Rocco Aiello, Coordinator for Adapted Physical Education and Corollary Sports, St. Mary’s County Public Schools.
Talk to Rocco Aiello about his amazing journey as an Adapted Physical Education teacher and you soon discover that he is all about inspiration. In fact, Aiello is either inspiring children with disabilities to discover the joys and benefits of movement or being inspired by the children who refuse to let their disabilities stop them from learning and participating in sports that their typical peers pursue naturally.
His younger brother Louis was the first person who inspired him. This was back in New York in the early 60s. Stickball ruled the streets and Aiello and his friends were avid players. Aiello’s 14-year-old brother Louis followed the daily ritual of the game from the apartment steps. Despite his passion to get his turn at bat, Louis was never asked to play because he had a disability. Finally Aiello convinced the other kids to give his brother a shot and BAM – Louis demonstrated his amazing hand eye-coordination hitting a no stop series of doubles, triples and home runs that taught Aiello a lesson that he carries with him to this day.
“Everyone should have an opportunity to participate,” he says. This is his guiding principle and the mission of corollary sports. The growing program is designed to include both disabled and able-bodied children in both participatory and competitive sports. The goal is to have a 50/50 ratio of typical students to students with disabilities in each sport.
Aiello’s philosophy is that any sport is adaptable for a child with a unique need as long as it doesn’t impinge upon the rules of the sport or pose an injury threat to other children. “A child using a motorized wheelchair might be an obstacle in a basketball game.” That said, Aiello and his team follow the passion of the student and try to find or design adaptive equipment to make sure everyone can get a chance to participate in physical activity. The bottom line is to get kids moving.
“The relationship between cognitive skills and motor skills has been deeply studied and proven,” Aiello explains. Movement is fundamental to what he and his teachers do. Cycling is a great example of a participation activity and an insight into how teachers should think about corollary sports. Not only is cycling non-competitive and bikes are uniquely suited for adaptation, but most importantly, cycling teaches the children a skill that they can enjoy and grow with for the rest of their lives. The same goes for bowling and bocce ball. These two sports are not only well-suited for adaptations that make it easy for all kids to take part but they also have a competitive benefit; a team element that is deeply rewarding and teaches skills of cooperation and communication that can be used for life.
Opportunity is what matters. Aiello remembers a child with a severe disability – Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. “The child had very little movement and needed a Physical Education credit as a requirement. We were able to use a Wii to get him to bowl. He came to class, bowled with his friends on the Wii and not only did he have a great time, he got the credit.”
During our talk, Aiello was filled with inspiring stories. His passion for teaching and helping kids is contagious but in his view he doesn’t need to convince anyone about the rewards of working with children with disabilities, because the kids do it themselves. “These kids are happy and fun to work with. And unlike some people, they tend not to be deterred, but when the going gets tough, as Aiello says, “challenges are all they know.”
As a founder of Saint Mary’s Camp Inspire, a summer camp program for children with Autism, Aiello has seen kids literally dive headfirst into challenges. “Many children with Autism can drown because they get out into the water and don’t know where they are.” The trick, Rocco explains, is to get the kids to realize their abilities. He tells the story of a child who learned to swim over two seasons. For the first two years, Aiello had to hold him in the water. “I just felt that one day that it was time for me to let him go. I let him go, he went under and than swam to the edge of the pool. His parents and grandparents were all watching as he put his hand on the wall and looked at me, eyes bulging in realization that he had done it. He did two laps that day.”
Realization of your own abilities and seeing the potential in others is a life-changing event that Aiello and corollary sports are helping kids discover everyday.
Corollary Sports – The Corollary Sports Program is a totally integrated program in which all students, with and without disabilities, male and female have an opportunity to participate on competitive sports teams together. The Corollary Sports Program and the Interscholastic Athletic Program are similar in the philosophy that these activities are basic to sound educational principals of secondary education. Both programs strive to reinforce responsible social processes. These programs strive to have students build positive self-esteem, acquire skills, improve physical fitness, and to foster good sportsmanship, teamwork, and new friendships.
Interscholatic Athletic Programs – Interscholastic athletic programs are an integral part of the educational curriculum and represent an important American tradition in schools. Student participants learn citizenship values and lessons within an educational and competitive environment that helps prepare students for life after high school. Additionally, interscholastic athletics provide an opportunity for the entire student body to demonstrate school spirit and positive citizenship.
Adapted Physical Education – Adapted Physical Education (APE) is physical education which may be adapted or modified to address the individualized needs of children and youth who have gross motor developmental delays. It involves differentiated instruction so the physical activity is as appropriate for the person with a disability as it is for a person without a disability. The emphasis of adapted physical education is to facilitate participation of students with disabilities with typically developing peers in age-appropriate activities.