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A chance to be themselves

By Catherine Twing
On April 17, 2017

Students in Andy Weinberg's Adaptive Physical Education class work with community members and local students with developmental disabilities. Photo by Martin VanBuren

Sixteen-year-old Joan burst through the doors of Glenbrook Gymnasium on the Castleton University campus. Running and skipping full speed around the gym, Joan laughs as she is playfully chased by Castleton sophomore Kristina Knockenhauer.

On the other side of the gym, 15-year-old Corey asks one of the Castleton students if he wants to see how fast he can run, and moments later he is off, sprinting across the gym. 

Joan and Corey are two participants in physical education professor Andy Weinberg’s Adapted Physical Education class, which gives Castleton students the chance to work with individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.

The course has been offered at Castleton for 10 years, but before Weinberg inherited it seven years ago, it was solely lecture. He realized students need the hands on experience in order to be successful in the field, and therefore changed the format of the course to two lecture days, and one hands-on class per week.

“I could tell you all about cerebral palsy, or Down’s Syndrome, but you need to work with the students,” he said.

Weinberg also teaches a class for exercise science students titled Fitness Programming for Persons with Disabilities, which teaches students how to make fitness plans and work with individuals with disabilities.

Community members pay $75 to be a part of the class, but it can be prorated for those who can’t afford that. The program also received a $500 in-kind donation from Special Olympics Vermont to purchase modified fitness equipment, Weinberg said.

The participants of the two groups have a variety of developmental disabilities including autism, cerebral palsy and Down’s Syndrome.

Parents and educators of participants are very supportive of the work Weinberg and his students do.

“I have thought they should have this program for educators for years now,” said Joan’s mother, Leigh Miles of Rutland. “She can be herself. The educators learn what they can do with students with disabilities, as opposed to what they can’t do.”

Rutland resident Heike Platte agrees the program gives her son, Kyle, an opportunity to be himself.

“He doesn’t feel like he has to be like somebody else,” she said. “And to have the experience for the people going into the field to know what it’s like is great.”

Of the three participants with Down’s Syndrome, each is different, and giving future educators the chance to learn how to adapt to these differences is crucial, Platte said.

Jamie Savage, instructional assistant at Fair Haven Union High School, said the program strongly benefits the high school students in a way they don’t always get in their day to day at school.

“The kids love it. It makes them feel special,” she said. “It’s a lot of positive one-on-one with other adults close to their age.”

Chrissy Bales, 41, of Fair Haven, has cerebral palsy and loves the experience of being able to work with the Castleton students during the Fitness Programming for Persons with Disabilities class.

“It’s really neat. You get to have fun with the college students,” she said. “I feel really included and happy because I feel like a normal, everyday young person with people my own age. It’s really neat.” 

Bales has attended the program for a few months now and gets along great with the Castleton students.

“I couldn’t have asked for anything nicer,” she said. “The college kids are great. I’m so proud of us and of them.”

Corey, a participant from Poultney, loves the opportunity to spend time with the Castleton students and his peers.

 

“I like to run. I like to dance, and we can talk while we’re in this class. The thing I like talking about most is trains,” he said, as he described how he imagined a wooden track following the lines on the gym floor.

A main element of both classes is finding ways to incorporate participants, regardless of ability.

Bales, for instance, is unable to walk on her own, but when the group played kickball, she used a hockey stick to hit the ball, and then traveled the bases in her wheelchair.

While two Castleton students taught the group the chicken dance, participants did the dance at their own pace, in their own ways, all with big smiles. If the dance wasn’t working for them, participants did other activities with Castleton students throughout the gym.

The class is generally held in the gym, but members also visit the pool for swimming. Parents and educators appreciate how Weinberg and his students take time with students who may struggle with new situations, like the pool.

“Andy does a good job of processing,” said Lynn Stack, a special education teacher at Fair Haven Union High School. “The pool is a tough place. Students get dysregulated.”

While the course benefits the participants, the students get just as much out of the interactions.

“People with disabilities are just like us,” Knockenhauer said. “They just need to find what works for them.”

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