Chess for learners with disabilities

The goals of chess

  • The ultimate goal of chess is to put your opponent in checkmate.
  • Chess can also develop various life skills
  • Chess has numerous health and educational advantages.
  • Research shows that chess plays an important role in improving academic ability.
  • To build and strengthen learners’ self-esteem.
  • To help them feel part of an inclusive [chess] teaching system.

Can chess be taught to learners with disabilities?

A resounding yes! Learners with physical or mental disabilities

  • are able to learn chess
  • can be taught higher order thinking skills
  • can be taught the concept of rules

through a step-by-step-approach

The learners must be motivated and given appropriate quality opportunities to learn and live a normal life in an inclusive learning environment. The chess classroom should be accessible for the learners and assistance for the chess educator is crucial to support the child with a disability. Parents play an important role to inform the chess educator about the strategies they use at home to help their child learn and develop.

Chess can be taught to learners with various disabilities or impairments

Chess can be taught to learners with physical disabilities, learning difficulties, problems to communicate and to socialise and various other disabilities or impairments.

  • ADD, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia, dyspraxia, learning disabilities, Asperger syndrome, autism, emotionally disturbed, epilepsy, hearing impaired, NVLD (non-verbal learning disability), paraplegia, visually impaired.
  • Other physically disabled (eg. hemiplegia).
  • Mentally handicapped challenges (eg. Down syndrome).

Playing chess can help the learners to learn various physical, mental and social skills.


Teaching chess to learners with attention difficulty

  • Complex tasks are broken down in an orderly sequence so that the learner can slowly process the information.


  • It helps the learner to concentrate to learn the various chess moves – the learner develops concentration and listening skills.
  • It helps to improve the learner’s attention span – the learner’s concentration period increases.

Playing chess encourages learners with attention difficulty to sit down – the learner concentrates and focuses on the chess board! Chess helps the learner to learn the important skills of self control and attentiveness.

Question: Peter participates in chess tournaments – the duration of a round at the various tournaments is between 1 and 2 hours. Peter copes well to concentrate during rounds. At school his teacher calls his mom to inform her that she thinks Peter has an attention problem, because he does not pay attention during her life science lessons (45 minutes). Why do you think can Peter concentrate for up to 2 hours during a chess round, but he has a problem to concentrate and cooperate during a 45 minutes life science class?


Teaching chess to learners with autism

The chess learning process is a challenge for the learners! Avoid sensory overload (eg. noise from other learners make it difficult to concentrate) and create a relaxing atmosphere in the chess classroom.

  • Teach the chess learning process in a structured and organised, but fun way!


  • It improves pattern and object recognition, logic and social interaction whereby the learner can learn social skills.
  • There is no physical contact.

Question: How can the layout of the chess classroom impact on the learner?

Question: How can a regular routine benefit the learner?

Question: Which social skills can learners with autism develop through chess?

Question: Can chess self study be of value to the learner? If, how can it benefit the learner?


Teaching chess to learners with non-verbal learning disability (NVLD)

  • Learning chess in a structured step-by-step approach with routine, rules and in spoken language – explain new chess concepts and vocabulary.


  • It helps the learner with the processing of non-verbal information (eg. to recognise patterns and concepts) and non verbal learning.

Chess can help the learner develop various skills such as:

  • fine motor skills, spatial recognition, abstract thinking, decision making, planning, goal setting, initiative, cause and effect, problem solving and self control.

Question: How can learning chess help the learner to develop his or her visual-spatial, motor and social skills?

Question: The learner has good verbal skills and can write well . True: …..   False: …..

Question: How can chess help the learner to improve his or her problem to understand communication that is not verbal?

Question: How do you think can learning chess improve non-verbal reasoning ability?

Question: Do you think a large outdoor chess set can assist the learner to develop gross motor skills?

Question: Should the learner learn chess in a small or large group setting? Why?


Teaching chess to learners with cerebral palsy (CP)

Though the chess learning process is a long and tedious process cerebral palsy learners love to play! Thus, be patient and passionate during the process!

The learners need an environment which facilitates play!

    • During stand-up time the learner can learn and practise chess with a chess board on the cerebral palsy standing frame or a special chair which has extra support in the trunk area so that the learner can focus on learning the chess lessons without thinking about trunk control!
    • The learner communicates through upwards rolling of the eyes, nodding or gazing to indicate which chess piece must be moved and to which square. Another person (eg. Mom or Dad) can hold and move the pieces for the learner. These special needs learners can master the chess board – they have unique abilities!


