Disability classification is the method used throughout the Paralympics movement to create and administer equitable athletic competitions. The mission of Paralympics sports is to be as inclusive as possible regarding athletes who possess one of a broad range of physical and intellectual disabilities. It is the equity of the classification process that is an asset of the Paralympics movement, which seeks to promote elite athletic performance within an ever-expanding range of events. The Winter and Summer Paralympic Games are modeled after the Olympics competitions; the Paralympics are a quadrennial event that is staged at the same city and sports venues of the corresponding Olympic Games.
Each disability classification supports a number of freestanding athletic events. Each event is contested within the parameters of the classification, without relation to any other class of athletes who may be participating in the same sport. The rules of the Paralympics movement with respect to the determination of the appropriate classification of an athlete or team begin with the consideration of the appropriate disability category. There are six broad Paralympics categories: amputee, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, wheelchair, vision impairment, and "others."
The amputee category is defined as one where the athlete has lost at least one major musculoskeletal joint; the ankle, knee, and elbow are common examples. The loss of a single finger or a toe would not qualify an athlete for inclusion in this category.
Cerebral palsy is a genetic disease that affects the function of the centers of the brain that direct and control muscular movement. Many athletes who suffer from cerebral palsy compete in events that require wheelchairs.
Intellectual disability is a more subjective determination than that employed in physical disabilities. The Paralympics define this disability as one when the athlete was afflicted with the disability prior to reaching the age of 18 years, and when there is proof from either physicians or other third party specialists that the athlete has a limitation of mental function in two or more specific areas. Academic performance, communication skills, community living skills, the ability of the athletes to safely care for themselves, and their ability to live on their own are the standards against which the disability is assessed.
Wheelchair athletes are those who have sustained a minimum of 10% loss of function in the lower limbs. The most common illness or injuries sustained by these athletes are catastrophic traumas that cause either paraplegia or quadriplegia (the loss of function of two or four limbs from a spinal cord injury), poliomyelitis (the disease affecting the neuromuscular system and the ability of the athlete to control lower limb movement), or amputation.
Vision-impaired athletes range from those whose eyesight requires significant correction by way of lenses to athletes who are entirely blind.
Others (les autres in French) is the category that is reserved for disabled athletes who do not meet the requirements of the previous five categories. A common disability found in the les autres category is that of dwarfism.
Once an athlete has been categorized, the classification process then is conducted within each sport. An example is the 400-m race on the track at the Summer Paralympics. This event is contested in separate classifications created within each of the categories; an amputee athlete who is missing a leg below the knee will compete against athletes with a similar extent of disability; athletes with a single above-the-knee amputation, or athletes with a double amputation will compete in their distinct events. In all events of this nature, the determination of the precise classification is that of a functional assessment: what the athlete is physically able to do.
Track and field (known in the Paralympics rules as athletics, consistent with the Olympic nomenclature) and swimming are the sports that have the greatest number of individual Paralympics event classifications. Track and field is divided into over 50 classifications; swimming has over 14, and each classification supports a number of different competitions.
The game of goal ball, an indoor variant of soccer as contested in the Paralympics, uses technology to eliminate any disputes regarding the degree of disability due to vision impairment among the athletes. Goal ball competitors each wear goggles that render all athletes 100% blind during the competition.
Paralympics wheelchair rugby is another team event where classification of the athletes is critical to preserving fair competition. All athletes on a team are graded in advance of competition as to the their capabilities, with the most capable athletes graded as high as 3.5 points, the least capable scored at 0.5 points. A team has four players in action on the field at all times, and the team grade may not total more than 8.0 for any four athletes throughout the particular game. Basketball uses a similar classification formula.