OGDEN, Utah – Hampered by severe dyslexia and unable to speak until age 10, James Zagrodnik knows what it feels like to be isolated and stereotyped.
“With my learning disability and my inability to communicate, I was the kid in the corner without great social connections,” Zagrodnik said. “It was tough for me growing up.”
Zagrodnik, assistant professor of health promotion and human performance at Weber State University, decided to turn his own feelings of insecurity and isolation into a positive aquatic educational experience for children with disabilities.
This semester he organized the Children’s Adaptive Physical Education Society! (CAPES!). The program uses a combination of exercises and games in and out of the swimming pool to help children, ages 5 to 12, with their social interaction, balance, dexterity, motor skills, strength and fitness. Zagrodnik chose the acronym CAPES! because he wants the children to think of themselves as superheroes who wear capes and perform amazing feats of daring and dexterity.
“We develop perceptions that people can’t do things, which creates barriers,” Zagrodnik said. “Typically we restrict people with disabilities way too much. For the most part, they don’t appreciate it; they don’t enjoy it, and they don’t learn as much.”
From his own experience, Zagrodnik knows social insecurity can drive children to self-destructive behavior. By fifth grade he had found friends who accepted him but were involved in underage drinking and other damaging activities.
Zagrodnik said his social and emotional life was on a downward spiral, culminating when three of his high school friends were killed in a car accident while high on drugs. That tragedy forced him to take stock of his own life. While he struggled in many areas, Zagrodnik had always excelled in athletics. He eventually found a way turn his passion for sports into a successful academic and professional career studying motor behavior — how the brain and the muscles talk to each other to learn and perform skills.
“It took me a long time to be comfortable with who I was and what I could do,” Zagrodnik said. “I had to realize, life doesn’t have to be this miserable. We are all meaningful. We can all learn. We should all be valued.”
Zagrodnik with Natalie Allen Williams, associate professor teacher education, organized CAPES! to positively influence children with disabilities. The additional benefit is that WSU students in Adaptive Physical Education PEP 3660 and Human Exceptionality EDUC 2010 have the opportunity to develop individualized instruction and work one on one with each CAPES! class member.
“My students will consider each individual and then push participants to stretch,” Zagrodnik said. “I want my students to overcome preconceived notions of dependence; to try not to say ‘No,’ to be more engaged, more positive and more supportive.”
Thanks to support from a Hemingway Excellence Award, Zagrodnik and WSU also will be able to buy special adaptive equipment for the Swenson Gymnasium pool. Each child also will receive a cape, which they will be able to adorn with patches for various achievements.
“Athletics has been a way to express myself,” Zagrodnik said. “When I stepped out on a court or field, I found I could escape the negatives and excel. Sports saved my life, and I want CAPES! kids to have the same sense of accomplishment.”
The CAPES! program meets every Tuesday, Sept. 24 to Nov. 26, from 6:30-7:30 p.m. in the Swenson Gymnasium pool.