Prospective Students

Shake-A-Leg

One Unique Elective (written by a former UM-PT student)

It’s 3 o’clock on Friday afternoon and you are on a 20 foot sailboat with five other people sailing around Biscayne Bay. Everyone is talking, laughing, and learning to sail. Sound like Club Med Miami? The fact is, you are earning graduate school credit! Hard to believe? Not for the innovative thinkers at UM and Shake-a-Leg Miami.

The class, with its name “Recreational Activities for the Physically Challenged” (usually called simply “the Sailing course”), is offered to Physical therapy students as an elective under the heading of Communications. Why Communications, you may ask? Because, the purpose of this class is not just to learn about sailing and to get a suntan. The catch is that skippers of these specially designed and rigged boats are all physically challenged. The communications part of the class involves learning how to interact effectively with, and appreciate the abilities of, a group of people who are too often incorrectly identified with disability. For instance, these folks show us how to transfer in ways we never imagined and demonstrate tremendous abilities in sailing and teaching!

A typical afternoon consists of arriving at the dock to meet and greet the skippers for that afternoon. The boats are then loaded with appropriate gear-usually a radio, PFD’s (Personal Floatation Devices-one for each sailor), and some water to quench thirsts along the way. The skippers are assisted in transferring onto the boats, the sails are hoisted, and we push off from the dock. Once on the water we may simply sail around the bay, practicing different maneuvers and discussing the various points of sail and wind conditions (and how to handle them), or we may have an actual race against our classmates. After all the fun is over (which sometimes includes running aground or bumping into another boat during the race), it’s back to the docks where the skippers are helped to transfer ashore and boats are hosed down and packed up for the night.

A valuable lesson learned from this class is the importance of communication and teamwork. During one afternoon of sailing, this lesson is reinforced when the able-bodied students are each assigned a certain disability and are required to maintain their assigned disability for the whole afternoon. Some students must wear an ace bandage around their eyes to simulate blindness while others are fitted with leg braces or wheelchairs to simulate a patient with hemiplegia or quadriplegia. The experience is always very enlightening and enables students to understand what it feels like to be on the other side of a disability. When the groups share their feeling about the afternoon, key aspects of communicating with and understanding problems faced by persons with disabilities become clear.

The lesson is reinforced by an overnight sailing expedition to Elliot Key with students learning to work with each other and their physically challenged skippers, both on and off the boats. Activities include setting up the campsite, preparing dinner on the grill, building a bonfire and even snorkeling and swimming.

In addition to learning to sail by spending five days and one weekend sailing on Biscayne Bay, students in this class have the opportunity to participate in a ROPES Challenge Course. On a particular Saturday, students are put to the test in a classroom of a different type. The test is not a test of materials that students have spent hours memorizing and understanding, but rather, it is a test of their own personal limitations. Students discover the ability to trust, and be trusted by others, by working together as a team to overcome the mental and physical challenges before them. This day enlightens many students to what it means to be treated as an equal and how it feels when that is not the case. Students learn what the extent of their listening skills are and where they could use some improvement.

The camping trip is not the only opportunity to socialize during the course. Often, if any energy still lingers after Friday’s classes, it’s off to Monty’s Happy Hour to quench the thirsts brought on by an exhausting afternoon of tacking, jibing, and trimming the sails. As a result of these interactions, many friendships are often developed and continue long after the course ends. Many UM students and alumni go on to participate in and become spectators at the Shake-a-Leg Annual Midwinter Regatta held in February. Some may also participate as volunteers or may be paid staff during the summer programs offered by Shake-a-Leg.

So are you looking for a graduate elective that’s a little different? If so, check this one out. This is truly a graduate course of a different color.