Jessica Dellitalia says she didn’t expect to learn very much when she enrolled in her PE 450 Physical Activity Programming for Individuals with Disabilities course this past spring.
Dellitalia, now 24, had worked with individual with disabilities at The Lakeshore Foundation since she was 15 years old.
|UAB student Danya Barsalona (right) helps Lucy Bass work out on a Nautilus machine in the Bell Wallace Gymnasium as part of the PE 450 Physical Activity Programming for Individuals with Disabilities course.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to learn that I didn’t already know — that’s my honest opinion,” Dellitalia says. “But I learned so much. I learned about people with cerebral palsy and deafness, and I didn’t know a lot about those things. But I also learned that I knew people with disabilities, but I didn’t know much about their diagnosis and what physically comes with that.”
Dellitalia and five classmates learned these things by working one-on-one with developmentally challenged young adults through a service-learning partnership course between the School of Education and Triumph Services Inc., a 501(c)3, nonprofit organization that exists to provide community-based support to individuals with developmental disabilities who are trying to live independently.
Associate Professor of Education Kristi Menear, Ph.D., developed the elective course a few years ago because she believed fitness leadership and exercise-science majors needed exposure to individuals with disabilities. She restructured the course along with Triumph Executive Director Brooke Stephens this past summer after they met at an open house event that Triumph hosted.
In the previous course version, Menear placed students in volunteer positions at Special Olympics, The Lakeshore Foundation and Hoover Parks & Rec-reation, but she was concerned that the students were observing more than interacting in those situations. When Stephens told her how hard it was for Triumph to find physical activities to engage participants, Menear knew she had found the local partner she needed to proivde students hands-on learning and instruction.
“It was music to my ears when Brooke said she needed to find trainers who are comfortable working with individuals with disabilities,” Menear says. “That was exactly the partnership I needed, and it was exactly the type of environment our students needed. It was the perfect partnership, and it let me supervise our fitness leadership and exercise science students as they learned on the job.”
The purpose of the PE 450 course is to provide students with knowledge and skills needed to meet the unique fitness and physical activity needs of individuals with various disabilities.
Through class discussions, course assignments, observation and the service-learning experience, students learned to design and implement personal training and fitness programs and disability or sports recreation programs for individuals with disabilities based on assessments of health-related strengths and needs.
“I learned quickly that I was apprehensive about putting together an appropriate workout,” Dellitalia says. “I never had done that; before, I primarily did recreation activities with people with disabilities. But Dr. Menear taught us to design, implement and modify physical activities and activities of daily living in order to maximize someone’s participation in physical activities. She really helped ease my mind, and I think the forms and tools she gave us are things I definitely can use later when I’m working with people with disabilities as my job.”
Menear says a big part of the idea behind the course was to help students develop an enhanced appreciation of the community issues and needs when it comes to serving those with disabilities. She also wanted to increase their involvement in community affairs and their understanding of how the knowledge, skills and abilities learned in the course apply to everyday life.
Stephens believes the course did all of those things and more. Dellitalia was the only student of the six in the class who had any experience interacting with persons who have developmental disabilities, so the course challenged students to step outside of their comfort zone and learn the gifts and strengths their partners possessed.
“The idea of a disability can make many people nervous, and many of Kristi’s students were nervous in the beginning,” Stephens says. “At the end of the course one student after another said, ‘I did not even see the disability. I found a friend.’ To me that is the biggest deal. We’re giving our participants healthier lifestyles because of this collaboration, but we also have six students who are going to take this experience wherever they go and know that it’s not scary and that these individuals are remarkable. The disability is the least of the issues. They are really neat, wonderful people. To be able to have taught that to these young undergrads is a huge result of the project, I think.”
Students met with Menear once a week for the first part of the course to learn how to make the connection between what they already knew about fitness programs and exercise and physiology and apply it to individuals with disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy to autism spectrum disorders to visual impairments to other developmental disabilities.
Students met their Triumph partner at the end of the first half of the course, and spent 90 minutes, one day per week for the remainder of the course working one-on-one with them in Bell Wallace Gymnasium. Menear supervised the on-the-job training for the students, which included a group closing activity at the end of each class. Each week, one of the students had to take the leadership of the group activity.
“This course can prepare students in a number of ways, including positive advocacy,” Menear says. “The students saw the abilities of their partners rather than the disabilities as they went through the six weeks. It also provided them the opportunity to apply what they learned in several courses, and then write thoughtful weekly reflections of their experiences. The combination of application and subsequent reflection moved their learning into meta-cognition. Now, they have experience to fall back on versus information that they memorized in the short term for a test they had to take.”
The course now will be required for all fitness leadership majors and an approved elective for exercise-science majors. Fitness-leadership majors generally become personal trainers and exercise-science majors pursue physical and occupational therapist positions or continue training in graduate and medical school.
Menear says the course could not provide the type of instruction necessary if not for Triumph’s partnership. Triumph was founded by Stephens in 2007 and started with 16 adults. It is now serving more than 70 adults in the Birmingham community, giving their partners life coaching, helping them find and keep jobs, providing a weekly social group and individual and group therapy to address any anxiety or depression a person might have.
“We provide whatever supports are necessary for adults to live and work independently in the Birmingham area,” Stephens says. “One of our biggest goals is to change stereotypes that surround disabilities. We want to teach people through social activities and job matches that these folks are remarkable and can add a lot to their life if given the chance.”
For more information on Triumph support services, visit www.triumphservices.org.