What to Know about Adapted Physical Education in Washington State

A Brief Overview

  • Physical Education (PE) is adapted in four primary ways to support students with disabilities. Read on for more detail.
  • Federal law protects the rights of students with disabilities to access PE, and Adapted PE (APE) can be provided as a service on a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • How often Adapted PE is provided is an ongoing conversation. Read on for information about how advocates are addressing the topic in Washington.
  • The Society of Health and Physical Educators of Washington (SHAPEWA.org) provides more information about Adapted PE, teacher trainings, and best practices.

Full Article 

Physical Education—what older generations called “gym class”—is part of school for all students. Instruction is provided for development and care of the body. Classes can support motor skills, physical fitness, athletic games, social play skills, teamwork, and much more. How the PE curriculum is adjusted to be appropriate and accessible to students with disabilities is the work of specialists in Adapted Physical Education.

PAVE reached out to two experts in the field to provide content for this article. Toni Bader and Lauren Wood are Adapted Physical Education teachers in the Seattle Area. Both are advocates supporting the advancement of Adapted PE options in Washington State. Their credentials and email addresses are listed at the end of the article.

How Adapted PE works

According to Bader and Wood, best practice for an Adapted PE teacher is to utilize four main types of adaptations and modifications:

  1. Environment: the PE space can be adjusted to function for all learners.
    • Size: The size of the activity area and/or the activity group can impact how accessible the programming is for some students.
    • Stimulus: Lighting, sound, and visuals all impact a person’s sensory experience. Shifting those stimuli thoughtfully can impact accessibility.
  2. Instruction: APE teachers gather information about individual students to ensure that instructions are accessible to everyone, regardless of whether they need verbal instructions, gestures, pictures, written words, demonstrations, and/or videos.
  3. Equipment: In light of their disability circumstances, some students may need their PE equipment to move more slowly or to be bigger, smaller, more tactile, more visually stimulating, or something else. An Adapted PE instructor works to figure that out. 
  4. Rules: To ensure that PE is inclusive, rules of the games may need to be added or taken away.

What does Adapted PE look like?

The point of Adapted PE is to individualize the general PE curriculum so that it is accessible for all students, regardless of their ability. How it looks varies a lot depending on the student, but here are a few examples of Adapted PE in action:

  • A third grader with Autism Spectrum Disorder uses a play script on her communication device to invite other students to play tag with her.
  • A high-school senior with Down syndrome is introduced to adult recreation opportunities in his community so he can continue building healthy habits beyond graduation.  
  • A seventh grader with Cerebral Palsy attends general PE class. The Adapted PE teacher, general PE teacher, and the physical therapist collaborate to create an exercise plan to strengthen the student’s legs while using his gait trainer (walker).

IEPs can include Adapted PE as a service

Eligibility for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is determined through evaluation. The process helps to determine whether a student has a disability, whether the disability has a significant impact on learning, and whether the student requires Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and/or related services in order to access a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE is the entitlement of any student, ages 3-21, who is eligible for school-based services delivered through an IEP.

If a student’s access to PE is significantly impacted and the student needs the curriculum to be individualized in order to learn the skills that are part of the curriculum, then Adapted PE can be provided as a direct IEP service. IEP teams discuss how Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is delivered for each individual student, and Adapted PE teachers are key members of the team.

If Adapted PE is part of a student’s IEP, the student will have individualized APE goals. The APE teacher can write the goals, deliver the services, monitor progress, and attend IEP meetings as a service expert.

Barriers to Adapted PE services

A problem in Washington State is that there are too few Adapted PE teachers. Recruitment is discouraged because Washington does not yet recognize Adapted PE as a specific subject matter/content area to endorse on a teacher’s professional certificate. The lack of state endorsement means that:

  • An Adapted PE teacher cannot independently provide services to students.
  • Evaluations and IEPs may not fully assess or document student needs because this expertise is missing. 
  • Individualized programming may be underserved by general education PE teachers or special education teachers who lack specialized PE training. 
  • Opportunities for inclusion are diminished.
  • Safety may be compromised for general education and special education students.
  • Students with disabilities may not learn to access physical fitness safely and joyfully.
  • The state lacks data about Adapted PE programming and how/where it is delivered.

Advocacy is underway

Bader and Wood, who provided information for this article, are Adapted PE teachers working with state policymakers in Washington to develop an APE or specialty endorsement.

“We want to ensure all students with disabilities are receiving high quality physical education programming by a teacher who is specifically trained to provide SDI and evaluation in the area of Adapted PE,” Wood says.

“Having educator preparation courses that lead to an Adapted PE endorsement or specialty endorsement will support teachers in providing safe and meaningful physical education and will positively impact our students, staff, communities, and overall culture.”

To learn more about Adapted PE, families may reach out to:

Staff and Board Members at Shape Washington, and to learn about advocacy for Adapted PE