A 2010 survey by the US Department of Health and Human Services found that fewer than 25 percent of children have at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity. The situation is even worse for children with disabilities: The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research has found that physical activity is 4.5 times lower for children with disabilities than for child without them. While 29 percent of children with disabilities or long-term health problems have physical education classes five days a week (34 percent of children without disabilities do) — and while P.E. is often the only general education class that many children with disabilities take on a regular basis — P.E. is often an afterthought for children with disabilities.
A 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the the education department offers “little information or guidance on P.E. or extracurricular athletics for students with disabilities, and some states and districts GAO interviewed said more would be useful.” Too often, the kinds of accommodations a child with disabilities might need are not spelled out in their IEP. Some students might require special equipment or need to participate on a soft surface that is not wood chips or sand (both inappropriate for a student in a wheelchair). Trained staff is also an issue. Some states require a supplemental adapted PE license for teachers to qualify to teach adapted physical education (A.P.E.) but others do not.
In light of all this, the Education Department issued some guidelines in August:
- Accessibility: considering accommodations in the physical environment and in its safety and security.
- Equipment: modifying equipment or making specialized equipment available; using equipment including a treadmill and also a Wii, Xbox or PlayStation.
- Preparing personnel: training teachers and staff about disabilities and teaching children with them.
- Managing behavior: training teachers and staff about about strategies such as positive behavior supports and other techniques for addressing behavior issues, and about why such behaviors may occur (i.e., not because a child is being “bad” but because of challenges in communication, for instance).
Following the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Education Department says that students with disabilities should be able to participate with students without disabilities to the “maximum extent” possible. Also, the guidelines recommend creating a P.E. curriculum for students with disabilities that focuses on fitness and socialization.
The guidelines from the Department of Education are a good start. It can’t be emphasized enough that children with disabilities are constantly shortchanged regarding physical education. My 14-year-old son Charlie loves riding his bike and running and takes pride in these; currently these are strictly out-of-school activities that he does with my husband and me. At the county autism program in New Jersey that Charlie attends, he has A.P.E. three times week and opportunities for physical activity (walking, usually) throughout his school day. All this regular physical activity not only helps him focus but also has played a key role in him succeeding at school, by teaching him that asking for a walk is a good way to self-calm when he’s anxious and feeling frustrated; by teaching him that there is a way for him to deal with being “on edge” that doesn’t involve yelling or knocking over items or something else inappropriate.
In another school, Charlie only had P.E. once a week, at 1:30 pm on Fridays. The teacher’s qualifications for teaching students with disabilities were that she had a sibling with a disability; she was certainly sympathetic, but not adequately trained. At a public middle school program, Charlie did have gym everyday, at 8:30 am. Bbt because the physical activity wasn’t integrated into his school day, as it is at his current school, its effects were limited.
School programs need to recognize the essential role physical activity and P.E. play in the educating of children with disabilities, in terms of developing lifelong habits of good fitness and opportunities for socialization. Educators need to acknowledge that P.E. is not a secondary concern but just as important as other skills and that it can even enhance a student’s learning.
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Photo by Christina Welsh (Rin)