Liberty High School teacher leads first unified PE class in Issaquah School District

Unified PE, like unified sports, provides opportunities for students with and without disabilities to learn together and play together through physical activities under the Special Olympics curriculum.

In 2019, Liberty High School included the first unified PE class within the Issaquah School District. The class began with a conversation between one special education teacher and physical education teacher Kelsey Foote.

Unified PE, like unified sports, provides opportunities for students with and without disabilities to learn together and play together through physical activities under the Special Olympics curriculum.

Despite the initial intimidation of this new task, Foote learned how to adapt PE activities with guidance from her colleague, the Special Olympics curriculum, various books and Google searches.

“We also incorporated health curriculum in there because our special education community, those students don’t receive health education unless it is through their special education teacher or speech-language pathologist,” Foote added.

A common misconception, Foote noted, is that unified PE is akin to adapted PE.

“Adapted PE is a PE class specifically for students who have disabilities. General education students don’t really access it, or if they do, their expectation is to help the students,” she said. “That is not what inclusion looks like because they’re not necessarily interacting with their peers equally, you know, being treated the same.”

While rules or equipment may take slight alterations to provide equal access in unified PE, every student is held to the same expectations.

“It really is just like a regular PE class where they’re just playing games and sports and having fun and laughing,” she said. “Also, they’re learning lessons, like hard lessons around relationships or if your team loses.”

As the Issaquah School District moves toward more inclusionary measures, Foote said the goal is to eliminate unified PE classes.

“Ultimately, the goal is for all PE teachers in the district to be able to provide resources so that inclusion is possible in any PE class,” Foote said. “Just like with this unified PE class, it’s going to take some planning and some hard work from every teacher.”

On top of hard work and planning, the historical lack of resources for students with disabilities in the state and country — partially attributed to a lack of funding — creates another barrier to inclusion.

Foote provided an example of a resource barrier she faced this year when a new student with visual impairments joined the unified PE class. Navigating these new adjustments for the student, a staff member pointed Foote to the school district’s vision department, assuring her that the necessary equipment would be available.

However, the inventory of the available equipment surprised her.

“Within the entire district, we have one rattle basketball, one rattle soccer ball and one beeper ball — that’s like a foam ball that has a beeper,” she said of sporting equipment that’s tailored to the visually impaired.

“They want us to have all this inclusion, but yet don’t always provide us with resources and stuff to do it well,” she said. “And that’s why the grant was so important.”

Recently, Foote submitted and was awarded $3,000 from the Issaquah School Foundation, which she utilized to purchase a list of equipment needed: various sports balls with rattles; sports rackets with shorter handles to help with hand-eye coordination; different-sized balls with different densities; and light-up birdies.

“There are lots of kids who aren’t necessarily the most athletically inclined or don’t have great gross motor skills anyway,” she said. “So, this equipment is going to help everyone and anyone.”

Now in her fifth year teaching unified PE, Foote said it can still be difficult to navigate adaptation to games for different students each year, but it’s worth it.

“[The class] has definitely, in a lot of cases, promoted inclusion throughout the school,” she said.

Since the class began, Foote said she has seen connections between students with and without disabilities move from the PE class into clubs, unified sports and at lunchtime.

“If you want to move toward a more inclusive community, not just schools, but whatever community you’re a part of, this is … a stepping stone because we have to first change perceptions,” Foote said.