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Adapted physical education, adapted physical activity, and a host of other terms are sometimes used interchangeably to describe physical activity programming that is individualized to suit the unique motor needs of individuals with disabilities. More accurately, adapted physical activity is a broad term that includes adapted physical education. The latter is a subdiscipline specifically referring to specialized physical education services that help school-age children with disabilities learn. The purpose of this article is to clarify terms and discuss adapted physical education and adapted physical activity as they exist in today’s society. Further, this article will discuss disability sport as a continuum of growing opportunities of competitive sport that has a past and a present consistent with other avenues of sport that permeate today’s culture.
What Is Adapted Physical Education?
Adapted physical education is a program of study that targets the development of physical and motor fitness including basic movement patterns such as throwing, hopping, skipping, and a host of other age-appropriate skills that allow for participation in games and sports. Developmentally, children learn very simple locomotor patterns that later become more advanced and are used in conjunction with sport-specific skills required to en-gage in the games popular in our society. The focus in adapted physical education is on individualized instruction to help learners build on motor patterns that are necessary for later, more advanced sport and recreational participation. In physical education the goal is to instruct in this important curricular area rather than train to alleviate “cure” disability. The addition of “adapted” in front of “physical education” does not imply that the program has a therapy base, but rather it is a service that utilizes individualized educational services to reach goals similar to those outlined for general physical education. Although recreational play and even more basic functional movements can be part of a physical education program for individuals with disabilities, most advocate adapted physical education programs that are consistent with the intent of physical education for all children as stated in the National Association for Sport and Physical Education standards, including skills necessary to create lifelong learners and movers who choose physical activity over more sedentary pursuits.
Physical education (adapted or regular) is an important curricular area that has the potential to improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities. This is evident by the fact that physical education continues to be the only curricular area that is specifically mentioned in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997. This is not to say that physical education is the most important area of development for school-age children with disabilities. However, two important foundational premises undoubtedly played a critical role in the minds of those who advocated that the current Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mention physical education. First, in the past many children with disabilities were denied appropriate physical education as a matter of practice, the idea being that some individuals were not “able” to benefit or perhaps had needs that were more important than those targeted in programs that focused on development of play and more general sport participation. Second, physical development is an avenue related to both personal enjoyment and lifetime health necessary in even the most basic functional skills. Even the most talented leaders would be of no use to society if they could not navigate curbs that line streets, lacked fitness abilities necessary for healthy living, or were unable to move from place to place. This is not to say that any person who needs physical assistance cannot be a leader, but rather to imply that all things in life are related to physical skills and even small improvements in physical areas are linked to independence. This was stated best by Paul Jansma, an early leader of the adapted physical education movement, who believed that a “physical imperative” existed where independence and physical skills are closely linked.
In describing specifically how adapted physical education differs from physical education, it is important to understand the individualized nature of special education. School-age children with disabilities are eligible for individualized programs of instruction in physical education (adapted physical education) if unique motor needs exist. “Individualized” should in no way be confused with a different placement or setting for instruction from peers without disabilities but instead indicate services that are individualized to meet a child’s needs. Many confuse adapted physical education to mean some segregated or highly specialized placement, but this is only true in a small number of cases, with students who have very serious disabilities. For most children with disabilities, successful physical education programming requires very basic modifications of the already existing program. These modifications occur in the same place where children without disabilities are also learning valuable lifetime physical activity skills. Adapted physical education is best characterized as a service rather than a placement, and this is consistent with descriptions of special education in general and the intent of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997.
Debate about where services for most children with disabilities should occur began in the early 1980s. This spurred much discussion in the United States about appropriate education placements, related services, and legislative intent. Inclusion became a topic of considerable debate, debate that continues today as educators try to implement programs for children with disabilities in light of other educational issues, such as limited funding for schools. More recently, inclusion has become a focus for children with disabilities in physical education. Ethical and legal arguments that all children should receive physical education services in the same settings appeared in multiple publications by authors such as Martin E. Block and others who appeared to waiver over time on the extent that inclusion meant “all children” in “all situations” belong in general physical education classes. However, inclusion is not the law in the United States, nor is this principle radically different from the legal concepts of least restrictive environment (LRE). Today, even the most steadfast “inclusionists” ponder earlier debates in light of what actually exists in public schools and what is best for some children with severe disabilities. In the end adapted physical education has little to do with inclusion movements and is based on the premise that some children require individualized attention that may or may not require segregated placements. Further, all children in general physical education classes can benefit from programs that take into account differences in abilities and learning styles.
