When Gemma White was just 13 years old, she knew she wanted to work in the world of special education. “I was involved in an integrated youth club back in England,” she explained. When she turned 18, Gemma began a program of study at University College London to become a speech language pathologist. In 2002, she moved to the United States and worked at The McCarton Center for Developmental Pediatrics. Gemma now runs her own private practice, A Spoonful of Sugar, in New York.
The experience with inclusive programming that Gemma had in her teens foreshadowed recent events in her work life and came in handy when she was part of developing an inclusive basketball program with the Riverdale Y and Yachad. According to Gemma, “There really needs to be more programs like this. It increases exposure for young people who might not otherwise have it, and it may open up opportunities later in their lives; if I didn’t have that experience when I was 13, who knows what I would have done.”
Gemma became involved with the inclusive basketball program when the brother of one of her patients had to do a community service project. “It was his idea. He wanted to start a basketball program for his brother and others with special needs.” Together, they approached the Riverdale Y and the non-profit organization, Yachad. The inclusive basketball program is now in its second session and averages 15-20 participants, ages 7-16. “What I love about this program is that it gets children with and without disabilities working with each other,” Gemma says.
Matt Abrams Gerber, COO of the Riverdale Y explains, “In the past, we had a grant to do special needs programming, but we just don’t have the same resources…The inclusive basketball program was a grassroots program that started with a mom, an organization, and a professional in the neighborhood, and they really got it off the ground. They got it rolling and now we are trying to grow it. We have a core group of kids that come every week and we see the relationships that are developing — with each other and with the athletic coordinator, Jhoan DeJesus. For a program that’s just beginning, I’m really happy with it. We want to continue to grow and develop different parts of the program.”
The inclusive basketball program pairs students with disabilities with a typically-developing peer. To ensure the program is successful, they train the typically-developing student volunteers so that they understand and know how to work with students with disabilities. “We use it as an opportunity to take a community-based activity and make it meaningful and educational,” explains Gemma.
While training the student volunteers, Gemma prepares the students with disabilities for the basketball games. “We created a ONEder lesson using video models; media is taken from the program, and I use social stories often embedded as hotspots in scene-based lessons to support inclusion for that specific program. We review the visual schedules, expectations, and use social stories prior to and after the program.”
Communication is key, Gemma notes. “Communication is multi-modal and it’s a two-way street. The partner needs to be aware of how the other will be communicating. That’s why we train the typically-developing peers to learn the cues to look for as responses. We keep the AAC (Augmentative Alternative Communication) device accessible in the gym in case it’s needed.”
Her strategy seems to work — for both groups of students. “The kids have definitely improved,” Gemma reflects. “There were children that didn’t want to come into the room on the first day. By the third session, they wanted to be there and they were making baskets. These kids really benefit from peer modeling. The mom of one of the peer volunteers recently told me that her 11-year-old son is recognizing the progress the student he’s paired with is making and is speaking about him during the week. This is an 11-year-old kid. They can be really sensitive when you give them the opportunity….it’s a nice program.”
In addition to working with her patients and helping to start inclusive basketball programs, Gemma is a mother of five children, ranging in age from six months to 11 years old.
By Melissa Ragan