Inclusive Fitness: Transformative ‘Physical Activity & Disability’ Education

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Associate Professor Phil Esposito, Ph.D., works with his students and a participant in the TCU recreation center during a hands-on learning experience in his “Physical Activity & Disability” course. 

Recognizing the universal benefits of physical activity, regardless of individual abilities, highlights the pressing need for tailored exercises and sports activities for people with disabilities. This necessity is underscored by the observed disparities in physical health between individuals with and without disabilities.

To address these disparities, the “Physical Activity & Disability” course taught by Associate Professor of Professional Practice and Undergraduate Program Director Phil Esposito, Ph.D., seeks to emphasize the motor, fitness and sports needs of persons with disabilities in clinical, therapeutic and community settings.

“Originally, it was a class assigned to me,” explained Esposito. “From there, it’s been an evolution; I’ve pulled in ideas from courses I took as a student, ideas from colleagues who teach similar courses, and focused on creating an experience I would find valuable if I was a student.”

Associate Professor Phil Esposito, Ph.D., engages students during lecture in his “Physical Activity & Disability” course.

The course integrates components from various kinesiology program courses, employing disability as a lens to examine atypical physiology, biomechanics, teaching, sport and society. Esposito places a significant emphasis on the practicum aspect, providing students with hands-on experience interacting with people with disabilities fostering service-learning opportunities and community connections.

Each class begins with a touchstone, a relatable concept to engage students in conceptualizing content.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘What do you know about Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?’ the concept connects differently when I tell students Drake’s producer OVO 40 has MS, and it comes up often in songs.”

By understanding the differences between various conditions and the general population, students explore how exercise and therapies can minimize these differences.

A highlight of the course is the hands-on experience occurring every Friday and Saturday, where students work with individuals with developmental disabilities at the TCU campus recreation center. Partnering with local institutions and health professionals, the course creates a meaningful impact on both students and participants.

Associate Professor Phil Esposito, Ph.D., works with his students and a participant in the TCU recreation center during a hands-on learning experience in his “Physical Activity & Disability” course. 

During these days, students work with the participants one-on-one or in small groups. They spend 30 minutes doing strength training and then 30 minutes doing a cardiovascular exercise.

The course has inspired notable research projects. One student learned during her clinical placement that for every week a baby is born premature, they will experience a month of developmental delay.

“I had not heard that; together we said, let’s see if it’s true,” explains Esposito.

This turned into the student’s senior research project. A project that evolved and was presented at the Combined Sections Meeting of the American Physical Therapy Association, the largest physical therapy conference of the year.

In the age of information accessibility, Esposito’s teaching philosophy centers on developing students’ critical thinking skills, emphasizing that possessing information is insufficient without the ability to use and make sense of it. By openly walking through his thought process in class, he provides a model for students to develop these essential skills.

“I want students to know how to think and how to arrive at solutions by thinking through problems. If students know a few core concepts and how to think critically, they can work through any problem.”