School has started or is on the horizon in many states. While confusion lingers about back-to-school COVID protocols, education law clearly identifies well-rounded education content, including physical education. Physical education is also identified as a direct service within the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), the overarching Special Education law in the United States. This means that physical education should always be included in a student’s schooling.
One group of high school graduates who received less attention on their school and progress last year were students with disabilities. Some of whom missed-out on critical transition services that are typically a part of their high school training.
IDEA ensures equitable education for students with a disability. At the age of 16 years, and sometimes younger, public schools and other agencies are required to develop a transition services plan for students enrolled in Special Education. Transition services range in nature but often include vocational training and other life skills (e.g., utilizing the public transit system, shopping for groceries, and accessing services in the community where the student lives); with the goal of successfully transitioning out of high school and into the next phase of life.
Like the name states, transition plans are focused on transitions. Thus, most students engaged in transition plans are focused on learning skills within their community, often with a goal of independence. Unfortunately, PE is often dropped from a student’s IEP when a student starts to engage with their transition plan; or if PE persists, the learning takes place in the school rather than in the community.
Physical Education in the community, needs to be prioritized in a student with a disability’s Transition Service Plan. Not only does education law require it – our collective commitment to health and the future workforce need it.
In the US, there is a physical inactivity epidemic that has persisted for decades, and it includes children. The health consequences associated with physical inactivity include, but are not limited to, obesity, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and poorer mental health. It is also well-documented that physical inactivity disproportionately affects children with disabilities, thus children with disabilities are generally more at risk for the health consequences associated with physical inactivity.
So, dropping PE for students with a disability around their 16th birthday is not only in defiance of IDEA, but it also further contributes to the health inequities facing these students.
Sure, other skills need to be included in a student’s transition plan – like general educational curriculum, there’s a balance. But PE can’t be neglected. Dropping PE from a student’s schooling negatively contributes to other goals associated with transition plans, like independent transportation. Active commuting which includes but is not limited to walking, biking, and rolling, is economically, environmentally, and independently friendly. PE contributes to teaching students the physical skills needed for stamina – like standing all day for work and building muscles that might be needed for some jobs. So, its necessity is critical to other independent living and vocational skills.
Practice is critical towards adopting lifelong physical activity behaviors. So, it makes sense that the lessons learned in PE should be taught and engaged in within the community to work towards independence in these skills and to adopt them as a lifelong behavior.
The US Department of Education agrees; not only should PE be included in a student’s transition plan, it should also take place in the student’s least restrictive environment – like local fitness facilities or recreational leagues that the students might pursue and utilize outside of their public schooling.
As we begin to exit the pandemic and engage in in-person learning, PE needs to be prioritized in students with a disabilities transition service plan.
Megan MacDonald is an associate professor of kinesiology in the College of Public Health & Human Sciences at Oregon State University and the IMPACT for Life Faculty Scholar. She is also the director of the early childhood research core at the university's Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children & Families and a public voices fellow through the OpEd Project