What is the only educational content area mentioned in U.S. federal law?

English? Math? Science? History?

Those are all important subjects, but there are no federal laws about any of these content areas. But, the answer to the question, what is the only educational content area mentioned in U.S. federal law, is Physical Education.

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) –

“Physical Education services, specially designed if necessary, must be made available to every child with a disability receiving a free appropriate public education.”

Why is Physical Education given this importance? The answer becomes clear when you consider that Physical Education promotes all of the following:

  • Physical fitness and good lifetime habits centered around health and physical activity
  • Cognitive development and improved brain performance
  • Psychomotor/skill development
  • Self-esteem and confidence
  • Socialization skills

Physical Education can be especially important for children with disabilities, because they are often less active than their peers who do not have disabilities. There is so much that all children – and every child with any kind of disability – can do and benefit from within the realm of Physical Education at their school.

Adapted Physical Education

Adapted Physical Education (APE) is a physical education program that has been adapted to meet the needs of students with disabilities. APE makes it possible for all children to participate in Physical Education. Here are some of the key elements of APE:

  • It uses accommodations and modifications to adapt the PE curriculum to the child, rather than asking the child to adapt to the curriculum.
  • It is a service and not a setting or place. Adapted Physical Education can happen any place.
  • The best place for APE to happen is in the general Physical Education class, with the child’s non-disabled peers. IDEA mandates that children can only have APE in a different setting if they are enrolled in a full-time separate facility or if they require APE that cannot be delivered in the general Physical Education class.
  • Many children who have IEPs simply do not need APE; it is up to a child’s IEP team to determine whether or not the child should receive APE services.


So what does Adapted Physical Education look like? To help paint a picture, here are some examples of how the simple activity of catching can be adapted for students with various kinds of disabilities:

  • Using a bell ball (auditory), bumpy ball (tactile), soft vibrating ball (tactile) and other balls of various sizes and inflation levels.
  • Decreasing the distance the ball is tossed, rolled or bounced.
  • Giving students the opportunity to catch the ball using a basket or bucket.
  • Using different kinds of objects for catching, such as a stuffed animal, beach ball, scarf, deflated ball, balloon or fleece ball.

Like every other area of a child’s education, Adapted PE must be customized to meet each child’s needs, and as per the catching example, there are always lots of options. Every child is different – including children with the same disability – so it is up to educators to determine the best way to adapt Physical Education to meet the needs of each of their students.

So much is possible for children with disabilities through Adapted PE!!  When you – as a parent or educator – know what’s possible for a child, you become a better advocate, raising the bar so that all of our children can reach their potential.


There are numerous ways that you can adapt Physical Education. You can adapt the instruction, the equipment, the game, the object and/or the environment. In many ways, Adapted PE is a form of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) because it is about reducing barriers so that all children can find success. Learn more about APE in Practice.

Adapted PE and the Law

Adapted PE is rooted in federal and state law. Having a basic understanding of these laws can help you become a better advocate for your child or students with disabilities. Learn more about Adapted PE and the Law.