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Adaptive Athlete Program Wins Removing Barriers Award

The National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials (NACPRO) has announced the Adaptive Athlete Program as the recipient of its inaugural Removing Barriers Initiative Award. The honor recognizes a unique program or facility that enables and encourages greater participation in parks and recreation by persons with disabilities. The program was developed by South Slope Community Fitness and is a partnership between the gym, Buncombe County Recreation Services and Buncombe County Special Olympics.

The Adaptive Athlete Program offers free, fun, and supportive community fitness classes for individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. Classes are open to the public and participants do not need to be Special Olympics athletes. The weekly classes feature inclusionary workouts tailored to develop strength, mobility, and body awareness through functional movement. During the COVID-19 pandemic, coaches have kept athletes engaged with daily workout movements and weekly live workouts.

Celebrating the Whole Community

“We believe Buncombe County is a better, more resilient place when everyone from infants to retirees has the opportunity to be strong, healthy, and successful,” says Josh O’Conner, Director of Buncombe County Recreation Services. “Community members with intellectual and physical disabilities are often left on the sidelines when it comes to fitness and recreation. We’re thankful to NACPRO for this amazing recognition and share it with the athletes. We’re equally thankful to South Slope Community Fitness and the volunteer coaches for helping us advocate for a livable, healthy, and vibrant community in which low- or no-cost, inclusive wellness and therapeutic opportunities are accessible to all residents regardless of cultural, physical, cognitive, or socioeconomic background.”

One of the first of its kind, the program incorporates hands-on exercises with inclusive techniques including specific strategies for adapting different fitness movements and entire workouts. Each workout includes a warm-up, cool down, and 40 minutes of total body workout with one-on-one instruction from volunteer coaches. Individual instruction ensures specific movements are adapted for each participant’s physical, mental, and emotional needs.

A Culture of Inclusion

“Many of the athletes who have joined our program were nervous about starting a gym routine or fitness regimen because they felt uncomfortable or overwhelmed in large gym environments – or the facility didn't have the equipment to adapt to their needs,” according to Julie Hansell, Adaptive Athlete Program Head Coach. “Being able to exercise in a small group with other adaptive athletes has given many of them confidence to step outside of their comfort zones and try new exercises they didn't believe they were capable of doing. We have athletes ranging in age from 13-70 who require different adaptations, from autism to cerebral palsy. We have seen incredible physical and mental barriers broken from every single one of our them.”

The ultimate goal is to prepare participants for daily life and remove barriers to exercise. Functional movements practiced in class include squatting, picking things up, balancing, pushing, and pulling. Designed to foster independence, training in a room of people with similar challenges helps everyone understand their potential and leads to greater quality of life.

Many members of the South Slope Community Fitness volunteer every week; others engage in lengthy conversations with athletes which is equally important.


The annual NACPRO Awards recognize and honor excellence in parks and recreation at the county, regional, and special district levels throughout the nation. 

The National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials is a non-profit professional organization that advances official policies that promote county and regional park and recreation issues while providing members with opportunities to network, exchange ideas and best practices, and enhance professional development. NACPRO is an affiliate of the National Association of Counties (NACo) and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).

Article Information

Updated Aug 20, 2020 05:30 PM
Published Aug 19, 2020 02:23 PM

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Peyton O'Conner (they/she)
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