Adaptive gym: making physical education accessible for all

Physical Education teacher Brittni Upchurch.Photo: Sophie Schreyer

Starting next year, ARHS will be adding a new class called Adaptive Gym.

Adaptive Gym is a class where students with disabilities from the PIP (Pathways to Independence program) will be partnered with general education students for an exciting, inclusive physical education experience.

According to the class creator and PE teacher Brittni Upchurch, “The class is designed for students with cognitive or physical disabilities” who will be matched up with a student right “for their needs.”

Ms. Upchurch is unsure how many classes of adaptive gym there will be and many students, but she has received “lots of support from students and faculty.”  

Ms. Upchurch has dreamed of teaching adaptive gym ever since she began work as a PE teacher.

“I would have loved to have started teaching an adaptive PE course my first year teaching,” she said.

Ms. Upchurch graduated from Springfield College with a bachelors of science in movement and science.

She studied adaptive physical education for her master’s degree, during which she completed a thesis where a “1 to 1 model” was used and students participated in cooperative games.

Ms. Upchurch has been a passionate advocate for people with disabilities her whole life. When she was younger, she lived near a community for adults with disabilities called New Horizons in Unionville, CT.

On their website they say  “the mission is to provide housing and support services for people with physical disabilities who want to live in a community that maximizes opportunities for independent, self-directed living.”

Ms. Upchurch and her father volunteered at New Horizons for much of her childhood and then eventually moved next door to the community.

Being right near an accessible bike path meant she could connect with residents there “almost every day.”

 She also spent a lot of time helping out in the PE department in her own high school and worked with a teacher who taught adaptive physical education to students in the transitional learning program.

Chris Kusek, who directs the PIP program is thrilled about adaptive gym being available to his students for the first time ever.

“One of my goals as the PIP coordinator is to expand students’ abilities physically and promote social interactions,” he said. “This does all of that.”

Mr. Kusek said he worked at a summer camp that integrated concepts from adaptive physical education.

“The idea of adaptive physical education has been around for many years, but we just started talking about here in the high school back in January,” he said.

He is also excited that students in his program will “most importantly build some new friendships.”

Principal Miki Gromacki, PE Department Head Ken Jacque, and Mr. Kusek were all extremely interested in finding a way to make this work for next year and collaborated with Ms. Upchurch to get it off the ground.   

Adaptive PE increases accessibility of games and sports in many ways. It could be about making changes to game rules, changing the size of the equipment, or using things like bats that beep for students with visual impairment.

Additionally, students in wheelchairs play volleyball in their wheelchairs and heights of nets can be altered.

PIP students Skylar Churchill and Chhendara Um are excited to be part of the class next year. Churchill’s favorite sports are “basketball and running,” and Um’s are “basketball and swimming.”

When asked what is great about people of all abilities exercising together, Churchill said, “It’s nice for students with disabilities to get to do things other students can do.”

Churchill also wants to “help other students who need help to play.”

Um, who has a Best Buddy, is excited for more team work with ARHS peers.

Junior Owen Toal knew he wanted to join the class and wrote a two-paragraph essay about what he would bring to the class and filled out all the permission slips needed so he could enroll and be paired with a student in the PIP program in PE.

He said Ms. Upchurch pulled him aside because of his previous work with students with disabilities.

“Working with kids from the PIP program is a blessing,” said Toal. “I can’t wait to have fun in this new gym class next year.”