The Physical Part of Education


In 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed, requiring that all people with disabilities, of school age, have access to Physical Education in a normal school environment.

Does your child participate in physical education consistently? Do you know what your child is doing in those classes? And why this is as important as any other subject in school?

Adapted physical education is PE that is adapted or modified for your child’s needs. It is meant to meet the needs of any child with a disability in the same way a general PE class meets the needs of children without disabilities. Physical education is an important part of schooling, and it encourages the development of physical and motor skills. Children need to practice fundamental skills such as throwing and catching, as well as dancing and swimming. Gym class also provides an environment for students to work as a group, and further develop communication and teamwork skills. (See the chart of benefits below, courtesy

The physical education class is part of your child’s education plan; it is separate from any physical or occupation that s/he receives (even if that therapy is performed in the school.) Another goal is to develop skills for a lifetime of physical fitness and wellness that lasts well beyond school years.

There is a federal law that mandates physical education be provided for students with disabilities. In 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed, requiring that all people with disabilities, of school age, have access to Physical Education in a normal school environment. This was a great leap forward, however, it is left to each State to define what “Adapted Physical Education” means with respect to complying with the legislation. You will have to look at your state’s policy. This is why you may want to start asking more questions about your child’s gym class.

Not every child looks forward to PE class. But physical activity contributes substantially to a person’s sense of well-being, thus Physical Education has long been a component of the American education system. It can help an individual develop improved body awareness. Physical fitness also denotes a reduction in health risks that may occur in adulthood as a result of physical inactivity, including such conditions as coronary heart disease, hypertension, obesity, low stamina, type II diabetes, osteoporosis, low back pain and depression. Developing exercise habits early is important for all children, especially screen time increases. During the latter half of the last century, society  realized that individuals with disabilities required a different approach to Physical Education. It was no longer acceptable to exclude these children from this portion of their schooling.

There was also a shift in educating individuals who teach PE, realizing that they must also know how to address children with disabilities. The specialty of Adapted Physical Education emerged to address the needs of people with disabilities.

Physical education teachers have a bachelor’s degree, and then they can choose to be certified in Adapted PE.  Currently, only 14 states have a specific certification program. Do not be alarmed if you reside in one of the other 36 states and you learn that your child’s teacher is not certified. However, you may wish to ask your children’s PE teachers what sort of training they have sought out in order to better understand how to work with children with various disabilities.

Do not be afraid to reach out to your child’s teacher. You certainly know your child better than anyone else, and giving advice about what works best as far as communication techniques, anything your child absolutely does not like or cannot do, etc. would certainly be helpful. You want to help the teacher figure out the best learning style for your child as quickly as possible, so that much of class time is not lost on that. However, also respect that your child may be different with his/her teachers than s/he is with you, and techniques that you did not see as the best options, may be working in the classroom.

If your Planning and Placement Team determines that your child requires APE services to meet his/her educational needs, and to receive a free and appropriate public education, yet does not have an adapted physical educator on staff, then the district may be obligated to find an alternate way to provide the service. Options may include finding a contracted service from a local provider, or looking to other schools in the district for how these needs have been met, or finding local certified individuals who may be able to assist with providing services. If this is the case with your child’s school, you may wish to work with the school to find solutions that are the most appropriate for your child.

Remember that building these healthy habits early will ideally set up your child to make healthy choices as they age.  Although the requirement for adaptive PE may end with grade school, if your child goes to college, s/he may want to see what resources the schools offer with regards to fitness facilities and physical education classes for people with disabilities.

It can be overwhelming to coordinate all aspects of your child’s care and education. That is understandable. Ask questions. Physical education should not be ignored. There are resources out there to help. For more information, go to:


• Balance, coordination, eye-hand coordination
• Gross motor development
• Development of body/kinesthetic/tactile & spatial learning styles
• Cardiovascular fitness
• Muscular strength & endurance
• Flexibility

• Development of learning styles
• Number awareness & math concepts
• Vocabulary, literacy, & reading skill development
• Learning & following directions
• Following auditory and/or visual cues
• Sequencing skills
• Problem solving

• Non-competitive
• Non-aggressive
• Non-violent
• Gender equal
• All-age inclusive
• Work alone, with a partner, or in a small group
• Development of intra-& interpersonal learning styles

1Kristin McNealus, PT, DPT, ATP received her Masters in Physical Therapy from Boston University then went on to earn her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from MGH Institute of Health Professions. She has been a staff physical therapist on inpatient rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injuries at a number of hospitals in Southern California, as well as Director of a community adaptive gym for people with neurological injuries. She is a member of the International Network Spinal Cord Injury Physiotherapists, and has contributed to the APTA Guidelines for Exercising with a SCI. She has completed 3 marathons, and 25 triathlons, including the Ironman! SCI Total Fitness is designed to promote health and wellness for people with physical disabilities.


Leave a Reply