12 minute read

Adapted Physical Education

The IDEA Mandates, Trends and Issues, Training

Adapted physical education (APE) is specially designed instruction in physical education intended to address the unique needs of individuals. While the roots of adapted physical education can be traced back to Swedish medical gymnastics in the 1700s, adapted physical education, as practiced today, has been significantly shaped by the mandates of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This act, enacted in 1997, amended the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which was enacted in 1975 and stipulated that all children with disabilities had a right to special education.

The IDEA Mandates

Specifically, IDEA defined special education as "specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents or guardians, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including–(A) instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals, and institutions, and in other settings; and (B) instruction in physical education." The inclusion of physical education in the definition of special education is significant for two reasons. First, it identified physical education as a direct service that must be provided to all students who qualify for special education services as opposed to related services, such as physical or occupational therapy, that are required only when they are needed for a child to benefit from a special education service. Second, it highlighted the importance of physical education for students with disabilities.

IDEA also defined physical education, mandated that all special education services be delivered in the least restrictive environment (LRE), and prescribed a management document called an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Physical education was defined as "the development of: (A) physical and motor fitness; (B) fundamental motor skills and patterns; and (C) skills in aquatics, dance, and individual and group games and sports (including intramural and lifetime sports." IDEA further delineated that "physical education services, specially designed if necessary, must be made available to every handicapped child receiving a free appropriate public education" and that "if specially designed physical education is prescribed in a child's individualized education program, the public agency responsible for the education of that child shall provide the service directly, or make arrangements for it to be provided through other public or private programs."

With respect to LRE, IDEA stated the following: "To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including those in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who do not have disabilities; and … special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature and severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes cannot be achieved satisfactorily."

To ensure that IDEA was implemented as intended, the act required that IEPs must be developed and monitored for all students who qualify for special education. The IEP is developed by a team and includes the student's present level of performance; annual goals and short-term instructional objectives; specific educational services that will be provided and the extent to which the student will participate in regular education programs; any needed transition services; the projected dates for the initiation and duration of services; and objective criteria and procedures for evaluating, at least annually, progress on the stated goals and instructional objectives.

Finally, IDEA mandated that qualified personnel deliver special education instruction. In this context, "qualified" meant that a person has "met State educational agency approved or recognized certification, licensing, registration, or other comparable requirements which apply to the area in which he or she is providing special education or related services."

In summary, the legal basis for adapted physical education results from the mandates that require that all students who qualify for special education must receive physical education. If specially designed physical education is required, then these services must be stated in the IEP, delivered in the LRE, and provided by a qualified teacher.

It is important to note that while IDEA requires that all students who qualify for special education have a right to adapted physical education if needed to address their unique needs, adapted physical education is, can, and should be provided to all students who have unique physical and motor needs that cannot be adequately addressed in the regular physical education program. It is not uncommon, for example, for many students to have temporary orthopedic disabilities such as sprained ankles, broken limbs, or muscle strains during their school years. Short-term APE programs would be appropriate for these students both to assist in the rehabilitation of their injuries and to minimize any fitness and/or skill deficits that may occur during their recovery. Other students may have mild physical or health impairments, such as asthma or diabetes, that do not interfere with their educational performance enough to qualify them for special education but that are severe enough to warrant special accommodations and considerations in physical education.

In the United States physical education and most major sport/recreation programs for youth are school centered, hence the emphasis on education in the terms physical education and adapted physical education. In other countries, physical education, recreation, and sport are commonly conducted independent or outside of the schools and sponsored by other organizations and agencies. In these settings, the term adapted physical activity may be used instead of adapted physical education.

Trends and Issues

Although IDEA has provided a sound legal basis for adapted physical education, there are still a number of issues that need to be resolved by the profession to ensure that the physical and motor needs of all students with disabilities are appropriately addressed. Two major issues relate to who is qualified to provide APE services and how decisions are made regarding the appropriate physical education placement for students with disabilities.

Who is qualified? While IDEA specified that physical education services, specially designed if necessary, must be made available to every child with a disability receiving a free appropriate education, it stopped short of defining who was qualified to provide these services. IDEA stated that it was the responsibility of the states to establish teacher certification requirements. Unlike other special education areas (e.g., teachers of individuals with mental retardation or learning disabilities), most states did not have in place defined certification requirements for teachers of adapted physical education. Given the fiscal constraints placed on schools by the mandates of IDEA, most states were reluctant to place additional demands on their schools by forcing them to hire APE specialists. As a result, by 1991 only fourteen states had actually defined an endorsement or certification in adapted physical education.

The existence of a mandate that required that services be provided but that did not define who was qualified to provide these services created a dilemma for both teachers and students. In many cases, regular physical educators with little or no training related to individuals with disabilities and/or therapists with no training in physical education were assigned the responsibility of addressing the physical education needs of students with disabilities. Since these teachers do not have the prerequisite skills to address the needs of these students, these needs are largely going unaddressed. To respond to this situation, the National Consortium for Physical Education and Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities (NCPERID) created national standards and a voluntary national certification exam for adapted physical education. The adapted physical education national standards (APENS) delineate the content that adapted physical educators should know across fifteen standards. The national exam has been administered annually since 1997 at more than eighty test sites in the United States.

While the creation of the APE national standards and the national certification exam have been significant steps toward addressing the issue of who is qualified to teach APE, much more work still needs to be done. The NCPERID is working with a small number of states on developing a process through which states can adopt the NCPERID APE standards and APE national certification exam as their state credential. It is hoped that a uniform certification similar to the APENS exam will be adopted by all states by 2010, and this issue will be resolved.

