Program helps people with disabilities via activity, research


CORVALLIS, Ore. - Michael Clark was not supposed to exercise. He had heard all the conventional wisdom about how exercise exacerbates the symptoms of his frustrating disease, multiple sclerosis.

But Clark, who had been an exercise buff before he was diagnosed with MS, heard about a new research program in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at Oregon State University. The OSU researchers, working with a group of people on campus who had MS, found that specific regimens of exercise had few negative impacts and, in fact, actually helped several participants.

So he signed up. Now, Clark said, exercise is a godsend.

"It has helped me from being racked with spasms and non-functionality to getting out in the world, rolling along, meeting every obstacle with a smile - and even looking for challenges," Clark said. "So it is as much about helping myself via the old brain and attitude as it is getting stronger and more functional. In fact, I think my brain, heart and soul have benefitted the most.

"It's the fuel that feeds my muscles that lift those weights," he added.

OSU's Movement Studies in Disability program is one of only four major nationally funded programs that both work with people who have disabilities, and train students for careers in that field. A number of grants, including primary support from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education, fund a variety of initiatives at the university in addition to the MS exercise program.

On a national basis, it is the training of doctoral students who go on to teach at other universities that has, perhaps, made the greatest impact, said Jeff McCubbin, associate dean of the College of Health and Human Performance and director of the Movement Studies in Disability program.

"Our Ph.D. students are highly sought and have a job waiting for them when the graduate," McCubbin said. "They are making a significant impact around the United States and, in some cases, around the world."

Only five or so doctoral students are enrolled in the program in a given year because of resource constraints. The program also has about eight full-time master's students each year, and five working teachers, who return in the summer to train to be specialists in adapted physical education for their school districts.

"That's another area of need and our placement of graduates is 100 percent," McCubbin said.

The OSU program also offers courses via distance learning to help certified teachers stay up-to-speed on new developments in physical education for students with disabilities.

OSU students also tap into distance learning. The university has a formal agreement with the University of Utah to share resources in the training of Ph.D. students in adapted or special physical education. Oregon State also works with Ohio State University and the University of Virginia to hold high level seminars every two weeks.

Another highly visible component of the program is the OSU Special Physical and Motor Clinic, a local United Way agency, which the College of Health and Human Performance has operated for more than a dozen years. Every Friday, some 75 children with disabilities and their families come from all over the mid-Willamette Valley for supervised physical education instruction and activities that promote fitness, increase the students' coordination and improves their health.

But mostly they just have fun.

"It's a very rewarding experience," McCubbin said. "It's not only an educational experience for the children, it's a positive experience for our students, who supervise the program and provide the instruction. It's also valuable because the children see a bunch of other kids like themselves...and I think it gives them a bit of a boost to realize they aren't different."

McCubbin said he has been with the clinic for 11 years and "there are children who have been there longer than I have." Many families in the area have children who have grown up in the clinic and some still participate as young adults.

"The Corvallis community is very supportive of people with disabilities," McCubbin said. "Our program is just a part of it."

OSU's Movement Studies in Disability program also has two graduate students who are hired by local school districts in Corvallis and Lebanon to support teachers there with adapted physical education programs.

Interest in the OSU program continues to grow, McCubbin said, mirroring a national trend. Some 15 percent of the U.S. population has an identifiable disability, he pointed out, and that number is increasing as people live longer and lose some functional ability in later life.

"In general, people with disabilities are less active and less fit than the general population," McCubbin said. "Persons with mental retardation, for example, tend to exercise less and be overweight, which puts them at much greater risk for heart disease."

There are also a number of people who have disabilities that are not easily identifiable, McCubbin said.

"There is a perception that a person must be in a wheelchair or on crutches to have a disability," he said. "But there are lots of different kinds - learning disabilities, mental disabilities and others. They often are hidden, but require just as much accommodation as people who have spinal cord injuries."