Making Physical Education Accessible

Daniel Hernandez (foreground, left), 16, a sophomore with autism at American Senior High School, teaches April Brown (foreground, right) the basics of kayaking in Miami’s Biscayne Bay. Photo by Mike Fritz/PBS NewsHour

People with disabilities tend to be less active than other children who do not have disabilities according to recent research that says about 12% of adults with disabilities are physically active on a regular basis, which is about half as much as adults without disabilities, 22%. In the same toke, the obesity rate for children with disabilities in the U.S is 38% higher than those without disabilities and adult obesity 57% higher when compared to that for adults without disabilities. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Children with Disabilities,parents and doctors oftentimes overestimate the risks or overlook the benefits of physical activities for special needs children.

Jayne Greenberg, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ Director of Physical Education and Health Literacy and who also serves on the President’s Council for Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, has worked  to share best practices on improving fitness and health for people with disabilities. Through grant funding and also partnering with community members such as the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, Oleta River State Park, the Miami Yacht Club, and even the Miami Heat, at no charge to their school, she is able to develop physical education programs for students who want to learn and participate in activities that can have lifetime benefits. These programs are so popular now that all the students who would like to participate still can not.

She explains that, “There’s a lot of self-confidence and pride that the students learn because we always teach them what they can’t do: ‘don’t do this or you’re going to get hurt; don’t do this, I’m afraid to let you try it.’ We tell the kids, ‘we want you to do this,’ and for the first time they do activities and they feel so good about themselves.” One tenth grader, Daniel Hernandez, as well as some of his other autistic classmates, is an expert in kayaking. He knows how to set up the seats, put the oars together, position himself in without flipping over, and also how to steer and maneuver the kayak. He says, “It’s like peace and quiet. It makes you feel the wind inside, in your heart,” and he isn’t afraid to talk to strangers about this newfound passion, or help someone else learn how to kayak. Another classmate, Demetrius Sesler, explains how being able to help others learn how to kayak has given him a sense of pride, and even his teachers have said he has gained a lot more  confidence and leadership qualities since starting these lessons.

One teacher at South Miami Senior High says, “It’s holistic. It teaches them how to be a person…I have a golf game in my classroom, but it’s not the same as being out in a golf course where actual golfers play the game. To them, this is a big deal. It makes them feel whole. It makes them feel like they can do something that students without disabilities can do.” It is important for parents, professionals, and educators alike to realize the important for physical education programming for students with disabilities and even activities such as kayaking and golf can be on the list of sports they can participate in.

Shema Kolainu makes an effort to provide physical education programs for the students that we serve and also understand the importance of them being healthy both mentally and physically. To read about the various therapies that we offer at our school and center, click HERE.