Newswise — Atlanta — A new study presented this week at the Association of Academic Physiatrists Annual Meeting in Atlanta found people without disabilities don’t always see the same barriers to participation that people with disabilities see. The study also shows that exposure to these barriers can change people’s perceptions.

“People with disabilities face barriers to physical activity,” says Nick Pilla, a third-year medical student at Penn State College of Medicine and lead investigator in the study. “We initiated this study to determine whether the perception of these barriers differs among people with and without disabilities, and if these perceptions change following exposure to a recreational festival that provided educational events and demonstrations in adaptive physical activity, sport and recreation.” 

To assess this, Pilla’s research team invited over 300 people to participate in a recreational festival, which included activities such as wheelchair basketball, camping, canoeing, and snorkeling. Before the festival, 11 people with and 90 people without disabilities took a survey to assess their perceptions of environmental, social, physiological, transportation, adaptive facilities, adaptive equipment, funding, physical assistance, time and public view barriers to physical activity, recreation, and sport.

“It is important for people to understand that a difference of opinion exists in what people with and without disability view as barriers to physical activity, recreation, and sport,” says Pilla. “Our goal was to investigate which of these barriers, if any, were preventing those with a disability from participating in recreational community events.”

Pilla’s team provided the survey participants with a list of potential barriers and asked them to evaluate each on a scale of one to five, with one meaning they strongly agreed a given area was a barrier, and five meaning they strongly disagreed. The same survey was administered to the group of participants after the festival to determine if perceptions of barriers changed after participation.

Before the festival, the most significant differences captured by the survey were around perceptions relating to psychological factors, transportation, and funding. Significant differences were also noted between the groups after the festival relating to social factors, lack of adaptive equipment, disabled people not getting enough exercise, and a need for physical assistance.

Pilla’s team also looked at differences in perceptions within each of the individual groups: people with disabilities and people without. Among the participants with disabilities, there were no significant differences between pre- and post-festival perceptions of barriers. However, both a lack of adaptive equipment and time emerged as nearly significant. Among the participants without disabilities, time and access to facilities were noted as the most significant change before and after the festival, which – according to Pilla – demonstrated that this group had the greatest change of opinion.

“Demonstration through a community-wide recreational festival can change the perceptions of individuals with and without a disability. This type of work is important, because If we can understand the barriers that individuals with disabilities are facing, we can better address them and make changes to help these individuals better participate in community events and activities, which will improve their quality of life,” says Pilla of these findings.

As a next step, Pilla’s team will use similar surveys at a 2018 festival with the goal of obtaining a larger group of survey participants to further confirm, or replicate, their initial findings.



The Association of Academic Physiatrists (AAP) is the only academic association dedicated to the specialty of physiatry. The AAP is an organization of leading physicians, researchers, in-training physiatrists, and others involved or interested in mentorship, leadership, and discovery in physiatry. The AAP holds an Annual Meeting, produces a leading medical journal in rehabilitation, AJPM&R, and leads a variety of programs and activities that support and enhance academic physiatry. To learn more about the Association and field of physiatry, visit and follow us on Twitter using @AAPhysiatrists. To learn more about the AAP's 2018 Annual Meeting, visit