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Kids with disabilities benefit from physical education focused on motor skills

The Next Idea

The thrill of riding a two-wheeled bicycle, clutching the game-winning ball, or making a show-stopping save in soccer are examples of rites of passage that every child should have the opportunity to experience. Unfortunately, many children with disabilities never develop the physical skills or confidence to participate in extracurricular programming like this. Adapted physical education – physical education modified to teach fundamental motor skills – is hard to find in Southeast Michigan. And this kind of adapted learning can be a gateway to sports, games, and other physical activity that promotes emotional and physical well-being.


Schools can only do so much. They generally focus on physical and occupational therapy, and educational programs to help children with disabilities function at the highest level possible. Beyond that, very few opportunities exist that target an increased quality of life by providing emotional, physical and social enrichment. In Southeast Michigan, top-notch programs often have limited availability, long waiting lists, and are cost prohibitive for participants and even the organizations that might offer them.  


School should represent an exciting time in a child's life, but for children with disabilities the fear of social isolation and academic pressure can be overwhelming.

School-aged children with disabilities can participate in Special Olympics in Michigan, competing in adapted athletics in a fun and supportive environment. This is one of the very few programs that receives some federal funding, but the opportunity for ongoing participation in it is limited, as it is frequently offered only once or twice annually.


There are many negatives to this lack of programming. School should represent an exciting time in a child’s life, but for children with disabilities the fear of social isolation and academic pressure can be overwhelming. Their inability to participate in extracurricular athletic programs heightens that isolation. Also, all children and adolescents are less physically active and more sedentary today than they were 10 years ago. And, unfortunately, children with disabilities are more predisposed to experience an unhealthy weight classification than children with typical development. This is associated with a number of negative health outcomes, including the range of serious and complicating diseases associated with obesity.


So, what is The Next Idea?


Combine the strengths of a community. Create a “four-pillar” partnership to bring these kinds of programs to kids with disabilities. Take advantage of existing brick-and-mortar environments like university facilities, school gyms, and community centers. Utilize the talents of college student volunteers who are future educators and are studying physical education. Enlist community partners who promote programs through free or low cost venues like social media. And partner with research experts to make sure best practices are followed.


All children and adolescents are less physically active and more sedentary today than they were 10 years ago.

LightUp is trying to do just that, and as a result, to give more people with disabilities the chance to play. LightUp launched as a non-profit this past summer, with a mission to provide exceptional physical and social adapted programming for individuals with disabilities across the lifespan. Our newest program, Spectrum of Sports, is focused on children.


I launched Spectrum of Sports at Wayne State University, and the response has certainly highlighted how much these services are needed. This program is open to residents of Detroit and surrounding communities who have children with disabilities ages 4 - 13 years of age. Spectrum of Sports is a ten-week-long adapted sport program which focuses on the integration of fundamental motor skills into game contexts. This program is currently serving 30 youth with disabilities and will continue to serve this community every fall and winter semester for the foreseeable future.


Here is where our program leaders come from. I teach a class at Wayne State where students earning physical education credentials are required to complete at least 20 contact hours in an adapted program setting with children with disabilities. I spend the first half of the class instructing these future educators on best-practice instructional strategies for a variety of special populations.


The second half of the class is the opportunity for students to implement their learning in real time. Once a week for a 60- to 90- minute session, children with disabilities are welcomed onto the Wayne State University campus to participate in an adapted sports program free of charge. Children work in a 1:1 ratio with eager WSU students, many of whom have previous teaching experience.


Wayne State University publicizes this program by distributing program information via social media and through staff email, while the built environment (i.e. large gym space) is provided at no cost due to the opportunity it serves to educate their students.


Finally, we strive to make sure each one of our programs are research informed. We consult with our mental health affiliate, the Sunfield Center for Autism, ADHD and behavioral health. We continually seek guidance from clinical psychologists who have years of educational training and experience in their fields of disability. They also provide input on the recommended documentation needed for this type of community programming (i.e. child preference sheets to allow our coaches to better understand their participants).


This “four-pillar” approach is what makes LightUp’s model for programs like Spectrum of Sports sustainable and effective. It has great local reach at low cost. LightUp has the opportunity to change the trajectories in the lives of individuals with disabilities. Our goal is to continue to implement each program that is launched by offering it year-round. By the end of 2017 we plan to have launched 10 adapted programs for individuals with disabilities across the lifespan within Southeast Michigan. We are off to a good start.



This segment originally aired on Nov. 14, 2016.

Leah Ketcheson is operations director of LightUp, founder of Spectrum of Sports, and adjunct faculty in Education at Wayne State University.

The Next Ideais Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.


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