Feature Article - February 2016
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Better Together

Inclusion Strategies for All Facilities

By Joe Bush

Fit for All

The fuel for Nate Hendrickson's efforts in adaptive physical education is a sister with cerebral palsy. Hendrickson, the operations director for TNT Kids Fitness and Gymnastics in Fargo, N.D., is heavily involved with the nonprofit's inclusive programming, hired specifically for its adaptive business.

In an attempt to differentiate itself from a nearby competitor, the facility decided to use its space to help people with disabilities. Hendrickson said without modifications, a gymnastics area is a natural for adaptive activity because of its different tactile sensations and fixtures for multiple types of movement.

"I believe what gymnastics facilities offer individuals with special needs along with the able-bodied is it is the woods that the human body is genetically inclined to move through," he said. "Up, down, over, around and through. You have to navigate certain textures and surfaces.

"Individuals with special needs have very limited opportunities to move in those dynamic ways; many are asked to walk down a hallway, standing upright, or in wheelchairs for 80 percent of their day. In our facility, the spring floor gives them a little jump. There's core balance work. Bars for hanging and grasping. Balance beams of different widths. The more we can get kids to push and pull and land on things, there's more opportunities for communication between the body and the brain."

TNT has an occupational therapist on staff, and through collaboration with United Way, which helps fund the program, partners with 21 different schools. He said 28 different classrooms visit for a total of 173 different individuals per week for programming. Autism is the most prevalent disability, he said, followed by emotional behavior disorders. There's also students with cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome, and Tourette's syndrome.

Hendrickson believes the programming should take a multi-dimensional approach.

"Physical therapy, occupational therapy, mental-emotional health, speech and language pathology, special education," he said. "You have to have a holistic approach, interpret and understand that when you connect all those dots you're more likely to interpret and understand than judge and label."

The last part is important when it comes to training existing staff to help with the adaptive programming, he said. TNT is helping another facility adopt its model of staff training, Hendrickson said. It also opens its doors to local students of occupational and physical therapy programs.

"Investing in staff is sending them to training, allowing them to become educated so they are able to take on the challenge of it," he said. "Are they passionate about it? Do they want to make a difference? If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. If you've met one person with cerebral palsy, you've met one person with cerebral palsy. They're all so different to a certain degree. They all fall in those categories of learning. You have to understand yourself, your programming."

It's such a positive, everyone-cheering-for-one-another atmosphere, by the end of the day, everybody has a great feeling of we're doing something positive here.

Hendrickson said TNT does have some equipment modifications, such as wider footholds and handholds, as well as specialized swimming equipment for adaptive activities. For example, for swimmers, a judging platform features 20 high-intensity, calibrated LEDs on the leading edge to provide a visual cue that is simultaneous with the audible start horn at the beginning of each race. This allows athletes with hearing disabilities a start that is equal to that of the other athletes.

According to Anne-Marie Spencer, vice president of marketing and communications for the manufacturer that provided much of TNT's adaptive equipment, the product was designed and developed by a research and development team in response to customer feedback and the knowledge that there are several hearing-impaired athletes at all levels of competition participating in non-segregated swimming meets.

Luke Day, assistant director for aquatic events and operations at University of Minnesota Recreation and Wellness, has used the system for Paralympics events. He also has tweaked the system, putting extra strobe lighting in just the lane or lanes of the hearing-impaired athlete.

Day said any and all accommodations are worth it in a soul-stirring way. He remembered doing exit interviews with staff who had experienced hosting NCAA Championships in 2011 and Paralympic events.

"I ask their highlights and lowlights," he said. "Both said their favorite event was the 2013 U.S. Paralympics Spring Swimming Nationals. The feel at that event is so different. It's such a positive, everyone-cheering-for-one-another atmosphere, by the end of the day, everybody has a great feeling of we're doing something positive here.

This is beyond one athlete vs. another athlete. Those athletes are competing against each other but they're also competing with each other, and everybody is supporting one another."