Self-Advocacy in Physical Education for Students with Physical Disabilities: Self-Advocacy for Students with Disabilities Is More Than a Good Idea, It Is Embodied in the Law. Here's How to Make It Work

By MacDonald, Cathy; Block, Martin E. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Self-Advocacy in Physical Education for Students with Physical Disabilities: Self-Advocacy for Students with Disabilities Is More Than a Good Idea, It Is Embodied in the Law. Here's How to Make It Work


MacDonald, Cathy, Block, Martin E., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


It is 12:07 p.m., and the eighth graders make their way down the hall to the gymnasium. Most are loud and boisterous, chatting about the latest relationships among their peers. As the students enter the locker room, they become sluggish and take their time dressing out. By 12:18, all students are sitting in their squads chatting quietly, and waiting for their 90-minute class to begin. All look identical, wearing black shorts and a gray T-shirt, with the exception of one student who has permission to leave her jeans on in class. Other students would be required to sit out of class and write an explanation about why they are out of uniform; however, Catherine is unique. She has cerebral palsy, which affects her balance and coordination and requires her to use crutches to walk.

At first glance, physical education may appear to be extremely challenging for someone like Catherine, who is expected to participate in a curriculum revolving around team sports such as football and basketball. It may also be expected that Catherine dreads coming to a physically demanding class that appears to offer her little benefit. However, Catherine sits in her squad, eagerly waiting for class to start so that she can get up and move.

Catherine takes steps to ensure her own success in physical education. She bravely voices her needs and wants and takes responsibility for her individual experiences in class. Rather than sitting out because she cannot take part in activities exactly like her peers, Catherine makes simple modifications to physical education activities, enabling her to participate in a meaningful way. Changing just her T-shirt for physical education, rather than into her entire outfit like her peers, is an example of one of these modifications. This simple change that Catherine has made to the typical routine of "dressing out" allows her to arrive in class at the same time as her peers. This article describes the many ways that Catherine advocates for herself in physical education, allowing her to experience the same success as her classmates.

Defining Self-Advocacy and Its Use

Pennell (2001) defined self-advocacy as

  ... the ability to stand up for oneself and to help other people with
  disabilities stand up for themselves by speaking up, speaking out and
  speaking loud. It means having the opportunity to know your rights and
  responsibilities, to stand up for them, and to make choices about
  [your] own life. (p. 223)

According to the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students with disabilities should be encouraged to demonstrate self-advocacy by participating in the development of their Individualized Education Programs (IEP) if the student's parents' feel it is appropriate (Wright & Wright, 2000). Most school administrators and teachers agree that students with disabilities should become active in the IEP process whenever appropriate (Price, Wolensky, & Mulligan, 2002). Participation in the IEP process is a great way for students with disabilities to see how others perceive their abilities and limitations. In addition, the IEP process is a helpful way for students with disabilities to share their strengths, needs, and future goals with their parents and other IEP team members (Hammer, 2004).

Self-advocacy does not have to stop at the IEP meeting. Students with disabilities can remind teachers of goals, objectives, and accommodations written into the IEP; suggest strategies on how they can participate more successfully in activities, and help the teacher feel more at ease about accommodating the student throughout a class. For example, Catherine can participate in physical education by standing using her crutches or by sitting in a chair. However, the physical education teacher has trouble figuring out which position is best for Catherine in specific situations. Therefore, the teacher has learned to rely on Catherine to decide which position will allow her the most success in a particular activity.

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