How are placement decisions made? The intent of defining physical education as a direct service, specially designed if necessary, in IDEA was to ensure that the physical and motor development needs of these students were not ignored or sacrificed at the expense of addressing other educational needs. This emphasis was warranted given the extensive research documenting marked physical and motor development delays and increased health risks (e.g., coronary heart disease and obesity) in many children with disabilities. There is also a wealth of research that has shown that well-designed and implemented physical education programs can reduce both physical and motor delays and many health risks in students with disabilities. While the intent of the law was clear, how it has been implemented has been less then optimal.

What has happened in many schools is that the majority, if not all, of the students with disabilities are being dumped into regular physical education classes. The justification for this practice can be linked to a number of subissues. First, like many other problems in the schools, most schools were not provided with sufficient resources to implement the mandates of IDEA. Given the need to comply with legal mandates and limited resources, many schools were forced to look for ways to meet the letter of the law using their existing resources. Two particular mandates shaped this behavior. First, part of the LRE mandate stated that students with disabilities be educated in the regular education environments to the maximum extent appropriate. Second, the IEP mandates required only that specially designed services be defined and monitored in the IEP. Many schools therefore deduced that if they put all the students with disabilities in regular physical education, then they would be addressing part of the LRE mandate and at the same time avoiding the additional time, effort, and costs related to actually creating specially designed physical education programs. Fiscally this solution was very attractive given that most schools lacked qualified personnel who were trained to assess the physical and motor needs of students with disabilities and who could make appropriate decisions regarding what would be the most appropriate (LRE) physical education environment in which to address their needs.

Ideally, this practice would have been identified and stopped during the early years of implementing the law via the required state and federal monitoring procedures. Unfortunately, it was not for a number of reasons. One of the reasons was that the IEP document was used as the primary monitoring document. Because physical education was not identified as a needed specially designed service, it was not monitored. In the rare cases in which parents understood their rights and demanded specially designed physical education to meet the unique needs of their child, schools tended to handle these requests on an individual basis and subcontract to have these services delivered.

The approach to stopping the practice of placing all students with special needs in regular physical education must be multifaceted. The ideal solution would be simply for schools to hire qualified adapted physical educators as intended by the law. This solution, however, is not as simple as it may initially appear. First, schools would have to recognize that their current physical education placement practices were wrong and then be motivated to make a change. In many schools these practices have gone on unquestioned for more than twenty years. In addition, there are no new fiscal resources to hire the additional teachers needed to correct this problem. To obtain additional public monies to fund these positions, schools would have to explain why these new teachers were needed and why they had not provided these appropriate services in the past.

Resolving the problem of inappropriate placement of students with disabilities into regular physical education is important not only for the students with disabilities but also for the regular education students and the regular physical education teachers. Research in the field has repeatedly shown that many regular physical educators feel unprepared to address the needs of students with disabilities and that trying to accommodate the needs of these students has a negative impact on all the students in their classes.

Recognizing the dilemma schools face in resolving this problem, the issue is being addressed at two levels. The first level is to educate schools and state departments of education about this problem and recommend that they develop both long-and short-term solutions. An example of a long-term solution would be to require schools to hire certified adapted physical educators as replacements when existing physical educators retire or leave for other positions. An example of a short-term solution would be to use in-service training programs for school administrators and regular physical educators. These programs would focus on educating them on what is appropriate physical education and then providing them with some of the fundamental skills needed to offer a continuum of alternative placements in physical education as intended by the LRE requirements. The second level is to educate parents via the various parent advocacy organizations regarding their rights and what should be involved in making an appropriate placement decision in relation to physical education. This information would allow parents to make more informed decisions and to advocate for appropriate physical education services for their children.


Through competitive grant provisions associated with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and subsequently IDEA, a number of colleges and universities have developed pre-service adapted physical education teacher-training programs. Because adapted physical education training builds upon the traditional teacher training in physical education, most adapted physical education training occurs at the master's level. Most undergraduate physical education teacher preparation programs now include at least one APE course as part of their required curriculum. In recent years, many regular physical education teacher-training programs have also started to offer three-to twelve-credit emphases or minor areas of study in adapted physical education as part of their undergraduate programs. These emphasis areas typically are composed of one to three theory courses and one to two practical experiences where the students can apply their APE course work.


Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. U.S. Public Law 94-142. U.S. Code. Vol. 20, secs. 1401 et seq.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997. U.S. Public Law 105-17. U.S. Code. Vol. 20, secs. 1400 et seq.

KELLY, LUKE E., ed. 1995. Adapted Physical Education National Standards. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

RIMMER, JAMES H. 1994. Fitness and Rehabilitation Programs for Special Populations. Dubuque, IA: Brown and Benchmark.

SHERRILL, CLAUDINE. 1998. Adapted Physical Activity, Recreation, and Sport: Crossdisciplinary and Lifespan, 5th edition. Dubuque, IA: MCB/McGraw-Hill.

WINNICK, JOSEPH P., ed. 2000. Adapted Physical Education and Sport, 3rd edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION FOR ADAPTED PHYSICAL ACTIVITY. 2002. <www.per.ualberta.ca/rhc/IFAPA/mainframe.htm>.



SPORTIME. 2002. "Adapt-talk." <www.lyris.sportime.com/>.

TEXAS WOMAN'S UNIVERSITY. 2002. "Adapted Physical Education National Standards." <www.twu.edu/APENS>.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)