How A Slippery Rock University Program Helps Those With Disabilities Work Out

The Unified Fitness Program links disabled individuals with students who help them exercise in the Aebersold Recreation Center.
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Linda Finnegan navigates Slippery Rock University’s Aebersold Recreation Center on the arm of sophomore Paris Brown.

Finnegan, a local resident who is both blind and deaf, excitedly makes her way to the bike, leg press, sit-up bench and her favorite, the treadmill.

Finnegan, 56, is a participant in SRU’s Unified Fitness Program, which pairs students with members of the disabled community to help build their physical strength, as well as their confidence and social skills.

Brown says she looks forward to working with Finnegan each week. 

“She’s the sweetest person ever!” Brown says. “At first, I was a bit nervous because I have never worked with someone who is deaf and blind, but I quickly realized I had nothing to worry about.”

Brown has three brothers with Down syndrome — Sam, 22, Bobby, 15, and Joey, 13 — and has always been immersed in the disabled community, thanks to her parents, Lisa and Terry Brown of Butler. She hopes to teach life skills to high school students early in her career, then either go into disability law or serve as a school administrator to advocate for students with disabilities.

“My mom is a teacher and my dad has always worked within group homes, and he started a business that focuses on family therapies,” she notes. “I came to Slippery Rock because it is one of the few colleges in the state that has its own special education major. I have seen how they advocate for my brothers to have the same access to things that everyone should have access to. I owe my love of special education to my parents.”

Her brother, Sam, completed SRU’s Transition Achievement Program for high school students with disabilities, and Brown said she initially wanted to volunteer with that program.

“It didn’t fit my schedule, but the coordinator got me connected with Linda in my freshman year and we have been working out ever since,” Brown adds.

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The two women laugh and joke as Brown helps Finnegan reach the machines and adjusts the weights and seat heights for her. At first, Brown admits, they had a bit of a language barrier to overcome. She now spells words into Finnegan’s hand. Finnegan is so familiar with the machines, Brown begins with one or two letters and Finnegan is ready to head to the next one.

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They work out every Friday when classes are in session, and Brown says that Finnegan has been able to increase her weights by 10 to 15 pounds on the machines since they started. 

“I have also noticed that Linda has become more open and trusting of me, which is great to see,” Brown says. “If I say let’s add this, she’s usually open to trying it.”

The hour-long workouts begin with 10 to 15 minutes of cardio, then Brown asks Finnegan which machines she is interested in since she usually has a list in mind when she arrives. 

“The most important thing about the program is that it benefits both those with disabilities and those without,” Brown says. “It’s so rewarding to see that it doesn’t just help them physically, but also emotionally, mentally and socially.”

Finnegan says she likes the program because she can work out in a safe environment.

“I like coming here! At home, it’s not safe,” Finnegan adds. “I only have a bike there and the house isn’t big enough for workouts.”

Jillian Stringfellow, project coordinator in the SRU Office of Disability Services, says the university has an important partnership with Special Olympics Pennsylvania, which is what led to the inception of the Unified Fitness Program in 2017.

“This program creates independence and motivation for those with and without disabilities,” Stringfellow says. 

Members of the community will reach out to SRU to see if they can provide them with a program to help a local resident with a disability, which is how Finnegan was paired with Brown. The program also helps students in SRU’s adapted physical activity minor program stay active. 

“Linda, her mom and her sister reached out to one of our instructors, Wendy Fagan, who also runs Envision Blind Sports, a nonprofit for those who are blind or visually impaired,” Stringfellow adds. “If the community reaches out to us, we will put them into the program and pair them with students.”

The Unified Fitness Program currently has 15 participants and 30 SRU students. Other inclusive programs at SRU include the Rock Life Program, a post-secondary program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the Transition Achievement Program for high school students with disabilities to learn life skills, Kids in Action for children ages 5 to 12 and Unified Intramurals.

In 2020, Special Olympics International selected Slippery Rock University to its list of National Banner Unified Champion Schools. SRU is the first college or university in Pennsylvania to earn this designation, which honors middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities for having “inclusive school climate and exuding a sense of collaboration, engagement and respect for all members of their communities,” a Slippery Rock news release reads.

Stringfellow adds the Unified Fitness Program, “provides students with hands-on experience working in the field they will go into after college.”

“It gives them the fitness and motivation skills for the future. It also makes SRU more inclusive. The ARC is a gym that people of all abilities can come to.”

She adds the program is helping to keep participants active and contributing to a reduction in obesity rates, which cause a lot of secondary health issues.

“It’s about lifelong wellness,” she says. “It teaches them the benefits of being active and being healthy.” 

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Brown says the program also sheds light on different ways society needs to learn to accommodate those with disabilities, such as keeping them in mind when designing a fitness center like the ARC.

“I think people should really give themselves the opportunity to either surround themselves with someone who has a disability or work with them. Sometimes, people with disabilities are viewed as if they can’t do things. But, if they are given the right resources, support and opportunity, they can do anything,” Brown adds.

Categories: BeWell