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Providing Equal Access to Physical Education

A recent report conducted by the United States Government Accountability Office stated that, “Despite legislation obligating states and schools to provide equal access, opportunities for physical activity are limited for children and youth with disabilities.” Physical activity rates for young people with disabilities are estimated to be four to five times lower than the already inadequate levels we see in the general population (Rimmer, 2008).

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) mandates that physical education programs must be offered and available to all students with disabilities and that these students must have at least the same amount of physical education time per week as their non-disabled peers. This is an important law that impacts the overall health of students with disabilities, well into the future. As states struggle to implement the law despite budget cuts, which make purchasing necessary equipment and providing adequate teacher training difficult, Maryland has emerged as a state to watch.

In July 2011, the state of Maryland took one step further and decided to require that disabled students have equal access in all curricular and extracurricular physical education and athletic programs. This includes allowing students with disabilities to try out for school teams and providing them with access to accommodations and alternative sports programs. This legislation makes Maryland the only state that addresses the importance of equal opportunity and access to physical education in this way.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program encourages school to appropriately modify physical education classes to promote the participation of all students, in particular students with chronic health conditions and/or special needs. Two Healthy Schools Program member schools in Maryland share their strategies for helping all of their students receive high quality physical education instruction.


Ken McLaughlin, a certified adapted physical education teacher at Panorama Elementary School is committed to providing accommodations and alternative programs for students with disabilities. "No matter how physically limited a child may be, they can participate and learn to enjoy physical activity as a part of a healthier lifestyle,” he said. “The excitement and joy that these activities bring motivates the children to participate to the fullest of their ability even if they require a lot of assistance." 

McLaughlin has made several program changes to make sure that his disabled students are getting the same benefits from physical education as the able-bodied students. For example, he has adapted the weight training section of his curriculum so that the wheelchair bound students can push the weights off their trays or move on a scooter board using their arms for propulsion. They have also started a new station program consisting of core stability activities, rope whipping for arm strength, sitting on a ball while picking up different weights, arm pulls from the floor and lifting different weights balls from the floor and placing them on a cart. “Some of my wheelchair students actually go through the circuit with the other students with one-on-one support from a staff member,” he shared. 

A program that has been helpful for McLaughlin in his work is the Courageous Pacers Program, which helps children with disabilities become more active through a host of adaptable activities. Each class at Panorama is involved in the Courageous Pacer Program and students participate in at least 20 minutes of activity, whether it is adapted physical education, aquatics or recess time. Every 20 minutes in this program is equal to one mile and wheelchair bound students receive their mileage for standing in their gait trainer, prone or supine stander or moving their wheelchair. They have worked on push-ups, sit-ups and running. “Students are to run or walk from one end of the room to the other - I stress the continuous movement. We also do an obstacle course that involves going over and under rods, walking a balance beam, walking across buckets, log roll and climbing up on a vault box and jumping down, trying to land on both feet.”


Paul Evans and Barbara Potter run the adapted physical education program at C. Elizabeth Rieg and also find the Courageous Pacers program to be very helpful for their students with disabilities. “We have students walk in the gym and ride bikes, play adaptive football, bowling, basketball, swimming and much more,” Evans said. Because every 20 minutes is equivalent to a mile, some of their students are able to do the equivalent of a 5k every day, as they use adaptive equipment for an hour each day. This program also allows them to practice their fine motor skills with various classroom exercises. “We are trying to get to 100 miles this year!”     

Wheelchair bound students at C. Elizabeth Rieg require assistance to reach their full potential in developing lifelong physical activity, but Evans believes that the more they participate in physical education in school, the more likely they are to continue these activities at home, in the community and later in life. “All students here go out into the community on trips each week. Some places they may visit are the Sports and Learning Center or local parks to increase their activity levels,” Evans shared. A variety of movement activities are planned throughout the year as well. Some of these activities include Challenge Day, the Special Olympics and various dances throughout the year. 

Both Evans and McLaughlin feel very strongly about the importance of creating physical education programs that include students with disabilities, although they also recognize the challenges. They have also found that working with the community and the families is crucial in ensuring that these students will be able to continue a life of physical activity opportunities. “We are different, not less. One person can make a difference and our students can be more physically active when we can all work together to achieve this goal,” said Evans. 

Featured Resource:

The Courageous Pacers: Gross Motor Activities