In many school districts confusion exists over where medically oriented physical therapy programs are utilized over adapted physical education programs. It should be noted that all children with disabilities require physical education, whereas only a select few require additional physical therapy. This therapy is not synonymous with adapted physical education and is a separate service all together, by the terms of U.S. legislation. Physical education and physical therapy fall into two very different service categories; neither is substituted for the other. Physical education is considered a direct service (required for all who receive special education), while physical therapy is a related service (necessary only when a child needs therapy to benefit from his or her special education program). Both are equally important for some children. Further, these two different programs can work in tandem by targeting similar goals and having practitioners work collaboratively.
Adapted Physical Activity
As stated earlier, adapted physical activity includes many movement opportunities for individuals with disabilities, including adult recreational activities, family-based home programming, and even elite disability sport options. Given the pervasive nature of sport in the world, it is fitting that the concepts outlined earlier about physical education and adapted physical education have their roots in sport. Since the early Olympic Games, sports and related physical activities as leisure pursuits have permeated society. The same is true for early movement opportunities for individuals with disabilities as more therapy-based programming led to competitive wheelchair games. This was initially the result of work done with many of the individuals around the world who returned from World War II with permanent physical disabilities. As these early movement opportunities developed, it was recognized that movement is enhanced by competitive play rather than training to alleviate disability.
The earliest sporting experiences for individuals with disabilities included the Stoke Mandeville Games in England. These and many postwar programs in the United States and abroad came in recognition of the value of sport and play as not only therapy for the body but also as vital to the human spirit. Since these earlier games, Special Olympics programs (outcomes of the 1965 task force on recreation for persons with mental retardation) and more recent Paralympic events have become mainstays in the broader sporting world, with the last growing in popularity and featuring outstanding athletic accomplishments as individuals with disabilities utilize advances in technology and training practices.
Adapted physical activity and specifically the sport participation of individuals with disabilities occur on a continuum. Joseph Winnick created one of the earlier and still relevant models outlining the potential sport-related options for persons with disabilities. His model includes regular sports with no modifications. As an example, Olympic athlete Oliver Halazy participated in an elite international athletic event alongside persons without disabilities and won an Olympic gold medal as part of the 1936 Hungarian water polo team. Next on the continuum, are regular sports with accommodations, such as judo, where a judoka with a visual impairment needs rule modifications that allow for integrated competition. For example, this would include rules requiring a grip must be maintained at all times during standing portions of the sport. The idea is to equate play and not allow rule changes to alter the nature of the sport for participants. In the judo example, a visually impaired judoka would be at a disadvantage if a sighted opponent was not in physical contact, whereas maintaining a grip does not give one player an advantage over the other and still allows for a full range of throws to occur. This may alter strategy in play, but does not change the sport.
The issue of what changes the nature of participation or even creates an advantage for the person with a disability in integrated play between individuals with and without disabilities is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States, and by other international sporting organizations. More recently, the court case of the golfer Casey Martin wanting to use a golf cart for Professional Golf Association (PGA) tour events in the United States illustrates this issue. In regular sports that make accommodations, not all changes to play are allowable, and each of these issues—such as a judoka requiring a basic rule change or a golfer requesting additional equipment (not available to all)— is handled on a case-by-case basis. The goal is to maintain the integrity of the sport involved while trying to afford equal opportunities to persons with disabilities.
Segregated sporting events are believed by many to not only be necessary for some individuals with disabilities, but their right. Winnick’s classifications include a level of participation with events for the general population and persons with disabilities that occur at the same time, but do not involve direct competition between persons with and without disabilities. As in the Boston marathon, racers compete at the same time but within their locomotion category. This practice leads to an important debate in adapted physical activity related to who should participate in, for example, wheelchair races. Is it acceptable for a person with no or minimal disability to choose a wheelchair division over a bipedal competition? (This debate goes beyond the scope of the current paper and the reader is referred to Hans Lindstrom’s 1992 work on the topic.)
