AUGUSTA, GA – Students with special needs can sometimes be excluded from extracurricular activities and sports because teachers and caretakers may not know how to adapt to their needs.
To combat this, students in Dr. Nai-Cheng Kuo’s Family and Community Engagement for Exceptional Children class, along with the department of Technology Enhanced Learning and Innovation, have developed a tool to help adapt sports for special needs students: an app called Slam Dunk! Home Run!
Slam Dunk! Home Run! is a free, downloadable interactive comic that Augusta University has designed to help teachers and classmates better understand students in their class who may have disabilities. More specifically, the app will help them to understand how they can accommodate them in a physical education setting. Click here to see photos.
“Physical education is not just for people who are good at sports,” said Cole Janousek, a senior special education major and baseball player for Augusta University. “Just like every student gets the ability to learn, every student deserves to take part in all of the other opportunities that schools offer.”
The interest in an athletics-oriented project arose organically. Two of the students in the class were student-athletes – Janousek, the baseball player; and Lindsey Weidenaar, a former basketball player turned M.A.T. student, and now a Columbia County Educational Therapeutic Service teacher at Stallings Island Middle School. The third classmate, Theresa Wortham, is an experienced educator and applied behavioral analyst at A. Brian Merry Elementary School in Richmond County.
Their challenge was to relate how the world functions through the eyes of someone with a learning difference or special need. How does one mimic sensory overload or attention deficits – processes that happen entirely inside a person’s mind and body – for those who have never experienced it?
“We used the voices of children with special needs to speak directly to teachers,” said Kuo, whose work focuses on special education. “We hope this tool will help teachers to include more students in activities in ways that are meaningful and educational.”
After putting together a presentation and outline, the class enlisted the expertise of Jeff Mastromonico, director of Technology Enhanced Learning and Innovation, who pulled in Dr. Ashley Cullum, manager of Instructional Design. The two got to work on translating the idea and educational strategies into a functional application.
“The opportunity to craft this piece was incredible. But there was a challenge in depicting mental, emotional and even some medical differences in an illustration,” Mastromonico said. The team broke through that barrier by breaking another one: the fourth wall.
“We decided to have the characters speak directly to the reader in some situations,” he said.
The result is a colorful and interactive digital comic that speaks directly to teachers, coaches and care providers about how they can include all students in physical education and sports.
Kuo said there is no “one size fits all” approach to how to make physical education and sports available to students with special needs. Just as students without special needs have different abilities, the same as true for students in special education classes. The comic is designed to address a variety of different situations, in three different languages, so that teachers all over the world have a free recourse to adjust their classes as needed.
“To start a conversation is critical,” Mastromonico said, “Children sometimes have challenges you can’t see, and no matter how much training you have, broaching that subject with students and some adults can be hard. Maybe this comic will create a better understanding and more empathy.”