Back in 2011, I was walking to get my lunch and passed a young child whose face creased, turned into a scowl, and then the unmistakable question mark appeared. I caught the once over stare as they pulled on their caregiver’s sleeve. I kept walking and heard the audible question; “Why does that lady walk like that?”
The woman tried to quiet the child and move them along. As the distance grew between us; I heard the child’s fading question – “But why does she walk like that and use the sticks?”
The “Why does she walk like that?” or “Why does she do that?” question is an inquiry that I have grown to expect since I have Spastic Cerebral Palsy (CP). Between the ages of 10 and 13, I received the same types of stares and reactions from my classmates. My job was to make my peers see me beyond the walking devices.
The concept of inclusion (age appropriate participation with peers) is a concept that been grandfathered into schools and the community over the last several years. I had the fortune of being included before inclusion was a trend.
During my middle school and high school years, I took part in “regular” physical education classes with my peers. I was involved in almost every skill drill, game, and other activity. I never allowed myself to be separated or pulled aside.
Adaptions were introduced only when they were needed. This often translated into a student shadowing me in volleyball or other similar game so that I would not get hit in the face with the ball because I had one hand occupied. I needed to have at least one crutch to maintain balance.
The middle school I attended a ten-week “Project Adventure” course each year. “Project Adventure began as an adventure-based physical education program at a high school in Massachusetts in 1971.” [i]
In 1986, the program was introduced in the middle school I attended. I along with 25 other students in the class learned how to use a belay to ensure a safe and controlled descent in a climb. We learned about tying various climbing knots such as the single loop and double loop knot, and other needed components for a novice climb.
Once mastery of the belay and various knots were achieved, we were challenged to climb a rock wall which then advanced to climbing and descending a second story building. The presented “Building Challenge” included a climb to the top of the school building and then jumping to descend down a zip line.
Outfitted in helmets and our climbing gear, each student proceeded to climb a ladder to end up approximately 20 feet off the ground. Before the climb would proceed, students were reminded of their “full value contract” and of the “Challenge by Choice” principle. [ii]
Each student verbally agreed to a contract which outlined expected behavior and the general values of Project Adventure including choice, teamwork, support, respect, and positive reinforcement. Specific rules and verbal cues for the climb were reviewed and students began the ascent.
My turn came to climb. The most difficult aspect of the challenge for me was going to be the ascent to get to the top of the building. The stiffness in my legs from the CP would make it difficult to climb the ladder steps. My knees would not bend enough for my feet to land directly on the ladder step. Knowing about my flexibility challenges, one of my physical education teachers was poised on the ladder behind me. I would use my upper body strength to lift myself as far and as high as I could and the teacher would manually assist me to raise my legs higher and place my feet on the steps.
I needed the physical assistance to make it to the top. Prior to the climb, my classmates asked “Why is she doing this?” The Teacher’s reply back was, “This is about choice and support.” Students were reminded about their contract and about the “Challenge Model”. The premise of the model is that a student is willing to push beyond their perceived limit in a safe way.
In our Project Adventure contract, students agreed to:
1. Adhere to safety rules and guidelines as delineated by the teacher;
2. Engage in positive behavior, leadership, and sportsmanship; and
3. Engage in “Challenge by Choice”, that is, the participant choses if they will take part in an activity and challenge and how much they will take part in an activity. [iii]
The Challenge by Choice principle underscored my experience with Project Adventure. As I jumped off the second story building and began to glide down the zip line, I felt like I was flying because I had accomplished what I had set out to do.
After more than 20 years, I still say this school-based program enhanced the development of my self-belief that I could take part in anything. It enhanced my personal autonomy and decision-making. I made the choice to conquer an obstacle and the choice to climb the ladder and jump become much more than the task.
The program also gave me another unique setting to fully participate with my peers. My Physical Education teachers recognized my desire to be included. They orchestrated the strategy to include me. I just needed manual support to assist me to bridge the distance between the ladder rungs and where my legs would land.
This article were originally published in 2011 in the “Endless CapABILITIES Blog”, and National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, sponsored by The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (www.nchpad.org). NCHPAD is part of the UAB/Lakeshore Research Collaborative and supported by Grant/Cooperative Agreement Number U59DD000906 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).