Finally, there is the more traditional format of segregated sport in which based on predetermined criteria only individuals with disabilities compete in events and at times separate from individuals without disabilities. Take, for example, wheelchair basketball. Athletes who want to participate in Wheelchair USA basketball events are evaluated and, based on level and nature of limitations, are ranked and scored for equitable play. For example, a class I participant would be scored one point whereas a higher-functioning class III participant would be scored three points. A team can have a total of eleven points on the floor at a time. These scores equate play and ensure that participants of all levels are valued and that disability sport participation is maintained for individuals with disabilities. Other governing bodies may have similar grouping criteria aimed at creating fair play within a group of individuals who have similar disabilities.
What is important to note is that as society in general accepts athletes who participate in modified games or sports that can parallel more general events, such as judo or swimming, or even those who participate in more specialized events, such as goal ball or wheelchair races, disability sport has become a product worth selling. The same is true of all sport in society and this development marks a level of “arrival” or acceptance of persons with disabilities. Studies show that the marketing side of disability sport is on the rise and that products related to play are part of the endorsement deals, resulting in gains by companies in many areas that go beyond product sells and immediate profit. Today, the company that makes the fastest prosthetic limb is on par with golfing supply companies that make the drivers professionals use to hit the longest shots. This satisfies important corporate goals: Sport becomes an avenue of profits for companies producing superior products; in addition, “accepting” diversity enhances the corporate image. Finally, in society there is an overall understanding that sport excellence in any form has been and always will be valued. Media exposure and general acknowledgment by members of society that athletic abilities come in any type of body, even those that may on the surface appear different, is a sign of the times.
The significance of sports exposure as it relates to media coverage and product sales is an indicator of progress in the struggle for acceptance by individuals with disabilities. Claudine Sherrill, a leader in the adapted physical activity community, highlights the dichotomy of disability viewed as a form of diversity rather than less able. High-level competitive sport that accents the essence of human spirit helps others view the runner without sight, for example, as able rather than disabled. Today, it is clear that advances in training, technology, and general attitude make it likely that males and females, with and without disabilities, runners and those propelling themselves in a wheelchair, will reach the highest levels of athletic achievement. Programming that helps school-age children become more athletically proficient and interested in physical activity in general (as is the case for adapted programs for some children) feeds community programs whose participants vie for success similar to that of their counterparts without disabilities. In some cases elite athletes with disabilities emerge to compete for their countries at the highest Olympic and world levels.
So what does it all mean? From the perspective of an adapted physical educator, programs focus on the same types of learning experiences for children with disabilities as children without disabilities. In summary, adapted physical education is a part of the broader adapted physical activity and enjoyment of movement is an important theme. In today’s society, marked by pervasive inactivity, where many diseases preventable through regular physical activity are on the rise, it is important to recognize the role that movement plays in preventing disease, improving the quality of life, and in some cases helping people become more able. Physical activity patterns by persons with disabilities are motivated by the same factors that encourage all humans to move. Adapted physical activity, and more specifically adapted physical education, should be presented in terms of how much fun they are, the educational goals they offer, and the opportunity for physical activity they present in a time when computers and other innovations make it likely that many humans will be less active today than they were yesterday.
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- Jansma, P. (1999). Psychomotor domain training and serious disabilities (5th ed.). New York: University Press of America.
- Kozub, F. M. (2001). Adapted physical activity within the family for learners with disabilities: Application of family systems theory. PALAESTRA, 17(3), 30-38.
- Legg, D., Emes, C., Stewart, D., & Steadward, R. (2004). Historical overview of the Paralympics, Special Olympics, and Deaflympics. PALAESTRA, 20(1), 30-35.
- Lindstrom, H. (1992). Integration of sport for athletes with disabilities into sport programs for able-bodied athletes. PALAESTRA, 8(3), 28-58.
- National Association for Sport and Physical Education. (1995). Moving into the future: National standards for physical education. New York: Mosby-Year Book.
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- Ozturk, M. A., Kozub, F. M., & Kocak, S. (2004). Impact of sponsorship on companies that supported the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Paralympics. International Journal of Sport Marketing and Sponsor-ship.5(4), 45-56.
- Sherrill, C. (2003). Adapted physical activity, recreation, and sport: Crossdisciplinary and lifespan (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Sherrill, C. (2004). A celebration of the history of adapted physical education. PALAESTRA, 20(1), 20-25.
- Stein, J. U. (2004). Adapted physical activity: The golden years.PALAESTRA, 20(1), 26-29.
- S. Department of Education Publications. (2002, September). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997. Retrieved March 29, 2004, from http://frewebgate.access.gpo.gov.
- Winnick, J. P. (1987). An integration continuum for sport participation. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 4, 157-161.
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