Amanda McMahon

By: USA Games Correspondent, tynan Gable

How could emerging virtual reality (VR) technology be used to change the game for individuals with intellectual disabilities? Thanks to Amanda McMahon, there is research being done right now to answer that question.

McMahon is a doctoral student in prevention science at Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman, Washington. Her husband, Don, is inspired by the potential of Amanda’s work to the point that he felt it fitting to nominate her for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games #ImAGameChanger campaign.  

In the PhD program at WSU, Amanda is taking advantage of new virtual reality technologies in her attempt to improve lives. Don admires his wife’s work because “one of the goals of this study was to find ways to increase motivation for exercise” and the use of VR technology clearly has been able to do that.  

She utilizes a system called VirZOOM. VirZOOM involves an innovative device that converts a stationary bike into a game; the faster you pedal, the faster the horse or motorcycle that you’re riding moves through the scenery displayed in your virtual reality headset.

What she has found is that this turns everyday physical activity (which can be tedious for anyone) into what she calls “exercise gaming”. She has worked extensively with students from Pullman High School and they have provided overwhelmingly positive feedback. According to Don, additional benefits (besides fitness) reaped by her students include greater awareness of nutritional needs and increased mindfulness which contributes to an overall improvement of self-regulation. These benefits are promising in the ongoing effort to improve the overall quality of life of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.


Amanda’s effort to be a game changer extends back to her master’s education at the University of Tennessee (UT). It was there, while studying exercise science, that she first discovered the UT Future Program and her true passion. Proper nutrition and proper exercise are both critical components for the long-term health of all people and particularly those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  

“She started looking at ways that she could use her undergraduate degree in nutrition and her master’s in exercise science,” Don said. “She wanted to try to combine the two of them towards a PhD that looked at using tools that try to help the overall health and overall nutrition of people with intellectual disabilities.”

The UT program was a post-secondary education opportunity for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Amada started volunteering and for three years was a regular lecturer and peer mentor for the program, explaining the basics of meal planning and providing healthy living tips.  

With this background, her research at Washington State is a natural next step.

Amanda McMahon is changing the game on a playing field that is still in its infancy. The future for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities will include more creative efforts to incorporate technology as a tool to encourage physical activity. More generally, off-the-shelf technology can be an empowerment tool in the hands of people like Amanda; creative, inspiring, and ready to change the game.