Throughout our years of presenting our Play Beyond The Label workshops, we have had the opportunity to meet many educators, advocates and people with and without disabilities. What we love most about our workshops is getting the chance to learn more about our participants and what sparked their interest to further their knowledge and understanding in Special Education and Physical Education. We are always interested in individual experiences with Physical Education, whether it be decades ago or in the present time. Hearing positive and negative stories and how they have shaped the individual’s point of view on personal health and physical activity motivates us to continue to set a high standard for education in this realm.
“I truly enjoyed going to Physical Education. I loved being with my peers to play. I remember my teacher who always made it a point to make everyone feel part of the game, whether it be taking part in group activities where each player had a value, or giving us ownership in developing new ways to play that showcased all our unique strengths.”
“When I was in the room, sometimes I felt like I really wasn’t. I remember wanting to play with the rest, but I never seem to be really included. I tried hard to be part of the class, but it never seemed to really work out for me.”
These are the words from our workshop participants, who have shared their experiences of what it was like in Physical Education back in their days. We’ve heard many voices from people who have shared their positive and negative experiences and how it has shaped them, built them, and motivated them to go into the field of Special Education & Physical Education, in the hopes to create positive change to ensure learners of all abilities receive a quality program.
Take a look at the following three pictures:
- As you look at these three people, what are the first 3 words that come to your mind to describe each of them?
- What types of barriers do you think they face in their day to day lives?
- What labels do you think are attached to them?
- Do these labels make their lives easier or harder?
As educators, we all want to promote a classroom climate that encourages all learners to work to high levels of achievement, affirm their worth, and help strengthen their sense of identity and develop a positive self-image. However, there seems to be many gaps in the subject area of Health & Physical Education. We have some thoughts on why this might be.
Under a Special Education lens, students are expected to be modified and accommodated for when they are integrated into a classroom. Their needs are intended to be met and individual goals and assessment are to be reported on based on their performance. In a lot of instances, social skills are also at the forefront of a well thought out integration program. So why are we hearing from present and former learners, staff members and educators that this isn’t happening? In our experience, the gap here stems from assumptions about the learner. If we see a learner with a cognitive disability can walk and run, they should be able to perform at their grade level in Physical Education, right? Not necessarily, and in most cases, not likely. However, these students are generally given a Physical Education class as a starting point in their integration journey, because it is assumed that it will be easier for them over a subject like Math or Social Studies. While this may be true for some learners it is not for all, and this assumption can cause the learner to become “lost” in the integration setting.
In the Physical Education world, we see many learners with disabilities getting lost where their strengths and needs are not being identified and supported by the educator, and the system at large. The climate of Physical Education doesn’t always seem to be so positive for learners with disabilities, as shared in the quote at the beginning of this post. The physical activity component of the curriculum should take into account the range of student abilities and the diversity of their backgrounds and needs… just like any other subject! However in many of our conversations with people with disabilities, their experiences all share the same theme. They all in some way or form, lacked an equitable opportunity to be able to enjoy movement. What will help us realize that equity is about fixing the conditions that are marginalizing people with disabilities?
In our post today, we had the opportunity to connect with three different people who have taken their time to share their experiences in Physical Education and/or physical activity. Take a moment to listen to what they have to say, as their personal experiences, interests and learning needs may help you reflect on how you approach your programming and instruction to affirm the worth of all the learners in your classroom.
Name: Heather Morgan
Labels: I am a wife, I am a mother, and I am physically disabled.
LAURA & ANDREA: Describe your disabilities, and how physical activity has supported you.
HEATHER: I've always lived with both visible and invisible disabilities. I was born with club foot and lived in almost constant pain from that my whole life due to problems with the surgical procedures I had done as a child. I also have a still-undiagnosed fatigability condition. As a child it just meant I tired VERY quickly when doing exercise. It now means that I use a custom power tilt and recline wheelchair.
Movement has always been something I sought and wanted, but was very unsupported/unencouraged as a child. I spent most of gym classes growing up simply sitting on the sidelines. As a pre-teen I discovered canoeing was an activity I could do - at least a bit - and I loved the feeling of moving across the water. But it was still very limited.
Strangely enough it wasn't until I became a wheelchair user that I found a way to be much more physically active! In 2017, newly released home from six weeks in hospital, and with my first wheelchair, we went to Toronto to try out a running chair for the first time one cool Saturday in April. All strapped in, bundled up warm, and reclining as far back as I could go to minimize muscle usage, we started off at a gentle pace, and for the length of that run it felt like all of the stress and strain of the previous few months just melted away.
We eventually were able to purchase a custom racing chair. With it, we've competed in 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons and even a sprint triathlon. We even came second place overall in one of our 10Ks!! COVID has put our plans on hold, but the goal still exists to do an Olympic distance triathlon at some point.
LAURA & ANDREA: Being a person with a disability, share your thoughts on accessibility and physical activity.
