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Empowering students with disabilities to find exercise they love

Physical education is required in most American high schools, but for teenagers with physical and developmental disabilities, there can be greater restrictions on how they can get active. The NewsHour’s April Brown reports on how schools in Florida’s Miami-Dade County are adapting activities like kayaking, sailing and golfing for more children.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We have known for awhile that childhood obesity is an increasing problem in the United States. A recent study found that family meals may help children keep their weight down. But physical activity is also an important factor.

    The "NewsHour"'s April Brown reports on one school district that has taken special care to make sure students with disabilities stay active.

    It's part of our American Graduate project.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Physical education for these students in Miami, Florida, looks nothing like the calisthenics and kickball of yesteryear. The teenagers from American Senior High School are getting ready for a workout at Oleta River State Park on Biscayne Bay.

  • MAN:

    Yes. We have these back clips here. Perfect.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Preparing their kayaks so they can spend time in this outdoor classroom.

  • MAN:

    Good job, guys. Way to go.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    And though you may not notice at first, all of them are students with autism.

  • DANIEL HERNANDEZ, Student:

    We grab a boat. We put them right in the water. We get the paddles, the seats. We set them up.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    It didn't take long for 16-year-old Daniel Hernandez to become a seasoned kayaker.

  • DANIEL HERNANDEZ:

    I like kayaking because it makes me feel happy and fun.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Daniel and his classmates, including 19-year old Demetrius Sesler have also learned the basics of sailing.

  • WOMAN:

    Demetrius, can you reach that yellow line in the front of you at the front of the boat, the bowline? All the way in the front. Yes. Great. Just hand it to me.

  • MAN:

    When I got on a sailboat for the first time, I was — I was excited. And that was — and that was the same when I first got on a kayak. It was fun. It was fun.

  • ANNIE PEREZ, American Senior High School:

    Students with autism love water. It's relaxing. So the kayaking, that repetitive thing, that same thing, they really enjoy it.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Annie Perez teaches physical education at American Senior High. While all her students have the opportunity to try activities like kayaking and sailing, she says the experiences are particularly important for her students with disabilities.

  • ANNIE PEREZ:

    Their self-esteem becomes more evident in a positive way. Their physical ability improves. Just seeing the pleasure they get. And they can achieve it. It just takes a little longer than others.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    It's been well-documented in recent years that many Americans are exercising less, and more are becoming overweight or even obese.

    But what's often overlooked is that children with disabilities are far less likely to be physically active and nearly 40 percent more likely to be obese than children without disabilities. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while many schools are cutting P.E. to make way for more time for reading and math, the push toward physical education that kids both want to participate in and P.E. that's fully adapted to suit children of all abilities has been a work in progress at Miami-Dade public schools for years.

    The woman who was behind the assault on inactivity is Jayne Greenberg.

    JAYNE GREENBERG, District Director of Physical Education and Health Literacy , Miami-Dade County Public Schools: They have told us they want activities that they can do for their lifetime. So sailing, kayaking — last year, we added paddleboarding. We started giving the kids what they wanted, and now we have so many students signing for physical education, we're actually turning them away.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Greenberg is in charge of the district's physical education and health literacy programs and serves on the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. She and her staff have been breaking down the barriers to often inaccessible facilities and equipment for kids with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities.

  • JAYNE GREENBERG:

    We don't say which students get some opportunities and which ones are left behind. Those days are way over.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Federal law requires equal access to P.E. But the Government Accounting Office has found that, nationwide, their opportunities for physical activity are often limited. That's not the case in Miami-Dade schools, where equipment is often modified, like this sailboat with controls similar to that on a motorized wheelchair.

    Greenberg says she was inspired to make these kinds of changes after an incident early in her teaching career.

  • JAYNE GREENBERG:

    I took classes in adaptive physical education, but when I had a student in a wheelchair, I had really no idea how to get that student involved in the soccer game. So the student literally sat on the court keeping score. And I swore to myself back then that would never happen again.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    But kayaks, modified sailboats, and even transportation can be expensive, like these specialized lift buses that are bring students from South Miami Senior High School to the International Links Golf Course.

  • JAYNE GREENBERG:

    We needed lift buses. Will cost me today about $600 to get the students here. But if you ask me is that $600 well spent, you better believe it.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    So, with no extra funding for these programs, Greenberg went looking for grants to help cover a variety of costs and found community partners willing to share their time and talent in her own backyard.

  • JAYNE GREENBERG:

    When our kids come out and they leave the school setting and they are in a community setting they don't feel like they are alone, they don't feel like they are different.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Greenberg found that, after she made her pitch, groups stepped up to the plate, including Oleta River State Park, some of Miami's professional sports teams, and the Dade Amateur Golf Association's First Tee program.

  • MAN:

    I want everybody to try hard.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    The First Tee's professionals like Mario Avello offer their expertise to aspiring golfers, many of whom never before had the opportunity to play, including Marilyn Carrera.

  • STUDENT:

    I like golf.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    Javier Salermo.

  • STUDENT:

    I hit a bullseye.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    And Juan Colindres.

    The first tee's executive director, Charlie DeLucca, says he's seen how people often underestimate what students with disabilities can do.

  • CHARLIE DELUCCA, Executive Director, The First Tee Miami:

    They want to work. They don't want to just sit around and do nothing. And, you know, not — only they can do jobs. They do great jobs. They can use a computer much better than I can use a computer. You ask these kids to do something, they do it. And you can't stop them from doing it.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    And that motivation and confidence, says Greenberg, are only two of the benefits of giving children with disabilities these kinds of opportunities.

  • JAYNE GREENBERG:

    We know that there is a great correlation now, scientifically, evidence-based, that the more physically active students are, the more they improve academically. Their academic performance will improve. But we have also seen great strides in fitness levels with our students with disabilities.

  • APRIL BROWN:

    The P.E. days out kayaking, sailing or hitting the links don't happen every day. Students also have a variety of activities they do at school, and they will often do them with their peers who don't have disabilities. But according to Greenberg, the value of having these kids try sports and other forms of exercise many might think they couldn't do is priceless.

  • JAYNE GREENBERG:

    You can't buy that type of experience.

    So many of our kids are nonverbal that you just have to look at them and smile and see their smile back or their excitement when they can do something. The things we take for granted, tapping a golf ball with a club with so little effort, is just so incredibly important to the students that when, they finally connect, it's like they have won a gold medal.

  • MAN:

    Look at that. Good job.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

    You can see more about how children with autism are learning to kayak on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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