In most states physical education is part of the standard school-age curriculum. In North Carolina, all students in kindergarten through 8th grade have physical education at least once per week, with daily opportunity for other outside activity. Students who have disabilities are also expected to participate in some form of physical education.
Some students have disabilities that require some accommodations in order for them to successfully participate in a typical physical education (PE) class. Other students require specially designed physical education, based on the unique needs associated with their disability. If the student has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) the goals for special physical education (sometimes called “Adapted PE”) will be determined by the IEP team, just like goals for other academic or functional skills. Needed accommodations for physical education will also be documented on the IEP or Section 504 Accommodation Plan.
While this seems pretty straight-forward, there are a couple of specific situations that were unclear enough that guidance was sought from the U.S. Department of Education. In both cases, the children involved were at an age or grade where physical education was not an automatic part of the regular education program for students without disabilities.
Most high school students are only required to take one physical education class in order to meet graduation requirements. The high school may offer additional PE classes as electives, but those classes are not required. In most public preschool programs the children will usually have the opportunity for play and outdoor activity, but it is not part of a structured physical education program.
Does this mean that school systems do not have to provide physical education services for students who have disabilities in preschool, or after the PE graduation requirement has been met? As with most things having to do with students who have disabilities, the short answer to that question is, “it depends.”
The U.S. Department of Education issued two letters in 2013 which clearly made the point that, if a student with a disability has an IEP that calls for specially designed physical education as a way to meet their unique needs, the school system must provide that service, either directly or through another public or private program. The letters further clarify that, in this situation, the right to a free appropriate public education, in conformity with the IEP, would include special physical education regardless of the location where most of the student’s services are delivered. Even students who participate in a community-based transition program would be entitled to special physical education services if it is listed on their IEP.
Ultimately, the decision about whether a student with a disability requires specially-designed physical education rests with the IEP team. The IEP team is also responsible for determining the accommodations that will allow a student with a disability to participate successfully in a PE elective course, whether that course is taken out of interest or as a way to maintain an adequate degree of fitness. The school district’s responsibility is to implement the IEP. It’s really not that complicated after all.