Carolyn Lullo helps people who have disabilities stay fit

Carolyn Lullo

Carolyn Lullo: “I have a passion to see those with disabilities included in society in a meaningful way.” (click on image for larger file size)

Just because someone has disabilities doesn’t mean they can’t otherwise be physically fit.

But it can be hard to find the right equipment and knowledgeable trainers.

That’s where people like Carolyn Lullo come in.

“It may be as simple as making sure there are options like ramps or elevators when stairs are present so that people who use wheelchairs can gain access to the building, or equipment a person can use with just their upper body,” said Lullo, a Ph.D. candidate in disability studies in the College of Applied Health Sciences.

Some may need options like a swivel seat that allows them to more easily transfer onto the exercise equipment, or a swing-away seat that allows use of the machine without having to transfer.

For people with visual impairments, high contrast displays and large print are helpful. Even how equipment is laid out matters — there must be enough space to maneuver safely among the exercise machine.

“There may be a lack of health or fitness professionals who have the knowledge or experience to provide physical activity services to individuals with disabilities,” Lullo said.

She worked at the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability in UIC’s department of disability and human development until January 2012.

That’s when the center moved to the University of Alabama at Birmingham with principal investigator Jim Rimmer, who was Lullo’s adviser.

She worked on a related research study for the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Interactive Exercise Technologies and Exercise Physiology for People with Disabilities — mercifully known as Rectech.

Through the two centers, Lullo had the opportunity to be part of a team that conducted accessibility assessments of UIC recreation facilities.

After the study, Campus Recreation immediately began taking steps to create an inclusive environment for students with disabilities.

They asked Lullo to train recreation staff and bought a pool lift for the Sport and Fitness Center on west campus to help people with disabilities get in and out of the water.

Lullo’s dissertation in the department of disability and human development looks at the use of an Internet-based program to increase physical activity in people with physical disabilities, called “14-week Program to a Healthier You.”

“It uses video and interactive tools, and resources on physical activity and healthy eating,” she said.

Her interest in her field sprang from her mother, who works with people with disabilities.

“Growing up, inclusion was a foundational thing in the background of my life,” she said.

The satisfactions of her work are many.

“I love the way I am constantly challenged to think outside of the box and grow both academically and personally,” she said.

“I get to hear the voices of individuals who haven’t always had the opportunity to be heard. I get to be a part of efforts towards healthier communities that incorporate the needs of everyone. This gets messy, but I have seen that from this messiness, true progress has been made.”

Lullo, who is from northwest suburban Inverness, earned a bachelor’s degree in health and sports studies from Miami University in Ohio, then a master’s in kinesiology from UIUC.

She spent the next two years as assistant director of fitness at a recreation facility at Miami University.

“I managed a personal training program which had some clients who had disabilities,” she said.

“I and my staff didn’t have adequate training or experience to provide high-quality personal training services to these people. I wanted to educate myself on how we could do better.”

She’s now in Atlanta, working on a fellowship from the Association of University Centers on Disability at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I have a passion to see those with disabilities included in society in a meaningful way,” she said.

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