New Mexico State University, with the help of Scott Pedersen, allows graduate students to earn a master's degree in education with an emphasis in Adapted Physical Education.

When he arrived in Las Cruces, N.M., two and a half years ago, Scott Pedersen knew he'd have some explaining to do. Las Cruces residents didn't just need Pedersen to elaborate on what to them was a relatively new concept. Rather, the majority of those folks had never even heard of adapted physical education.

"When I came down here, there wasn't any type of adapted physical education," says Pedersen, who in 2003 earned his doctorate in human performance from Indiana University, where he majored in APE. "I'm trying to change the minds of a lot of people down here with respect to physical activity and people with disabilities. A lot of people here look at a person with a disability and say, 'He can't do anything. He won't be able to participate.'"

Pedersen is well aware of the uphill battle he faces. But he's making headway, thanks to a program he created in 2003 within New Mexico State University's Department of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, where Pedersen is an assistant professor. The Adapted Physical Education (APE) program is the first and only university program of its kind in the state of New Mexico, and one of just a handful on any campus in the country. Through the program, Pedersen hopes to not only change able-bodied New Mexicans' perceptions of individuals with disabilities, but also serve the state's disabled population like it has never been served before.

New Mexico State's program is built around a lecture- and laboratory-based curriculum that allows graduate students to earn a master's degree in education with an emphasis in APE. Students who complete the degree program - which is based on the Adapted Physical Education National Standards (APENS) sponsored by the National Consortium on Physical Education and Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities - are eligible to become Certified Adapted Physical Educators (CAPEs). According to Pedersen, there are more than 14,000 public school districts serving approximately 5.2 million children with disabilities in the United States. His lofty goal: to place a CAPE in every district in the country.

"A lot of times, school administrators will let the person who runs detention or the lunchroom do the adapted P.E.," says Pedersen. "They find somebody who has a good heart and they say to him or her, 'Will you work with these kids in P.E.?' And the person says yes, and the administrators feel blessed that they found somebody to do it. But that person doesn't necessarily have competency in physical education, let alone know what types of things you're not supposed to do with kids with disabilities."

For those reasons, NMSUAPE coursework is intensive and broad-based. Lectures focus as much on kinesiology and neuroscience as they do the practical skills necessary to work with children with all types of disabilities, including mental retardation, blindness, deafness, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. Students are also prepared to handle populations suffering from chronic debilitating conditions, such as spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, Parkinson's disease and diabetes.

Exposing APE students to a variety of disabilities is essential, says Pedersen. "It's very different taking a person with a physical disability like cerebral palsy through a physical education program than it is teaching a person with a cognitive disability like mental retardation. It's not even as if every kid with Down's syndrome is going to be the same," he says. "You're trying to accomplish a totally different set of goals with each child. Adapted PE is good teaching. It's teaching to that individual - understanding what makes him or her tick, what his or her strengths and weaknesses are. You have to know a little bit about everybody."

Integral to the school's APE program are three community-outreach activities offered in the spring and summer semesters. The Lions Survivor Camp (summer), Walk-N-Roll Tennis League (spring) and Disability Sport Night (summer) are held on campus, and open their doors to all Las Cruces community members, the able-bodied and disabled alike.

On any given Disability Sports Night, for example, one might find in NMSU's rec center gymnasium professional wheelchair athletes, APE students, Aggie student-athletes, and elementary- or secondary-school students and teachers enjoying games of goalball, sit volleyball, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair soccer and disc golf. Able-bodied individuals participate alongside wheelchair users, courtesy of sport wheelchairs purchased by Pedersen for the APE program.

"I can speak until I'm blue in the face in lecture classes, but when I actually get kids out into the community, or even working with people with disabilities on campus, that's what's going to affect them," says Pedersen. "If I can give them opportunities while they're in college now, when that kid rolls into their classroom in a wheelchair, they can say, 'You know what, I was in a wheelchair when I played wheelchair tennis in Dr. Pedersen's class. I know what to do.' As opposed to shying away from the experience, they'll embrace it."