By Catherine Twing
CASTLETON — Sixteen-year-old Joan bursts 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 University 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 Corey 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 adaptive physical education class, which gives Castleton students — including future teachers — 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 the class seven years ago, it consisted solely of a lecture. He realized students needed the hands-on experience in order to be successful in the field, so he changed the format to two lecture days, and one hands-on class per week.
“I could tell you all about cerebral palsy, or Down syndrome, but you need to work with the students,” he explained.
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 people who have disabilities.
Community members pay $75 to be a part of the class, but it can be adjusted for those who can’t afford the cost. The program also received a $500 in-kind donation from Special Olympics Vermont to purchase modified fitness equipment, Weinberg said.
The participants have a variety of developmental disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
Parents and educators of the participants are supportive of the work Weinberg and his students do.
“I have thought they should have this program for educators for years now,” said Leigh Miles of Rutland, whose daughter, Joan, is a part of the program. “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 that 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 syndrome, each is different, and giving future educators the chance to learn how to adapt to these differences is crucial, Platte said.
“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.
“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 college 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 into the activities, 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 rounded the bases in her wheelchair.
While two Castleton students taught the group how to do the chicken dance, participants did the dance at their own pace, in their own ways. What they had in common was their big smiles. If the dance wasn’t working for them, participants did other activities with Castleton students throughout the gym.
The class mostly works in the gym, but also visits 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.”