In 2015, the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences made history. It became one of just 13 programs in the country to be selected by the National Inclusion Project to implement a program designed to break down barriers between those living with disabilities and those without through one simple, yet powerful, everyday activity — play.
The National Inclusion Project’s program model, called Let’s ALL Play, has since been incorporated into the College’s already diverse Lifetime Activities (LA) offerings, creating new environments where children with disabilities ranging from autisum to ADHD can play and benefit from interaction with their non-disabled peers — and vice versa.
Lifetime Activities classes are open to anyone interested in participating. On an annual basis, there are more than 125 classes offered with an average of 2,000 participants, with half of those participants being children enrolled in popular classes like aquatics, gymnastics, martial arts and summer camp. The majority of LA staff consist of part-time student employees that work with the various classes as lifeguards and instructors.
Dr. Patricia K. Fehl developed this concept in 1974 when she was chair of the Department of General Physical Education. What started as a non-credit instructional program for physical education students has since evolved into the LA of today. Through the mission of the college, the program continues to promote physical activity and a healthy lifestyle through fundamentally appropriate activities that enhance the overall well-being and quality of life for the people of West Virginia.
Andrea Taliaferro, CPASS assistant professor of Adapted Physical Education, and Mary Wolk, program coordinator for LA, said this partnership with the National Inclusion Project has grown the College’s ability to promote inclusion of students with disabilities even more.
“It would have been difficult to effectively bring such awareness to our program and expand the physical activity outlets and opportunities for kids with disabilities in our community without the connection and financial support provided by the National Inclusion Project,” Wolk said.
Prior to CPASS’ partnership with the National Inclusion Project, enrollment of children with special needs in LA programs had been extremely limited, with less than one percent — or two individuals — having self-identified their disability. Lack of awareness, environmental constraints such as accessibility and transportation, lack of knowledge and training of instructors, lack of appropriate programs, financial considerations like cost of specialized equipment and a lack of necessary in-classs support have all been cited as reasons why participation of disabled persons had historically been low.
Thanks to the partnership, CPASS has been able to overcome many of those barriers and better serve children with special needs in each activity. The funding has allowed the LA to provide in-depth training of staff and instructors, the hiring of trained mentors to attend inclusive programming, increase the ratio of staff to children and raise awareness of the new offerings through promotional materials.
“Both the participant and parent data collected during the first year lend foundation to the success of our partnership, and we look forward to continuing to use the Let’s ALL Play program model to promote the inclusiveness of our Lifetime Activities programs,” Taliaferro said.
According to Wolk, the percentage of participants with disabilities participating in LA has increased from less than one percent prior to the partnership to approximately 7.7 percent of the summer and 12.9 percent of program enrollment. Overall the program enrolled 12 unique participants with disabilities, filling 24 participant slots.
The new partnership has also increased family partnerships. By implementing parent feedback surveys in each program, staff have been able to utilize this feedback to improve programming and initiate and maintain communication with the parents of participants with disabilities through phone calls and email.
“The parents of LA participants, both with and without disabilities, provided very positive feedback and highlighted many strengths of both the LA classes and of our partnership with the National Inclusion Project,” Wolk explained.
After that successful first-year partnership, a second year, with an additional $7,500 in funding from the National Inclusion Project, has begun. Taliaferro says she’s confident the partnership will continue to grow participation while benefiting children and families in Morgantown and beyond.
“We feel we have a strong starting point and support base among participants,” Taliaferro said. “We’re looking forward to building upon that and continuing to spread information and awareness, developing and training student mentors to work with our programs and initiating strong family partnerships in our community.”
Parents are happy with the opportunity. “My son always wanted to take a gymnastics class but never could due to his disabilities. Now, due to the inclusion project he can do it and feel included.”
“This inclusion project increases my son’s confidence and makes him feels proud of himself for being among typical kids learning the skills to excel and compete in different kinds of sports.”
“I believe it is a wonderful opportunity for children with special needs, but also for the other children to interact with and understand that special needs children have likes and dislikes, various interests and want to interact with others but oftentimes don't know how. Maybe they will learn how to be a true friend to someone with special needs.”