While many classrooms have evolved over the years to better work with students with disabilities, the school gym and athletic fields may be the exception.
A 2010 report from the federal Government Accountability Office concluded as much, finding that "education has provided little information or guidance on PE or extracurricular athletics for students with disabilities, and some states and districts GAO interviewed said more would be useful."
Part of the reason? Federal rules about serving students with disabilities focus on all sorts of other things, and many school districts find the money they have to spend on these students doesn't go far enough as it is.
Looking at various data, the GAO found some high notes, such as that 29 percent of students with physical disabilities or long-term health problems attend physical education classes five days a week compared to 34 percent of students without disabilities. And for many children with disabilities, physical education is the one general education class they take on a regular basis. But whether any accommodations are provided, and what those are, may not be spelled out in a child's individualized education program, or IEP.
Some states offer or require a supplemental adapted PE license for teachers to teach adapted physical education, the GAO found. These teachers, often scarce, may travel from school to school working with students. Or, the GAO found, "in one district we visited in Florida, the sole adapted PE teacher overcame challenges in scheduling her time by having students who took adapted PE bused to a central school so she could provide them with services." Presumably, some might wonder if the benefit here outweighs the drawbacks of busing.
Now, the U.S. Education Department has offered some guidance for meeting the challenge of providing physical education for students with disabilities in response to the GAO report. The Office of Special Education Programs noted in August that physical activity is 4.5 times lower for children and youth with disabilities than their peers without disabilities. While for some students this is because they lack the physical capacity to participate, for others, this isn't the case at all. And, as they become adults, the guidance notes, this missed opportunity can translate into a barrier for being physically active because lingering feelings from childhood may make fitness facilities seem like unfriendly environments for those with a disability.
They recommend specialized equipment, if necessary, such as a treadmill, which provides an even, predictable walking surface. They suggest the Wii, Xbox, and PlayStation, or devices like them, to simulate participation in sports that some students with disabilities can't do in the traditional way. Those who work with students should have training in how to adapt physical education classes for students with disabilities.
But participation is key.
"Athletics in the school setting involve complex interactions in settings less controlled
than the typical academic classroom," the guidance says. "Team play and sportsmanship cannot be taught except through participation."
The suggestions go on. And the guidance notes that the Office of Civil Rights will provide separate guidance on the legal aspects of providing extracurricular athletic opportunities to students with disabilities. Regarding athletics, the GAO found that most of the time, coaches don't participate in IEP meetings. The risk is that a coach might remove a student from a team for failing to keep up on academics, without considering the child's IEP. And offering adaptive athletic teams is a good idea, but how to hold competitions is complicated, the GAO was told.
The Education Department also recommended more accessible physical education spaces, like soft surfaces in place of concrete, but not wood chips or sand, which wheelchairs can't maneuver.
That recommendation made me think of this story about whether a really safe playground is a good one for students who don't have disabilities.
One professor interviewed for that piece found that the risk of some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on playgrounds in Great Britain and Australia.
"If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks," David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London, told The New York Times. "An argument against softer surfacing is that children think it is safe, but because they don't understand its properties, they overrate its performance."
So should playgrounds and ball fields be safer? Or more accessible? Is there a way to do both?