DULUTH, Minn. — A few years ago when Duluth Public Schools was looking to fill a teaching position for developmental adaptive physical education, Leigh Ann Viche, a Duluth teacher in the field, said the district struggled to find someone licensed in that area of physical education.

“There were no (developmental adaptive physical education-certified) people who applied, but then they reposted it and they finally got people,” Viche said. “We were really lucky. We got two really high-quality people, but they were both moving back to the area from out of town. So there really wasn’t anybody in our area.”

University of Minnesota Duluth Assistant Professor Daehyoung Lee is now part of the effort to increase the number of local physical education teachers who are also licensed to teach students with developmental and physical disabilities. The federal government mandates that all public schools offer the option to students with disabilities, but it doesn’t require teachers to become certified in the area in order to do so.

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“It’s possible you can teach (developmental adaptive physical education) without a license, but the problem is there’s a lack of teachers who are really qualified to teach,” Lee said.

Of the 21 colleges in Minnesota that offer physical education degrees, only six of them offer developmental adaptive physical education minors.

UMD hired Lee to develop the minor so that the university’s physical education students can also receive licensure to teach students with special needs. UMD began offering the minor again this semester after the program ended roughly 30 years ago.

Lee said that while students studying physical education are the only ones who can qualify for the add-on licensure, he’s hoping to open the courses up to everyone.

“I’m trying to open my door to our pre-physical therapy, occupational therapy and special education teachers,” Lee said. “They still have to understand what kinds of disability-related challenges these students have.”

A big part of the curriculum is learning about medical conditions common among people with disabilities. For example, Lee said, roughly a quarter of people with Down syndrome have a condition called atlantoaxial instability.

“If they have pressure on their neck, then what’s going to happen is spinal cord injury. A lot of teachers aren’t aware of that condition,” he said. “So if you do not know about that information you can actually find a lot of troubles.”

In addition to teaching how to prevent harm when teaching physical education to students with disabilities, the program seeks to make physical activity accessible and attainable to all people throughout their lifetime.

Teaching lifelong physical activity habits to those with disabilities while they’re still in school is especially important because of the lack of community-based programs for adults that are centered on physical and social activity, Lee said.

“This population is largely isolated from our society,” he said.

Adults with disabilities are nearly 12% more likely to have obesity and 9% more likely to have diabetes than adults without disabilities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Before becoming involved in a more catered form of physical activity, Lee was studying exercise science in college and had a strong background in taekwondo. Then when he was about 22 years old he met who would become his sister-in-law.

“She has a very severe disability,” Lee said. “Looking at her, experiencing the family struggles as she grows up I felt maybe I can kind of shift my career path, maybe I can use my talents, my exercise background for this population.”

There are a variety of ways to teach developmental adaptive physical education in schools. In Duluth, special education students are integrated as much as possible in the general physical education classes. Meanwhile, other parts of the state and nation are just starting to unify adaptive and general physical education classes.

“We’ve realized the importance of having kids together,” said Viche, the Duluth teacher. “Kids are kids. They need to be with other kids. Kids with special needs learn from their general education peers and kids in general education learn from their special needs peers.”

Kay Oling was a developmental adaptive physical education teacher for Duluth Public Schools for more than 30 years before retiring recently. She’s still involved in the field while serving as the region’s representative for a statewide leadership committee.

“I loved it. It was something I enjoyed,” Oling said of teaching. “I like the challenge of all the different disability groups. How can you get them to be more active? What do they need equipment wise?”

She said she always had duct tape and PVC pipe on hand for making adaptations to equipment. To this day, her garage is still filled with equipment she made over the years.

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