings for news photos, men are more often depicted in the magazine than are women, and more often in the dominant photos. They are more likely to be depicted as sporting and competitive than are women. An example of a sport depiction that looks hegemonically "American" is in the January, 2001 issue of the magazine. A feature on a wheelchair football tournament, "Gridiron Grit," includes pictures of male players in the intensity of tournament matches — knocking each other to the ground as they grasp for the football. The largest photo is of the winning team, holding up "No. 1" signs as they display their trophy.

In that sense, the magazine seems to be fulfilling the role that Ransom (1997) assigns to disability publications that seek to assimilate into instead of to challenge hegemony. The irony for people with disabilities who read the magazine, however, is that these same hegemonic constraints lock them out of the "symbolic and material rewards" offered in the United States to use their bodies in sport. As competitive as disability sports are, for instance, such competitiveness will not be recognized by an ableist worldview. As much as disability sport is displayed as a male domain, it has not been recognized as "valid" in mainstream U.S. culture. Cooperation with a hegemony that preserves power relations among oppressed groups may be counter-productive. Alternative sporting values, such as cooperation and inclusion, would reflect social values that must be employed to eradicate ableism. Of course, concentration on such values would put the magazine further on the margins in relation to sport than even its status as a disability publication; that is evidenced by the outcry of some readers when the magazine does not focus on competition to their satisfaction.

This research did find images of inclusion and an emphasis on cooperation/participation in Sports 'n Spokes. For instance, unlike mainstream sports magazines, a percentage of the sporting images are not of competition, but instead of participation. This can again be illustrated with the June, 2001 issue, where photos depict participatory sports such as scuba diving, water skiing, and fishing. Further, although the percentage and type of female depictions in the magazine differs from men in ways that emphasize sexual difference, women are included in this magazine to a degree not seen in mainstream sports magazines. They are also depicted almost as often as men as being active — a departure from Thomas and Smith's (2003) findings in mainstream publications. This is not surprising, however, from a cultural feminist point-of-view; an emphasis on participatory sporting values creates openings for women's sports that would not exist otherwise. This is a very positive feature of the magazine in relation to gender, disability and sport; it casts a wider, more inclusive net, reflecting openness to a more inclusive (and, in cultural feminist terms) transformative model that includes women.

When the realities of sport participation for people with disabilities are considered, the percentage of women in the magazine may be fairly accurate. Women with disabilities do participate in sports at lower rates than their male counterparts; for instance, they average just 25% of Paralympics participation (DePauw, 1997; Women's Sports Foundation, 2004). In fact, some of the competitive events covered in the magazine were integrated, but men far outnumbered women. For instance, coverage of a basketball tournament for junior high and high school-aged students presented photos of men playing, with the exception of one girl, who was playing on an otherwise male team. This girl likely had to play on the all-boys' team to have any sports opportunities.

Overall, depictions in the magazine amplify the need to provide more sporting opportunities for women with disabilities. Research indicates their lack of participation is not for lack of want, but of resources and support (DePauw, 1997; Women's Sports Foundation, 2004)

This study offers an introductory look at discourse on sport, disability, and gender offered in the disability press; it looks at only one magazine (many disability-related websites offer sports news, and these have a broader reach than does Sports 'n Spokes) and only the photographic images in that magazine. As such, it is a starting point for further research on the values communicated about disability sport through alternative media. It also adds to the small but growing body of literature examining coverage of disability sport in mainstream media.

We hope that this study also provides a contribution to discussions about how sport should best be defined and emphasized for people with disabilities and for the broader culture. It seems that while a competitive ("power/performance") paradigm may be valid for those athletes with disabilities who are able to participate (minus the material rewards reserved for able-bodied athletes, for the most part), it is a paradigm that continues to submerge people with disabilities in the United States into invisibility. As DePauw (1997) reminds us, it is important to acknowledge that such social constructions of sport serve only those at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy. But these constructions aren't irrefutable, she adds; "sport can also serve as a site for resistance to dominant societal values" (p. 234). It seems that an ideal place for discourse on how that resistance may commence, and then gain momentum, would be through a publication such as Sports 'n Spokes.


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Table 1. Categorical Variable Definitions






Subject is gendered male (as identified by the caption and/or via visible cues such as facial hair)


Subject is gendered female (as identified by the caption and/or visible cues such as the presence of breasts)

Can't tell:

Gender of the subject cannot be discerned through the caption or through visible cues




Subject has a discernible physical disability (discernible through the caption or through visible cues such as the presence of a wheelchair)


Subject appears to be able-bodied

Motion in Photo



Subject appears obviously posed in the photo; motionless; or appears only from the neck up.


Subject is clearly in motion or in a posture that suggest they are about to take action.




Subject is involved in sporting competition against other individuals or teams (examples: basketball tournament, wheelchair race)


Subject is not involved in sporting competition against other individuals or teams (examples: scuba diving outing, fitness workout, fishing expedition)

Type of Sport



No sport is being represented


Individual competition sport (i.e., track, golf)


Team competition sport (i.e., soccer, basketball)

Camera Angle



Viewer looks up at photo subject


Viewer looks down on photo subject


Viewer looks straight at photo subject

Photo Size



Subject is in largest photo on the page (If two photos are of equal size, the dominant photo is the photo placed higher on the page)


Subject is in photo that is smaller (or placed lower) than another on the page

Table 2. Disability Frequencies

Disability Frequency Sporting Active Competition
Disabled 73% (1,557) 93% (1,454) 70% (1,088) 78% (1,209)
Non-Disabled 20% (430) 75% (322) 56% (241) 45% (193)

Note: Percentages for frequencies may not add up to 100%, as images coded as "Can't Tell" were not included.

Table 3. Gender Frequencies






















Note: Percentages for frequencies may not add up to 100%, as images coded as "Can't Tell" are not included.