URI students run the South County YMCA adapted aquatics program for adults with disabilities

Students in Emily Clapham’s EDC 588 Disabilities Sports course don’t come to class with a notebook or laptop; instead, they bring towels and swim gear.

Since April, Clapham, associate professor of health and physical education, meets her students on Wednesday afternoons at the South County YMCA to conduct an adapted aquatics program for adults with disabilities. The students manage the program and lead the exercises. They receive fieldwork credit which is required for completion of their coursework. 

The program is made possible by a $4,000 grant from the John E. Fogarty Foundation.

The program combines socialization and fitness.

Most of the participants have mobility issues, some are in wheelchairs, but they all take part and enjoy the therapeutic experience. Caregivers can also participate.

 “It is important that people with disabilities feel included. This gives them that opportunity with a class and a community,” Clapham said.

Clapham, a leader in fitness transformation, designed the program because there wasn’t a place for adults with disabilities to exercise.

“A pool offers an environment where everyone can move freely and be more independent,” she said.

Additionally, the YMCA offered more pool availability and is a central location so people in the community could participate.

Clapham has also worked extensively with children with disabilities and developed surfing and ocean therapy programs as part of URI’s Xtreme Inclusion program.

Some of the children that participated in her programs are now adults and are participating in the adapted aquatics program.

Clapham’s students are training to become health and physical education teachers.  Along with her students, she has created elective courses in dance and weight training, yoga in elementary schools, adventure education in high schools, and jogging and walking clubs before and after school.

Student Roma Gaschler recalls how one participant always asked her a question that made her day.

“Every Monday when I would walk in, John would always ask me, ‘Are you happy?’ she said. “He was willing to explore different exercises and routines, which made me excited. He was willing to challenge himself and I’ve never been so proud.”

Clapham wants to inspire her students to transform the gym class experience. She hopes that they will implement a version of the adapted aquatics program in the communities and schools where they will eventually work and teach.