HEATHER: A lot of life with a disability can feel very constrained. Many people - myself included - require assistance from others or from machines for even quite basic activities of daily living. Our bodies may move slowly or be uncoordinated, they may make their presence known loudly with pain or spasticity, and they may fatigue very easily. All of this can set up a very negative relationship with our bodies, or a very passive, disconnected relationship with our bodies. For so many people I work with who live with disabilities - as well as myself - this experience of our bodies can make it very difficult to live embodied lives. It can shut us off from accessing our whole self. It can even make us vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, when we think that we have no say or ownership over our bodies. Movement and access to physical education can be critical to counteracting these realities.
LAURA & ANDREA: Share some advice to educators when delivering Health & Physical Education.
HEATHER: Get creative. Assume that every child both needs to and will benefit from movement - whether it is passive or active. We intuitively know that physical activity is good for our stress levels and our physical health, but it's amazing how much benefit we gain in those areas even from passive movement options. Use physical activity to strengthen self-advocacy skills, bodily autonomy, and consent. Whenever possible aim for the feeling of "freedom" in movement - the same freedom and exhilaration that draws you to movement yourself.
Don't assume you have the tools needed to make this possible in your gyms as they exist right now - reach out to organizations like Easter Seals and other Adaptive Sport communities to borrow or trial equipment for everyone in your class to try moving on a different level (for example, wheelchair basketball, sledge hockey, etc).
Use Paralympic and Special Olympic athletes as well as able bodied athletes in your images throughout stations and worksheets. Create differentiated options for stations - a sitting one, a standing one, etc, and allow kids to self select, without penalty, the one they feel most comfortable with.
Most of all, don't force, push or cajole kids to work harder in PE. Encourage them to listen to their bodies, to pace themselves, and reward and support creative solutions they want to try, whether they have a known disability or not.
Name: Scott Ngo
Labels: I am a brother, I am a son, I have autism, I am an artist, and I am a 90s kid.
LAURA & ANDREA: Describe your disabilities, and how physical activity has supported you.
SCOTT: My name is Scott. I am Autistic. I like hiking, taekwondo, trampoline and going to the library. It makes me feel: happy.
SCOTT’S SISTER, MELISSA: Scott loves to be active and spending his energy, in the ways he described above, helps him feel relaxed and happy. Nature is really peaceful and we can see how the quietness during a hike, along with the clear beginning and ending of a hike can help us all feel more calm!
LAURA & ANDREA: Being a person with a disability, share your thoughts on accessibility.
SCOTT: I like going to the library. The library has books. I can rent out books and videos. I go on the computers. I go to Unionville Library.
SCOTT’S SISTER, MELISSA: Scott has been going to Unionville Library for over 25 years. He loves this library and the people in it. Everyone has always been accepting and kind toward our family there, and this library is accessible. This should be the norm, not the exception, in community spaces! This library makes Scott and our family happy because of the familiarity of it, but also because of the quietness, the space, and the friendliness of all of the staff. Plus, Scott loves all the books and videos from the 90s!
And - the library is more than just a place for books, and this has been proven by the way they model accessibility, the community programs, how people can work in groups there, how it provides a safe space for so many, how they have become ‘maker spaces’ where you can create or try new tools. Although libraries aren’t open for browsing right now, I hear that they are being used during the pandemic for food packing and distribution, they’re making curbside pick up as easy and fast as possible, and hosting online programs and book clubs.
LAURA & ANDREA: Can you share some advice to educators when delivering Health & Physical Education.
SCOTT: Have fun! I like to: laugh and be silly.
SCOTT’S SISTER, MELISSA: Scott has a sense of humour and loves it when his instructors joke around with him. It’s a win when an instructor can make Scott laugh, or just goof around with him! It makes the activity even more fun and engaging.
Name: Joshua “Swagman” Felder
Labels: I am a dancer, I have high functioning autism, I have photographic memory, and I am an advocate for Best Buddies International. These are my superpowers!
Thank you Heather, Scott and Josh for sharing your personal stories with our readers. We hope that sharing your voices on our platform will provide another perspective for educators to ensure that all learners with or without disabilities are reflected in the Physical Education curriculum, their physical surroundings and the broader environment.
As educators, we hold a certain level of power and privilege in our classrooms. We set the stage on what the physical, social and emotional environment will be for our learners and ourselves. We decide the content, lessons and attitudes the learners will participate in within our space. With that we also dictate the challenges and barriers they will face, even if unintentionally.
Take a moment to read the following questions. As good teaching pedagogy, continue being reflective with your practice when teaching learners with disabilities in your Physical Education classroom:
- Where do you see your role reflected in identifying and eliminating barriers for learners with disabilities?
- How do you create an environment to support a culture that values diversity in your program?
- After reading this post, what good practices does this affirm you are doing in your own Physical Education program?
- Is there any place for improvement in your program?