Adaptive Fitness – How to Serve Patrons with Special Needs


In order for their entire campus community to benefit from the rec center, Portland State University (PSU) goes above and beyond to serve patrons with special needs.

The first step in eliminating any barriers for patrons is to have accurately trained staff who are comfortable with assisting. At PSU, the biggest staff training is around customer service and asking patrons what they can do to make the experience better. This allows them to avoid the potentially uncomfortable question of somebody having a disability or not.

“There could be an invisible disability, or they could be new to a rec center,” said Jen Armbruster, the inclusive rec and fitness center coordinator at PSU. “So, we train to have excellent customer service, then listen to the member and see what we can do for them.”

In addition to communication, staff at PSU also receive position-specific training as well. This includes member services staff assisting with electronic waivers, knowing what questions to ask when a potential service dog enters the building and recording notes to avoid patrons answering the same questions each time they visit.

Staff more involved with the fitness floor have also been trained to assist with transfers when it comes to equipment, as well as the entire rec team being trained to communicate effectively for the benefit of the patron through the use of radios.

Other than staff training, PSU offers multiple programs such as goalball, wheelchair basketball, football and tennis, and sit volleyball and blind soccer, to name a few.

Along with programming, Armbruster elaborated on the universal approach they have taken with their facility as well. “When replacing equipment or purchasing new equipment, we try to get more pieces in that everyone can use,” she said. “We do have a couple of specialized pieces such as the wider weight bench and the NuStep in the cardio areas, as well as Krank Cycles that are on the floor with our spin bikes and can be brought into Group X classes.”

Other adjustments PSU made include elevated stretching mats throughout the fitness center, universal restrooms with full showering facilities, lifts in both the pool and spa, and priority lap lanes in the pool and on the track.

“We make modifications as requested or needed in our outdoor program and rec clubs as well,” said Armbruster. “We have tandem kayaks, adaptive climbing gear for indoor and outdoor use, and tactile indicators on our cardio machines as well as our weight racks.”

When it comes to serving patrons with special needs in your rec center, Armbruster emphasized it is worth the time, and there are many modifications to make that are not costly. “You can partner up with local communities to offer to help lead staff trainings or borrow equipment until you can purchase your own,” she offered. “Use your resources and reach out to other universities to see what they are doing and how they did it.”

Brittany Howard
Brittany is an editor at Peake Media. Reach her at

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