Inclusive Physical Literacy and Intellectual Disability

So far, I have mostly written about physical literacy with regards to a motor disability in this blog. When we think about the limitations to active living that are caused by disabilities, we often think first about physical disability and the physical adaptations that individuals with these disabilities require to get active. This is also my own personal reality. Yet, as part of my volunteer involvement with people with intellectual disabilities in leisure activities, I discovered that physical literacy, although different for people with these unseen disabilities, was just as important.

Sunday Funday at the pool

When I think of Sophie, a young woman with down syndrome with whom I was going to do aquafitness every weekend, it is her happiness and her energy that come to mind first. We had an appointment at the pool very early in the morning, and as soon as I arrived, it was her big smile that welcomed me, with her traditional: “Hi Josée, I am on fire! What about you?” She was always so excited to go in the water.

Sophie had all the physical capacities to practice aquafitness. She was like a fish in the sea, and loved to show me her “dolphin swim”. Part of her physical literacy journey included me as her companion, helping her to understand what movements she needed to do and to keep her focus.

How do we help people with intellectual disabilities develop physical literacy?

When instructions were given in large groups, they were sometimes more difficult for Sophie to understand. I was there to facilitate her understanding. I was beside her, to explain to her what to do when necessary. Sometimes, we moved together, sometimes I was only there to remind her to keep her concentration and listen to the teacher.

As she also tended to lose focus in the face of unexpected events, I was also there to reassure her when something unusual happened.

Sophie liked to talk a lot, and I had to remind her that we would have time to do this in the locker room after the aquafitness, and that when we were in the pool was time to be active.

I was also there to encourage and motivate her in her progress. The benefits of positive reinforcement can not be emphasized enough. But for her confidence, Sophie did not really need me. I think she had received this aspect of physical literacy at an early age She liked to do aquafitness and exercise in the water because she knew she could be good at it, and she would indicate to me when she performed a movement well or when she listened to the teacher. This aspect being well developed in her, she was more inclined to try all sorts of things in water!

Patience and firmness, the keys to success

I learned a lot from my work with Sophie and the other people I met in this volunteer work. I developed my patience. From one weekend to the next, I kept repeating the same instructions to Sophie, but I was pleased to see that it succeeded and that this repetition improved her concentration. One Sunday when I was unavailable, she even went to the aquafitness alone. It’s really important for people with disabilities to persevere. If an instruction isn’t understood the first or second time, it doesn’t mean that it won’t ever be understood!

The other aspect that was a challenge was firmness. It must not be forgotten that the goal is to get the person moving. I got along very well with Sophie, and when she stopped focusing on her physical activity to talk about other things, at first I tended to do it too. I quickly realized that when I did that, she stopped moving. So I had to discipline myself too, and bring her back to the goal!

Physical literacy for people with intellectual disabilities is mostly facilitated by the entourage. With patience and perseverance, the best reward is to see them flourish in the practice of physical activity!