The concept of inclusive physical education — teaching students with disabilities in general physical education settings — and the practical considerations of implementing effective instructional strategies that benefit all children has brought about changes in the way we think about our roles as educators.
According to a recent U.S. Department of Education report to Congress, roughly 95% of students with disabilities spend at least part of their day in a general education classroom and over half are in general education classes at least 80% of the time.
As physical educators, we are expected to address a range of skills, abilities and students’ interests. That’s a tall order!
What this expectation also means is that more students with disabilities are being educated alongside their typically developing peers in general physical education (GPE).
Challenges and Benefits of Inclusive Physical Education
The increased diversity and heterogeneity in all our GPE classes means more is expected of us as teachers — and that can be a challenge.
Instructing diverse and large student
groups can be difficult, but for teachers who have been able to accomplish
their teaching and learning goals, the personal and professional rewards of
inclusive physical education are immense. They are also much more satisfied
with their work because they are teaching all of their students.
When considering inclusion, history can inform how we think and develop our practices. The civil rights and humanist movements during the 1960s and early 1970s created a new climate that raised ethical and moral arguments against segregation of students with disabilities.
The new climate led to a great deal of federal legislation, culminating in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. This landmark law is currently enacted as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
IDEA empowered local school boards to place students with disabilities in educational settings along a continuum of care.
However, what we want within our gymnasiums is for teachers to consider how they include their students with disabilities, so they achieve learning goals through a meaningful and positive experience.
In our view, inclusion is not simply a placement, it is a practice where skills are learned in an environment that supports the learning goals for all students. Each student has access to learning and the curriculum with the best approach to ensure learning physically, socially, and emotionally.
Essentially these are same goals we have for all our students, according to SHAPE America’s National Standards for K-12 Physical Education.
Overcoming Barriers to Inclusive Physical Education
When you begin to think about inclusion, what are some of the barriers you might face? Research indicates a range of possible challenges, such as large class sizes, lack of support, limited knowledge on how to include and address diversity on the classroom, getting peers to support each other, and limited equipment.
Advocating on behalf of your own needs may also be a challenge because you may not always know what inclusion is supposed to look like.
You may have heard specific buzzwords that can benefit your instruction, such as differentiated instruction, collaboration, peer and paraprofessional support, and universal design for learning. Indeed, these are all tools that will help you improve practice.
Using the Lieberman-Brian Inclusion Rating Scale
The Lieberman-Brian Inclusion Rating Scale (LIRSPE) was developed as a tool to support teachers in their practices that benefit all students. Based on a 5-point Likert scale, the tool addresses instructional practices, peer and paraprofessional support, equipment and task variations, environmental conditions, and assessment as supported by the principles of Universal Design for Learning.
The purpose of this psychometrically rigorous rating scale is to evaluate the effort made by teachers to include children with disabilities in a general physical education environment. The LIRSPE measures the actions taken by teachers to ensure students with disabilities are offered physical education opportunities alongside their typically developing peers.
High scores on one of these items will not guarantee that a class is inclusive, but the net positive effect of these items demonstrate the effort that teachers take toward inclusion.
We believe the tool can be used for many purposes, including:
- Gaining support from your administration to get the help you need in your class;
- Analyzing your teaching practices or those of your colleagues and student teachers;
- As a self-reflection tool and reminder of classroom dynamics to which you may not always be paying attention.
In moving toward a more inclusionary practice where all students are supported with equitable opportunities and access to resources rather than simply being placed in the physical education setting, the LIRSPE offers a specific checklist of items that you can use to advocate on behalf of yourself and your students.
Visit the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability website to access the LIRSPE tool, the rubric that accompanies the tool, and a video that describes the components of the LIRSPE.
- Universal Design for Learning in Physical Education (Book)
- Wrightslaw (website for special education law and advocacy for children with disabilities)
- Students With Disabilities in Physical Education and Athletics (Government Accountability Office Report)
- Integrating Students With Disabilities in Extracurricular Activities: Dear Colleague Letter and Fact Sheet
- Explanation for Standard-Based Academics and Goals
- Physical Education for Preschool-Aged Students With Disabilities
- Physical Education for High School Students With Disabilities Ages 16-21
- No Other Subject Area May Substitute for Physical Education
Michelle Grenier is an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire. Michelle has worked as a consultant to schools and universities on inclusive practices both within the U.S. and abroad. She is a co-author of the book Universal Design for Learning in Physical Education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lauren J. Lieberman, Ph.D., is a distinguished service professor in the Kinesiology Department of The College at Brockport, State University of New York (SUNY). She is the founder and director of Camp Abilities: An educational sports camp for children with visual impairments. Camp Abilities has been replicated in 20 states and eight countries. She has published over 130 peer-reviewed articles and 18 books. Most recently she has been awarded a Global Fulbright Scholarship to promote Camp Abilities worldwide.
Ali Brian, Ph.D., CAPE, is an associate professor in the Department of Physical Education at the University of South Carolina and is the director of the Adapted Physical Education/Activity program and research lab. She has delivered 150+ presentations, authored 60+ peer-reviewed manuscripts and a new text, Universal Design for Learning in Physical Education.