  • Learning chess empowers the learners.
  • These learning sessions also help with intellectual development!
  • Playing with others helps the learner to learn social skills.

The learner learns various skills through chess such as

  • eye hand coordination, fine motor skills, planning, problem solving, taking turns, patience, cause and effect

Question: How can the learner’s challenges of mobility be overcome to learn chess? How can technology play a role to learn chess?

Teaching chess in a fun way

Teaching chess with a purpose and in a fun way help the learners to cope with their disabilities and to enjoy life! Because they love games, teaching chess in a fun way helps the learners to also enjoy the game of chess!

Learners with disabilities can be taught complex skills through simple chess skills. Many of these skills can prepare learners for various life situations. It is very important to understand a learner’s special needs and how the development of life skills, through chess, can impact positively on the learner

Q: How will you teach chess to a learner with an intellectual or other learning impairment?

Q: How will you arrange your classroom (or a chess tournament) for a child who has a lower leg impairment and is using a wheelchair to move around?

Teaching factors

Various factors should be taken into consideration when teaching chess to learners with disabilities so that they can understand the game of chess.

  • The learners need proper guidance (what to do and how to do)!
  • The lesson structure must be simple (use the KISS principle) – discuss and explain one concept at a time.
  • Focus on the learner’s abilities and strengths – what the learner can do.
  • As chess educator/facilitator you must be passionate and have lots of patience, enthusiasm and empathy with each learner!
  • Set reachable goals and objectives – take your time to teach a specific concept.
  • Stimulate the learners’ creativity and curiosity.
  • The teaching and learning process must be fun – the learners must enjoy the training sessions (but without compromising discipline!).
  • Support, award, encourage and praise the learner when he or she achieves a specific milestone, eg. understanding a Knight’s move, castling, promotion or checkmate)!
  • The ultimate objective is to build and strengthen the learner’s self-esteem and self-worth!

Q: Can you think of any other factors which can contribute to teaching chess to learners with disabilities?

Other positive contributions

  • Chess can be played by both able-bodies learners and learners with disabilities. Chess can be adapted for learners with special needs, eg. a chess board for visually impaired learners can be changed into a chess board with pegs, felt or velcro!
  • Learners can play chess on the internet with able-bodied players or other players with disabilities.
  • Learners need both physical exercise (movement) and mental exercise. Chess can be included in their daily activity programs to keep them mentally stimulated.
  • Chess can be part of a family-together-evening where Mom, Dad and other siblings can share in the learner’s chess activity.
  • A big chess board can be used as a training mat. The learners stand on the mat and execute the various chess moves on instruction of the chess educator (eg. “Susan, as Queen, show us how you move on the chess board.”. “James, as Knight, what makes your movements on the chess board different to Susan’s?”) “. This activity can be used to improve cognitive and mental disabilities, memory, concentration, attention span, learning and very important: for fun!

Q: Memory and attention is crucial in the chess learning process. True …..   False …..

Q: Chess develops many important skills such as anticipation, attention span, self-esteem and identity, cognitive skills, understanding of cause and effect and social interaction. True: …..   False …..

Q: These skills are required for cognitive, mental, social and emotional development of able-bodied learners only. True …..   False …..

Q: Playing chess does not give learners with disabilities the opportunity to participate and interact with other able-bodied learners. True …..   False …..

Q: How do you think can the following skills help a learner who has a particular disability?

Pattern recognition
Social skills (social interaction)
Spacial skills
Fine motor skills

Case study: A 9-year-old boy from India invented a 6-player circular chess board. What makes this boy’s achievement so special?

  • He has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (a progressive degenerative muscle tissue disorder).
  • He is wheelchair-ridden.

Q: Which life skills do you think does this little boy demonstrate?

An inclusive approach to organise chess tournaments

  • A player with a disability or impairment should be allowed to compete at chess tournaments.
  • The tournament organisers should make sure that a chess venue is accessible for disabled players or to make alternative arrangements.
  • Info on registration forms (including online registration) should include a question which asks whether a player has any disability or impairment.

PS: If any of our chess readers has a disability or knows of someone with a disability who plays chess and would like to share their story please send us a short feedback on how chess made a difference in their lives.

  • A chess set in every class room in every school in every community – a child who can’t pay must be able to play!
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