There is no D in “Team”: Making Physical Activity Fun for Kids with Disabilities

Hello, readers,

We’re still in back-to-school month, so in keeping with the school theme, today’s topic is recess–more specifically, physical activity. For many students, recess or its equivalents, such as phys ed, is anticipated during the school day. Some are passionate about sports and games, and so physical subjects quickly become their favorites. For some students, such as those with learning disabilities, recess or P.E. may be what makes school bearable. And no matter what kind of student a person is, we all need time in our day to move around, burn off energy, and focus our minds on something less structured than the three R’s.

However, for some students, physical activity, especially the fact that it’s required, is the bane of school. Of course, I’m talking about kids with physical disabilities here–CP, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, you name it. But physical activity can also be difficult for those with sensory disabilities, such as blindness or deafness. A learning disability that has a directional or perceptual component can throw a kid off his or her “game.” Kids on the autism spectrum may struggle because the playground and gym are inherently loud, crowded, and a general bastion of sensory overload. Children with intellectual disabilities may even be left out of games or sports because they haven’t been taught how to follow the rules in a way they can grasp.

Some students without disabilities will support their peers with them when it comes to physical requirements like gym class. For example, in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales, is a story of an elementary boy named Tyler who used a wheelchair, and whose peers pushed him around the gym to make it possible for him to participate in a relay race. That’s a good example of inclusion and how peers should respond to a teammate with a disability. Unfortunately, that kind of support doesn’t always exist. Many gym teachers or playground supervisors don’t know how to modify activities for kids with disabilities, or try, but fall short of what the student actually needs.

In my own experience, for example, a modified activity might fall far below the expectation for a student of my age. “Modified baseball” involved hitting a ball off a cone, repetitively. “Modified tennis” was bouncing a ball up and down on a flat, handheld net. Or sometimes, “modified” meant “stand off to the side and be scorekeeper.” I was usually isolated from the other students, sent out into the hall or into a separate room, to do these activities with the “help” of a “buddy”–usually a person in special education. And I’m sure I am not the only student whose P.E. or recess experiences were like this.

Again, I’m not saying my teachers were being malicious or not trying to help. But what does the experience I’ve just described really say? The subtext there consists of:

  • She can’t be expected to do much
  • Her same-age, same-intellectual-level peers won’t want to help, so she needs to be with the special education kids
  • She needs repetition In order to complete a physical task “successfully,” as we deem success

On the couple of occasions that same-age, same-level peers were pressed into service for me by the teachers (as in, I didn’t ask–they were made to do it), we would either all agree the activity was boring and quit, or the other girl would proceed to shame me and lecture me. I hated it, and if you’re reading this and have a kid with a disability, it might be that they hate that kind of thing, too.

The question becomes, then, what can be done to make recess and P.E., or even involvement on a school sports team, worthwhile for students with disabilities. The “system’s” answer might be to implement fitness goals through IEPs, but too often, that becomes another excuse to “police” the student, by keeping track of how much physical activity they’re doing, what they are or are not eating, and whether they are “succeeding” by the school’s standards. I do understand the argument for those goals–without them, who’s to say some of these kids would ever do anything physical? And isn’t it true that kids with disabilities are 30% more likely to be overweight or obese? (According to recent statistics, yes–but if that stereotype is driven home enough, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that’s no excuse to treat the student as if he or she is lazy and incompetent). Besides which, as I have said before, the goals an IEP team sets often measure success by their standards and don’t incorporate what is meaningful for the student.

I want to see more kids with disabilities anticipating the recess bell or their P.E. period. Here are a few ways I think that can happen. Parents, teachers, and especially gym teachers, listen up:

  • Observe like crazy. What does the student with a disability in your life seem to like, physically speaking? Maybe he or she likes dancing to music. Maybe it’s passing a basketball back and forth with a sibling. Maybe all you’ve ever seen them do is jump up and down–well, there’s an invention called a “jump rope”! If they love splashing in the tub, maybe the school has a pool, and your child or young adult could swim there, with teacher supervision. Which brings me to:
  • Really get “moving”–who says P.E. must only take place on campus? This might take some doing, but say the physical activity your SWD enjoys is swimming. Your school doesn’t have facilities for that, but the local fitness center, college, or community pool does. Or, another student with a disability likes walking or running, but your school doesn’t have a track or walking paths. This is where the administration or IEP team can help. Maybe there could be a statement in the IEP, okayed by the principal or other administration, that the student can go off-campus for a physical activity, with supervision of a teacher, parent, or trusted community adult who works at the alternate facility (school systems, do your background checks!) And…
  • Sometimes, physical activities that other kids find very easy can require a lot of exertion for their peers with disabilities. For example, half an hour of walking a track might normally burn, say, 300 calories, but for someone who has to put more effort in, that same half hour might burn twice as much. Therefore, on a case-by-case basis, it may not be necessary for the student to participate in P.E. five days a week (unless he or she would like to participate the maximum number of days. That’s absolutely fine, but teachers will need to be on the lookout for signs of over-training, and encourage the student to take rest or water breaks, or back off activities for awhile. Say, walking at peak exertion for 10 minutes, then slowing down for 5, then alternating back).
  • Recess and P.E. were not meant to be isolating experiences. Get peers involved. For example, maybe John, who has a disability, plays basketball with everybody else, but shoots toward a lower hoop. The modification would be that when he shoots, his team gets that number of points. Or, if John cannot physically play, someone shoots for him, thus awarding points for the team. If a class has a member who’s blind, maybe the kids can all wear bells on their wrists while running, or balls can be equipped with internal beepers so the student who’s blind can hear where they go. Teachers, whenever possible, teams should be a mix of kids with and without disabilities. Some kids, like kids with autism who do experience sensory overload, may need to play in a quieter area, such as an alcove within the gym. However, this should never be treated as an isolating consequence (“stay out of Sara’s corner, you guys.”) It should instead be treated as something someone on the team needs–just like short kids might need to shoot baskets from a different distance than tall kids.
  • “Gym class” is not code for “hall of shame” (readers, whether you have a disability or not, I’m sure most of you know what I’m talking about). But especially for students with disabilities, there needs to be a zero-tolerance policy on teasing and bullying on the field, on the court, and in the locker rooms. Teachers, that goes for you, too. Do NOT single out a student with a disability as incompetent, fat or likely to be fat, or otherwise “less than.” Yes, this happens, and it’s disgusting.

Part of giving students with disabilities the respect they deserve is making them feel part of every team they’re on. Recess and gym are no exception. So, let’s get out there and play this year–together. Let’s show these kids that when it’s time to play, they’re not “that disabled kid.” They’re every inch a part of your team.


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