SRU student trains with deafblind community member through ‘unified fitness’


Paris working with Linda

From left, Slippery Rock University students Paris Brown trains with Linda Finnegan, who is blind and deaf, at SRU’s Aebersold Recreational Center.

March 14, 2023

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Increasing access for people with disabilities might bring to mind wheelchair ramps and activated doors, not ramping up people's activities to have them break a sweat. But at Slippery Rock University, physical fitness isn't an overlooked luxury. It's a core part of a unified fitness program to address the need for all people to be active.

"The benefits of fitness for people with disabilities can be greater than those for typical people because there are so many secondary benefits that go beyond being physical fit," said Jillian Stringfellow, SRU project coordinator in the Office of Disability Services. "There's increased confidence, improvements to mental health, and cooperation with others. Those opportunities aren't often readily available."

The term "unified fitness" refers to individuals with and without disabilities engaging together in physical activities. The formal program is the result of SRU's affiliation with the Special Olympics, where Special Olympians train at the University with dozens of SRU students. But that's not the only opportunity for SRU students to work out with someone with a disability on campus.

"A lot of people aren't trained or qualified to organize physical activities or run adapted sports programs for people with disabilities," Stringfellow said. "SRU provides a great hub for this community."

Paris Brown, a sophomore special education major from Butler, has been training with Linda Finnegan, a member of the local community who is both blind and deaf. They work out every Friday at SRU's Aebersold Recreational Center.

Brown guides Finnegan through cardio exercises and weight training, teaching her how to use the equipment properly and motivating her. Although Finnegan talks to Brown, Brown must touch the palm of Finnegan's hand and "draw" letters to fingerspell words to communicate.

Paris and Linda at the ARC

   Paris Brown communicates with Linda Finnegan by touching her hand to fingerspell

While that may seem like a frustrating communication barrier to some, Brown can easily tell if Finnegan is tired or needs to stop, or even what kind of mood she is in. Usually, it's a good mood because she is exercising.

"This has honestly been my best experience at SRU so far," Brown said. "I love every minute of it. She is one of the sweetest people I've ever met, and (this experience) has also taught me so much and opened my eyes to how much advocacy still needs to happen to make places accessible."

Brown has three brothers with Down syndrome, two of which were adopted, so she has experience working with people who have disabilities. After attending Miracle League and Special Olympics events with them, Brown saw how resources can benefit people with disabilities. That became her calling, leading her to SRU.

Brown doesn't see herself as a training partner, but as a friend and advocate. She said that increasing awareness and acceptance happens just by being in a public facility with Finnegan, around other college students and community members.

"People might stare or ask me questions like, 'How's she doing that?'" Brown said. "And some people might say, 'Oh, you're so nice for working out with her.' But, really, it's just something fun for me to do. I hope I am an advocate to some degree. I try to do it in a respectful way, and I know I won't change everyone's perspective. There's still going to be this stigma for some people when it comes to people with disabilities. But when they see Linda working out, maybe they can learn that anyone can do anything if they have the resources and the support."

For more information about allied fitness opportunities at SRU, contact Stringellow at 724.738.2821 or More information about the adapted physical activity and special education programs are available on SRU website.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |