Through adapted physical education (APE) classes, students with special needs have the opportunity to safely and successfully participate in physical education, and learn fitness and wellness skills that can prepare them for a lifetime of healthy activities. However, for students with visual and hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, or other disabilities, genuine inclusion remains a significant challenge.
For Mike Doyle, physical education/developmental adapted physical education (DAPE) teacher at Wayzata High School in Plymouth, MN, a large suburb of Minneapolis, his “aha moment” occurred at the SHAPE America Washington conference in 2015 during a session on Special Olympics about the concept of Unified Physical Education. Doyle had always been intrigued by the idea that students with and without disabilities could come together through ongoing physical and educational activities. After consulting with state Special Olympics leaders, he decided to introduce a Unified PE class into the Wayzata curriculum. The course would bring together students with and without disabilities for physical activities and sports, with the goal of enhancing the physical, intellectual and social growth of all. He began by reaching out to student leaders to see if they might be interested in taking the new elective.
Two hours away, in Proctor Public Schools near Duluth, MN, another SHAPE America teacher also decided to pilot a Unified PE class. Lisa Smith, a PE/health/DAPE teacher and Special Olympics coach, pitched the concept to several incoming seniors, asking them if they wanted to be part of a pioneering class. She launched the program in the gym, where individualism and inclusion could naturally coexist, and later expanded it as an after-school club, offering diverse activities such as pottery-making and karaoke.
Doyle began his quarterly Unified PE class with a core of 10 adapted and 15 general education students hand-picked from Wayzata’s 3,500-student population, and the buzz spread within a few days. “Kids told their friends how much fun it was, and after the first quarter, I had students who were literally crying, asking me if they could take it again,” says Doyle.
The class focused on increasing physical fitness and sport-specific skills, rules, and strategies, as well as reinforcing positive habits and reasoning to make better health and lifestyle choices.
In the much smaller Proctor School District, Smith’s Unified PE class included the same 12 general education students, with adapted students participating on a rotating basis. Both teachers had the full guidance and support of their principals, whose common goal was for their schools to become more inclusive.
The program naturally fosters new friendships among the Unified PE classmates and promotes students’ leadership and social competencies. Smith works closely with her general education students to help them better understand their classmates’ needs and to brainstorm ideas for adaptation. “The general education students really ‘think outside the box’ about new ways to teach their classmates,” she says.
Doyle’s students have found the class to be an eye-opening experience. “I have never really interacted with kids in special ed but now I view them through a lens I never thought I would have,” notes one student.
The lives of the special education students are enriched beyond measure when the walls isolating them from other students come down and friendships and trust are built in their place.
Both Doyle and Smith cite countless examples illustrating their programs’ overwhelming success — from waiting lists of students wanting to sign up to glowing parent testimonials to seniors who now are interested in teaching special education as a career.
“I’ve talked to parents who were in tears, grateful that their child with special needs got a phone call for the first time to go bowling on a Friday night or join classmates for a Sadie Hawkins Day Dance,” says Doyle. “The students danced together all night.”
One student cheerleader in the Unified PE program hosted a cheerleading camp for her special ed buddies, and the participants performed together at a school basketball game.
“The kids have made friendships they never thought they would have,” says Smith. “They’re eating together in the cafeteria and planning social events together outside of school. This has changed the culture of the entire school for the better. It’s beautiful.”