“Hey, guys, let’s do some stretching,” Pam Skogstad says in a perky voice that belies the early morning hour and the chilly gray weather outside. Dressed in black athletic pants and a crisp white shirt, she’s busily tying red, orange, and green scarves loosely around the wrists of the teenagers assembled before her in a classroom in Anchorage, Alaska’s, Dimond High School. As she encourages them, the students strain to raise their hands and arms to eye level, every inch a quivering struggle. Skogstad makes her way around the classroom, cheering on the students before her, all of whom have Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, or another profound disability.
Childhood obesity may be an epidemic for American children in general, but experts say that for severely disabled youth, it’s even worse.
After the stretching warm-up, she cues some music—rapper Tone-Loc singing “Funky Cold Medina”—and the room is soon pulsing to the beat. Four teaching assistants begin dancing in front of students in wheelchairs, holding the kids’ hands as they shake and spin to the music. One amused participant can’t stop clapping as his teaching assistant does the “chicken dance.”
The light exercises are designed to be fun, but a serious purpose drives them. Despite the progress that’s been made over the years to address the needs of disabled children, the vast majority are unable to take part in traditional sports such as soccer or baseball, leaving them few outlets for physical play and vulnerable to weight-related health problems. Childhood obesity may be an epidemic for American children in general, but experts say that for severely disabled youth, it’s even worse—such students are more likely to be obese than their able-bodied peers.
“The needs of children with disabilities in physical education have not been met,” says Tim Davis, an assistant professor of physical education at the State University of New York College at Cortland and a leading proponent of national standards for the field. Compounding the problem, special education advocates argue, is the broad leeway each state has in defining how adapted PE should work in its schools. That discretion, they say, leaves plenty of room for neglect.
Recently, though, national leaders have begun paying more attention. This past spring, Secretary Tommy Thompson of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched a campaign to encourage good health and fitness for the nation’s 6 million students with disabilities. More than 50 national organizations are pairing mentors with disabled youth to get them moving and improve their eating habits as part of the campaign. And the U.S. Department of Education recently awarded its first grant specifically designed to improve adapted PE to Anchorage’s 50,000- student district, where Skogstand and other adapted physical educators now have $75,000 more for exercise equipment and an additional $34,000 for teacher training and staff development.
The payoff may ripple far beyond Anchorage: The grant has also helped educators from the adapted-PE department there draft proposed state standards for their discipline. If adopted, they would be the first state standards in the country that address physical education for children with disabilities, and they could become a template for other states.
It’s an hour after the stretching exercises at Dimond High, and Skogstad is on the road to another school in the district, a hot cup of coffee by her side as she makes good time in her large green SUV. It’s already been a long day for the petite 50-year-old—every school day, well before the sun comes up over the Chugach Mountains, she drives 80 miles to Anchorage from her home in the former gold-rush town of Hope. Her next stop is Goldenview Middle School, where she works with 14-year-old J.D., who’s riding a stationary bike. (District officials aren’t allowed to divulge information about students’ specific disabilities.)
“Movement is so important for these kids,” says Skogstad, who has taught adapted PE for two decades. “We have kids who have never been to a playground.” J.D. seems distracted by the image of himself in the mirror that lines the wall—he looks at his reflection and stops pedaling. Several times, Skogstad has to patiently guide him back into the exercise, at first leaning in close with a soft voice, and then later with a firmer tone to give more specific directions. But he’s making progress. After cycling, he manages to walk for five minutes on a treadmill—the longest he’s ever walked without a break. And all that work is beginning to pay off: J.D. has lost more than 50 pounds during the past several months.
A few miles away, sweat rolling down her face, Sarah walks briskly on a treadmill stationed in front of a bank of TV sets at the Alaska Club, a nearby fitness center. The 21-year-old is exercising as part of a community-transition program that the Anchorage School District developed to help special-needs students take steps into the real world. Country music blares on her headset as she finishes her walking. Sandy Ingaldson, a veteran adapted-PE teacher, keeps an eye on Sarah and Nate, a 21-year-old using weight-training machines.
‘Movement is so important for these kids. We have kids who have never been to a playground.’
It took a few months to teach Nate the weight-circuit protocol, Ingaldson recalls. When another club member was on a piece of equipment he wanted to use, he would often cross his arms and give the person a glare. “It’s all been a process, but he’s getting it,” Ingaldson says. She and other adapted-PE instructors work hard to make sure students take part in physical activities that most young adults take for granted. The teacher has produced a step-aerobics and kick-boxing video for her students and takes them cross-country skiing and hiking.
Looking back on two decades of teaching in the district, she remembers when adapted-PE goals were not even included in the individualized education plans for special-education students. “When I started, there was another [instructor] and myself,” Ingaldson says. “We were the adapted-PE department.” Today, Anchorage has nine such teachers, and almost all of them hold national certification in the specialty.
But school officials say their disabled students’ progress would not be nearly so great if their opportunities for activity were limited to special courses and one-on-one athletic training only. SUNY Cortland’s Davis, who also leads the Adapted Physical Education National Standards project, an effort by a group of academics and PE teachers to establish common requirements for certifying instructors of the disabled, says the district has “done a great job integrating kids with disabilities into the existing PE curriculum.”
That inclusive philosophy is evident one morning at North Star Elementary School in Anchorage. Sam Reder—an adapted-PE teacher with a thick Brooklyn accent, a shaved head, and a black tie-dye shirt—follows a 2nd grader named James everywhere he goes in the class, which is a mix of children with and without disabilities. The class is playing a tag game called “skunk,” and because James has trouble with his vision, Reder is serving as his guide.
“Oh, you got tagged,” Reder tells him, leaning down his 6-foot linebacker’s frame to huddle with the 7-year-old. “Where do we have to go?” Reder takes James by the hand and leads him into the center circle of the basketball court, where the youngster does two “boogie-woogies”—a twisting dance—and is then allowed back in the game.
“This is great because he’s fully included,” Reder says after class. “He is with his peers. Years ago, we pulled these kids out, and it made it easier for the system. But now, they get to interact with the other kids.”
‘Years ago, we pulled these kids out, and it made it easier for the system. But now, they get to interact with the other kids.’
A few miles away at Hanshew Middle School, another physical educator sits in a wheelchair in front of a group of 100 restless middle school students. Dave Poulin can walk just fine, but today, the boyish 34-year-old is occupying the chair to make a point. One of the students in his class is deaf and uses a wheelchair, and Poulin wants the other students to be aware of his challenges—and the nuances of wheelchair etiquette—as the group runs laps this afternoon.
“If you use a wheelchair,” he explains, “it’s an extension of your body.” That means, for example, that touching someone’s wheelchair without permission is a no-no. As for the difficulty of using the chair itself, Poulin asks for a volunteer to do just that for the rest of the period. After a few seconds of silence and awkward smiles, an 8th grader named Ryan jumps up. It’s the first time he’s ever been in a wheelchair, and it takes a few twists and turns for him to wiggle his way into a cramped elevator that lifts him up to the indoor track.
Ryan wheels the chair into the herd of students making their way around the track. After only a few laps, he is worn out. “It hurts,” Ryan says with a pained smile. “You can’t use your feet at all. I really feel it in my deltoids.” Such vivid lessons are exactly what Poulin is trying to teach his able-bodied students.
As he watches Ryan, Poulin talks about the challenges of his job. “You still have some physical education teachers who are dinosaurs, who are unwilling to accommodate,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest barriers we run into. You try and educate them and raise awareness. In the past, they would be afraid to even have a wheelchair in class. They would be afraid someone would get hurt. But hey, this is real life.”