The international Paralympic Movement caters for five impairment groups: athletes with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsied athletes, amputees and les autres athletes, blind and visually impaired athletes and intellectually disabled athletes.

Athletes with spinal cord injuries include those competitors with a spinal cord lesion, spina bifida or polio. These athletes are divided into two broad categories: paraplegics and quadriplegics. Cerebral palsied athletes have brain injuries that cause motor function disorder. Amputee athletes have acquired or congenital amputations. The French term les autres (the others) includes athletes with conditions such as muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and arthritis, as well as those athletes with dwarfism. Blind and visually impaired athletes range from those who are totally blind to competitors whose vision restricts their recognition of objects and contours. Intellectually disabled athletes display limitations in intellectual functions and adaptive behaviour.

Not all of these disability groups have participated in the entire suite of Paralympic Games since 1960. Athletes with spinal cord injuries are the oldest and most numerous participants in the Paralympic Movement. They were the sole participants for the first four summer Paralympics until the Toronto 1976 Games. In Toronto, blind and visually impaired athletes, and amputees, joined athletes with a spinal cord injury in Paralympic competition. These three disability groups were all represented at the first Winter Paralympics held in Ornskoldsvik in 1976. Cerebral palsied athletes joined summer Paralympic competition at the Arnhem 1980 Games and the winter Paralympic competition at the Innsbruck 1984 Games. Les autres athletes first competed in both the summer and winter Paralympics in 1984 in New York and Innsbruck respectively.

The last disability group to join the Paralympic Movement were athletes with an intellectual disability. These athletes participated initially in the summer Madrid 1992 Games and were fully integrated into the summer Paralympics at the Atlanta 1996 Games. Two years later, athletes with an intellectual disability first competed in winter Paralympic sports at the Nagano 1998 Games. Following an incident of cheating by the Spanish basketball team at the Sydney 2000 Games, athletes with an intellectual disability were banned from the Paralympic movement until their reintroduction at the London 2012 Games.

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