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May / June 2003

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Ability Awareness

Ability Awareness
Students and people with special needs get lessons that last a lifetime in an adapted physical education course

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The Field House is abuzz with noontime activity. A pickup game of basketball is in progress. Joggers warm up for their runs and walkers take another lap on the indoor track.

At one end of the facility, children congregate around a jumble of play equipment — plastic bats, tennis rackets, orange cones, hockey sticks, foam shapes, and balls of all sizes and colors.

Eleven-year-old Josh and University of Maine junior Jarrod Gomes retrieve a basketball and head for one of the hoops to start this week's series of motor skill development activities.

For the next two hours, it's as if Josh and Jarrod are the only two in the place.

Josh is dribbling and shooting the ball, barely able to contain his excitement. No matter how many times he misses the basket or lets the ball get away from him, Jarrod is there with encouragement and quick lessons on how to hold and move the ball differently. After several failed attempts at sinking a basket, Josh is told to try hitting the backboard. The youngster dribbles on the run with Jarrod playing defense. At one point, Jarrod drags over a plastic basketball hoop, half the size of the regulation basket, and Josh succeeds in dunking the ball.

"Good job. You're going to get it. Let's try that one again," says Jarrod, giving Josh a high five before they move on to the next activity, floor hockey.

Jarrod is one of 30 UMaine students enrolled in an undergraduate class called Mainstreaming in Physical Education, working one-on-one with adults and youngsters like Josh who have mental and/or physical disabilities. Typically juniors and seniors, most of the UMaine students have little or no experience interacting with persons with mild to profound disabilities. As a result, the class becomes a learning experience for both the UMaine students and their partners with special needs.

The lessons aren't always easy.

"Remember last week, you showed me how you can catch?" says Professor of Education Steve Butterfield to a little girl who refuses to go on with her activity. "You caught five in a row."

The child steps up to the line on the floor to try again. "Hands ready," Butterfield says, crouching next to the girl to count her successful catches and to watch her kick the ball back.

As the youngster basks in her success, Butterfield turns his attention to the frustrated UMaine student. "That was knee action, but no follow-through," he says, referring to the motor skills level the child exhibited. "What level was that? OK, you're in charge. Try a little positive reinforcement."

For the past 18 years, Butterfield has taught this one-semester course required for all UMaine physical education majors. The University of Maine uses a living-laboratory model that brings persons with disabilities to campus to work with students. The youngsters in the program come from area schools; the adults from the Multiple Handicap Center of Penobscot Valley in Bangor, Maine.

The class, part of the kinesiology and physical education program in the College of Education and Human Development, meets three times a week. It begins with an overview and history of teaching sports and physical education for persons with disabilities. Mock labs are held in which the students are blindfolded or use wheelchairs to better understand physical disabilities.

For the remaining 10 weeks, Wednesday classes become the developmental motor and aquatics lab in the Field House.

"They get a lot out of the activities that we're not able to do, like using the (Latti Fitness Center) and pool," says Jeff Bosse of the six adults he accompanies from the Multiple Handicap Center, part of Amicus. "They all come back with big smiles on their faces. They have a sense of belonging."

For 11-year-old Josh, coming to UMaine is a highlight of his week. "Often he does his (school) work because he knows he's going to the program. It's great incentive," says education technician Jan Bennett from Herbert Sargent School in Stillwater, Maine. "He's very well coordinated and involved in a lot of recreational sports. I can see that this (program) played a big part in it."

The UMaine students take a dynamic systems approach by modifying the task and/or environment to meet special needs and achieve physical education objectives. Students observe and problem-solve to help the person with disabilities become more skilled and independent. Most often, the changes are incremental.

"They don't see miracles," Butterfield says. "They understand we're not in the business of curing people. But while the students may see a little development in the people they're working with during the semester, I see many changes over the years."

Joella Michaud of Brewer speaks passionately about the difference the developmental motor and aquatics lab has made in the life of her son Calvin, 9, who's been coming to the UMaine program for five years.

"At first he didn't like to get his face wet. Now he swims down and back (the length of the pool). There's been such growth," says Michaud. "The program focuses not so much on what the kids can't do but what they can. Calvin used to be a child who couldn't make a mistake. Now he's not afraid to try."

Senior Raffaela Wolf, Calvin's partner last fall, remembers her nervousness during the first couple lab periods. "I had no previous experience working with individuals with disabilities, but I also knew that I could master the challenge with focus, hard work, dedication and determination," says the kinesiology and physical education major, and member of the UMaine women's ice hockey team. "After the first couple labs, I was really enjoying the class.

"In our profession, we should be prepared to work with any individual. It can be a very rewarding experience working with someone who has a disability."

Butterfield likens the developmental motor and aquatics lab to basic training. "Students in the class go through five stages of adapting to the experience," he says. "The first stage is fear, which almost immediately moves to stage two: anger at me for giving them this difficult assignment. Soon the students feel more competent, self-confident and creative, planning more adventurous, yet still developmentally appropriate activities, such as dancing and even swimming in the deep end of the pool.

"At stage five, there's ownership," says Butterfield. "Next semester, they'll be the ones sticking their heads in the door to see who's working with ‘their' partners." Some of them also volunteer to help evaluate their peers in the next class.

That's not to say that every UMaine student reaches stage five. By semester's end, there can be one or two students who are "still not there," admits Butterfield. But they have a good start toward feeling confident and capable when working with persons with disabilities.

Over the years, some students have gone on to receive teaching certification in adapted physical education. Others take the lessons learned into their classrooms and communities, becoming advocates for the rights and needs of persons with disabilities.

"This class went far beyond my expectations," says Brandy Walsh, an elementary education major. "I honestly have never learned so much. I found the experience to be one that really shaped my academic career. I hope I can impact children's lives in the same way both Professor Butterfield and this class impacted mine."

by Margaret Nagle
May-June, 2003

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.


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