TARA SIMMONS, COTA/L, MA, PhD Candidate at Alvernia University

Owner/Lead Instructor, All Abilities Fitness Center
Location: Pennsylvania
Certified in 2011

2022 NBCOT Innovation Award Winner

Lack of Programs Available Drives COTA to Start Business

Tara Simmons, a COTA from Pennsylvania, saw a lack of programs available for the special-needs population she worked with in an outpatient OT setting. She decided to start her own business by creating a safe space for people of all ages, fitness levels, and abilities. All Abilities Fitness Center opened in 2018, the first and only adapted gym in Berks County, PA, with a mission “to provide a safe and inclusive environment for those with any disability to feel comfortable and empowered to improve physical fitness, social bonds, and fulfill sensory needs in a non-judgmental secure setting.”

Programs at the center increase the quality of life for individuals across all ages and abilities. For example, a 62-year-old man who was diagnosed with an intellectual disability and resides in a group home regularly enjoys exercising and engaging with staff and other students at this fitness center. His personal staff have reported an overall increase in his social interactions since starting the program. Another example is a child with cru du chat syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, who began attending All Abilities at age. Three years later, she has transitioned from crawling to walking with a walker. Her uncle, who shares the same diagnosis, also participates in programs at the center and has shown improvement with social interactions and an increase in overall mood levels.

All Abilities also provides services in the school setting. Teachers and administrators state that their students look forward to classes with All Abilities every week. In one day, the center can work with students from several classrooms, each with their own specific needs. Activities are adapted based on those needs. For example, students from an autistic support classroom engage in sensory integration activities and practice following directions, while students from a multiple disabilities support classroom participate in active range of motion and strength training activities. The center also works with students who live in low-income areas, delivering after-school programs and encouraging a movement-filled lifestyle for kids 18 and under.

Navigating Through the Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Tara transitioned All Abilities to virtual-based programming to continue offering services to clients and the community. Like other businesses, All Abilities continues to provide some services virtually, including several adult day programs for high-intensity workouts and fitness programs designed for people to exercise while seated in a chair. Individuals from other states, such as Michigan, Nevada, Florida, and New York, can also participate in the virtual programs. Currently, the center is developing a digital program that school districts and gyms around the world can utilize.

“Our teachers are some of your biggest fans!!!!!!!! Not that I am not a fan, but they rant and rave about the days they get to see Miss Tara and company!!!!! Keep up the amazing work. You are changing lives every day!!!”

– Special Education Director

“We so look forward to your session each week! It feels like it is something special just for us and though we may be difficult at times, you are very much appreciated, and I feel the kids really enjoy the structure of your lesson…stretching, activities, stretching. Thank you!”

– Life Skills Teacher

Active in the Community

All Abilities is an active part of the community, delivering services in classrooms and at after-school programs, collaborating with community organizations, and partnering with local organizations and libraries that sponsor fitness classes and offer scholarships to families who may not be able to afford services. The center also recruits OT students who are completing Level I and Level II fieldwork in a nontraditional setting. Students have the unique experience of seeing people of different ages and with varying disabilities participate in physical activity programs.

Life’s Work Focused on Helping Others

In 2019, Tara delivered a TEDx Talk about inclusive fitness. She is currently working on her PhD in leadership studies at Alvernia University. Her dissertation focuses on inclusive fitness and how poverty limits access to fitness opportunities. She is an advocate for inclusivity and shares her knowledge to educate the community and help those who may not know how to interact with special-needs populations. She is focused on helping others in nontraditional and innovative ways.

You can follow All Abilities Fitness on Instagram and Facebook.

The NBCOT Innovation Award recognizes OTRs or COTAs who demonstrate the delivery of an evidence-based, effective, and innovative program or intervention that enhances the quality of life for a person or persons.

Learn more about the 2022 award winners.

Learn more about NBCOT’s Innovation and Impact Awards.