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Accessible Fitness: Tips for Assessing College Recreation Facilities for Students with Disabilities August 1, 2019

North Bethesda, North Bethesda
Accessible Fitness: Tips for Assessing College Recreation Facilities for Students with Disabilities, North Bethesda, Maryland

Today, I am proud to bring you a guest article from Annie Tulkin, Founder and Director of Accessible College, where she provides college transition support for students with physical disabilities and health conditions nationally. Annie was the Associate Director of the Academic Resource Center at Georgetown University for nearly 6 years. In that position, she supported undergraduate, graduate and medical students with physical disabilities and health conditions and oversaw academic support services for the entire student body. Annie has worked in the field of disability for more than 10 years.


She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Secondary Education from DePaul University, a Masters in Special Education from The University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Certificate in Health Coaching from Georgetown University. Annie was a Peace Corps Volunteer (Mongolia, ‘03-’05) and a Fulbright Fellow (Mongolia, ‘07-’08).  She resides in Silver Spring, MD with her husband and toddler. Follow her on Facebook at @AccessibleCollege and Twitter at @AcssCollege. To learn more, visit




Colleges and universities spend significant amounts of money on state of the art recreation facilities to attract students and to promote their health and wellness while on campus. But do these facilities serve ALL students, particularly those with physical disabilities and/or health conditions? We know that wellness and fitness activities can be a key element to effective athletic training, management of symptoms, and physical therapy. What essential questions or planning should students consider to determine whether facilities meet their specific needs?


In order to make sure that physical and health needs of students can be met, it’s necessary to approach college tours a bit differently than many peers and consider the physical and programmatic accessibility of the campus. On most tours, particularly on larger campuses, students don’t see each building, but rather they pass by many buildings and are provided a general overview of what the college offers. For most students, this approach works; however, students with physical disabilities/health conditions need more information, which is where preparation comes in. Here are a few suggestions for those with physical and health conditions to consider in advance of college visits:


Set up a tour of the facility

If fitness is a priority for the student, or the student thinks that they may need to use a fitness facility for physical therapy, ask the college admissions department to schedule a tour of the fitness center. There may be more than one facility on campus. Make sure the student connects with the Disability Support Office to discuss the accessibility of the fitness center.


Familiarize yourself with the applicable laws

It’s important to have an understanding of the laws that apply to higher education and can be used to support students. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers both public and private universities and provides for “reasonable accommodations” based on the student’s functional limitations; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) covers federally funded programs and services and prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability. More information is available here. Both the ADA and Section 504 have a provision for “auxiliary aids,” which means that it is the college’s responsibility to provide auxiliary aids, including specialized gym equipment. Additional information can be found at this link.


Compliant vs. usable

As many people with physical disabilities can attest, what is ADA compliant is not always usable to them. That’s why it’s extremely important to have the student try to access the facility independently and go through the facility to check it out. Here are a few things to pay attention to:

  • Location
    • Can the student reach the location independently?
    • Can the student get to the location via accessible campus transport?
  • Workout Equipment
    • Does the facility have adaptive workout equipment?
    • Is there enough space around the equipment to maneuver any aids the student requires (e.g.: a wheelchair, cane, or other support device) ?
  • Locker Rooms
    • Is there an accessible changing room?
    • Is there an accessible shower and toilet?
  • Pool
    • Does the pool have a chair lift and are all staff trained to use it?
    • Is there other pool equipment the student needs to be able to use the pool?
  • Fitness Classes
    • Does the college facility offer adaptive fitness classes?
    • Are instructors trained to modified based on varying abilities?


Choosing a college can be a tough decision and there is currently no comprehensive list of accessible college fitness centers. However, there are lists of colleges with adaptive sports programs. This list of colleges with adaptive sports programs can be a good starting point for finding more accessible fitness facilities. It’s always a good practice to contact the college’s Disability Support Office (DSO) to have a conversation about accessibility on campus. Their website might also have some useful information. If the student is requesting accommodations in college, the student will need to contact the DSO to initiate the process for requesting accommodations. Transition to college can be challenging for students, so finding healthy outlets such as exercise can support a positive experience.


About Fitness for Health:   

A finalist for’s Readers’ Choice Award for Best Special Needs Resource in the D.C. Region and voted Washington Family Magazine’s 2016, 2017 and 2018 Best Special Needs Camp and Best Special Needs Program in the DC area, Fitness for Health, founded by Marc Sickel who also suffers from ADD, specializes in creating personalized, therapeutic programs for children with a broad range of special needs:

  • Sensory processing disorders
  • Gross motor delays
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
  • Pervasive developmental disorders
  • Down Syndrome
  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • Developmental and physical disabilities
  • Confidence and self-esteem issues
  • Emotional disturbances and anxiety disorders

At Fitness for Health, you get a complete team—including pediatric fitness specialists, physical therapists, and occupational therapists—working together to create a full-service plan of care that’s expertly tailored to your or your child’s developmental, skill and comfort levels while providing fitness. As a parent, you’re involved every step of the way.  Learn more about our therapeutic exercise, occupational therapy services, and physical therapy services today.

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