Pioneers help students with visual impairments experience Ropes and Challenge course

Fourteen University of Wisconsin-Platteville Health and Human Performance students recently had an opportunity to lead students from the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, located in Janesville, Wisconsin, through the university’s Ropes and Challenge course in Williams Fieldhouse.

This is the seventh year of collaboration between UW-Platteville and WCBVI, but it is the first time the collaboration has involved the Ropes and Challenge course, which offers low- and high-element activities, up to 18-feet from the ceiling, in a safe environment. The course is designed to help participants develop skills in communication, trust, problem-solving and risk-taking.

UW-Platteville students are enrolled in the Teaching the Exceptional Child course, taught by Tim Swenson, assistant professor of adapted physical education at UW-Platteville, and the Adventure Education course, taught by Dr. Scott Ringgenberg, chair of the Department of Health and Human Performance at UW-Platteville. Students taught and assisted students from WCBVI as part of their service learning hours connected to the courses.

WCBVI provides a state standards-based education to students with varying visual impairments and teaches independent life skills integrated through the curriculum with the use of the latest assistive technology. Students from WCBVI who participated in the learning experience at UW-Platteville ranged in age from 16-21 and had varying degrees of visual impairment.

The goal of the learning activity was two-fold. First, the activity provided HHP students with first-hand experience working with students with visual impairments and individualizing their instruction to meet the unique learning needs for each student. Second, the activity provided students from WCBVI an experience that is not typically embedded within their physical education curriculum. Additionally, coming to UW-Platteville allowed students to learn more about the possibility of post-secondary education opportunities.

When WCBVI students arrived at UW-Platteville, Swenson and Ringgenberg provided them with instructions and the day’s agenda. Following, university students led them through an icebreaker activity in which students from UW-Platteville and WCBVI learned each other’s names as well as an activity called Minefield, which worked on establishing clear communication between all students.

In order to help the students with visual impairments navigate the Ropes and Challenge course successfully, UW-Platteville students modified the course by adding Velcro strips for tactile awareness and sound devices, such as bells, for auditory awareness. They also modified their instructional strategies by providing human guiding technique, hand-over-hand instruction, and verbal encouragement. HHP students served as instructors on how to belay and travel the ropes course, aiding students from WCBVI as needed, ranging from low vision to complete lack of sight.

Following the Ropes and Challenge course, students from both schools ate together and then engaged in a discussion on a variety of topics, ranging from the challenges of visual impairments to helping teaching strategies when teaching students with disabilities within physical education.

Swenson said the results of the learning experience were incredible. “The event sheds light on the amazing abilities of the students from WCBVI as well as the amazing things our students do,” he said. “Our students came away with a clear understanding that we, as teachers, need to keep our expectations high for all students in our classes and there is nothing that students with disabilities cannot accomplish with the right amount of planning and preparation.”

Ringgenberg agreed, adding, “Working with the WCBVI school was a great opportunity for our students to learn how to accommodate and instruct students with special needs. It challenged me, as a teacher of the Ropes and Challenge course, to modify the course and my instructions to provide a successful learning experience. It was a very rewarding experience to see all of the participants climb the course multiple times and be successful.”

The experience had a deep impact on the UW-Platteville students as well as the students from WCBVI.

“This experience helped me see that just because someone has a visual impairment, it doesn’t make them any different from you or me,” said Colin Johnson, a junior HHP physical education major at UW-Platteville from Sartell, Minnesota. 

“There is no amount of classroom work that you could do to prepare for working with such amazing students on a ropes course like we did,” said Maddie Flanders, a junior physical education major at UW-Platteville from Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. “My biggest takeaway is to never underestimate a student’s abilities.”

“I was so happy that our students had the opportunity to complete the high ropes course at UW-Platteville,” said Dustin Andrews, a physical education teacher at the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “I saw a lot of barriers broken by our students. Some of them don’t like heights and feared even getting up on a ladder. Several students pushed themselves beyond what they thought possible and gained a confidence through that experience that will show for a long time. Students went back to school with a smile and stories they will be sharing with friends, family and staff.

Watch the video about the collaborative Ropes and Challenge learning experience.

Over the years, UW-Platteville students have travelled to Janesville to tour WCBVI’s school and learn about the assistive technology the students have in their classrooms as well as participate in adaptive sports and activities for students with visual impairments.