WAYNE, N.J. (AP) - Mikey is a big, strapping 19-year-old who can pound a punching bag, but is also nimble enough to skip rope without missing a beat. He has a learning disability, but give him a command to throw a left hook or a right jab, and Mikey follows like a champion boxer.
Adriana cannot verbalize and needs a walker to get around, but she’s a bright student who works out regularly. On top of that, she skis.
With the help of an innovative physical education class at William Paterson University, Mikey and Adriana are getting good workouts and living healthier, more integrated lives. Both are students at Wayne Hills High School, and twice a week they come to the William Paterson campus for the kind of specialized, one-on-one instruction that can make a huge difference in the lives of people with disabilities.
Students who might have trouble walking - or talking - are at an obvious disadvantage in mainstream gym classes, where the emphasis is on physical activity. The student who for whatever reason isn’t limber or can’t communicate invariably will feel left out.
“They exist in kind of a bubble,” Dr. Mike Laughlin told The Record (https://njersy.co/2nUnW8R). He’s a physical education professor who directs the Young Adult Transition Program, which was founded two years ago.
Special needs students are frequently older than their peers in traditional high school settings, and that tends to isolate them even more, Laughlin said.
The program pairs these students, ranging in age from 18 to 21, with physical education students from William Paterson who are closer to their age group. “Being around their more typical peers is a big part of this,” Laughlin said. “The socialization aspect is very important.”
The ultimate goal is for these special-needs students to create lasting friendships, and break through the isolation that afflicts so many people with disabilities. “The hope is that one day, a student will be in ShopRite and see someone they know from William Paterson,” said Mike Reinknecht, the director of student support services for the Wayne school district.
Twice a week, a bus arrives on the William Paterson campus with seven students from the Wayne public schools. Each special needs student has an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) that describes his or her disability and the strategy to deal with it. For an hour, the students work out with phys ed or exercise science majors who provide the one-on-one instruction - and inspiration.
During a recent session, WPU students Chris Seely and John Borges took Mikey through his workout, first lifting dumbbells with him in the weight room, then holding the punching bag as the kid pounded the leather. “Left. Right. Left. Right,” Seely commanded. There were high fives all around as Mikey finished, his hands raised over his head as if he’d just knocked another fighter out.
Then it was on to skipping rope, with the three men jumping in unison. Except for a brief pause to catch his breath, Mikey was clearly pumped.
“I hope he walks away from this saying, ‘I want to go to the gym’ or ‘I want go jogging,’ ” Borges said.
Meanwhile, on the basketball court upstairs, Adriana’s team was lifting her out of wheelchair and into a walker. They set up a series of orange cones and plastic hoops on the basketball court. It was Adriana’s task to maneuver her walker and pluck off a plastic object atop each cone. Then she picked the plastic hoops off the floor.
The point of the exercise, Laughlin said, was to improve Adriana’s manual dexterity. Improving her ability to reach for and grasp objects would be a big help to her, a practical skill that could improve her life immeasurably, he said. From there, Adriana hit the weight room, using a machine to do leg presses, and to strengthen her abdominal core.
At the back of the gym stood Taylor Iraggi, a WPU student who has been working with the program since it began. Iraggi said she found her calling working with people with disabilities.
“There were some students who could not walk a straight line when they got here,” she said. “But I’ve seen them improve. I’ve seen them not get discouraged. They are like family.”
Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), https://www.northjersey.com
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