When was the last time you had a person with a disability in your gym? If you’re like most fitness business owners, it’s probably been a long time – if ever.

You almost certainly remember the nonstop media coverage of the Olympics this past summer; did you happen to catch any of the Paralympic Games, though? (Me neither – it’s not covered.)

Disability affects every group of people on the planet – there are people with physical and intellectual disabilities in every country, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion and gender – and the community of people with disabilities is vast; yet they are almost completely left behind when it comes to health and wellness. Barriers that contribute to low levels of participation in athletics by people with disabilities include transport difficulties, lack of knowledge of available aides or resources, lack of expertise, poor community facilities (and lack of access to them) and low expectations from peers.

disability equalityAccording to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “children with disabilities have lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, lower levels of muscular endurance, and higher rates of obesity than typical children.” The same can be said for adults with disabilities as well. The report continues, “In addition to the physiologic benefits of decreased body fat and increased fitness overall, regular physical activity for children with disabilities has been shown to help in controlling or slowing the progression of the chronic disease (and) improving overall health and function.”

You know all of the benefits of physical activity – you’ve made it your life’s work! – so it should come as no surprise that exercise has a host of advantages for children and adults with disabilities as well. I’m certain you’re not actively excluding the disability community from participating in your gym or school, but unless you’re actively working to include them, they may not realize they’re welcome. But how do you do that?
The North Carolina Office on Disability and Health wrote a report on best practices to include people with disabilities in your gyms; it includes these simple guidelines:

Remember that any effort to address the needs of people with disabilities is an opportunity to market and expand your membership to a growing population.

Physical and intellectual disabilities span a wide variety of conditions that can affect walking, seeing, hearing, speaking and thinking to varying degrees, and they can be temporary or permanent. Currently up to 20 percent of the population in this country is affected by some type of disability. This is a very large, untapped market!

Assess how environmental barriers can be removed and accessible features incorporated into all areas of your facility.

How wide are the doorways in your facility? Current law provides that they extend 32 inches to accommodate standard wheelchairs. (Note that a wheelchair-friendly facility is also a stroller-friendly facility; becoming physically welcoming to people with disabilities makes you welcoming to parents of small children as well!) Walk through your gym and note any obvious environmental barriers; if possible, do it again with someone who uses a wheelchair or walker.

Go beyond the minimum requirements of the law to incorporate principles of universal design to make your facility usable to many more people.

wheelchair and glove

Bear in mind that as the Baby Boomer population ages, the number of people in the U.S. with disabilities will rapidly increase. Older people are routinely reminded that staying fit will help them age better; consider how your building brings them in.

Purchase or replace exercise equipment with types of equipment that offer more features which make it usable for those with varying degrees of ability.

Are any of your classes taught by instructors who use wireless microphones? Consider adding supplemental equipment that ‘loops’ the audio to hearing aides, so that every participant can catch the instructions. Even if you only offer one class a week that incorporates this looping, people who use hearing aides will know that’s a class where they can fully participate.

Treat people with disabilities as you would any other member, taking into account individual needs and utilizing the many exercise options that may be available.

My brother, Christian, is on the autism spectrum; when he was in junior high and high school, his “buddy” Jared (a paid care provider) took him to the gym almost every day. Christian had a paid membership as part of our family membership, and the gym provided a free membership to Jared as a support person. Christian made a ton of new friends at the gym, and now there are several other people with intellectual disabilities who work out there with care providers.

boys sitting on fieldAn important thing to note is whether your efforts to be inclusive are truly welcoming or are just a check in the box. In an article on the website for the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), author Ellen Petrick asks: “If club owners or managers are trying to design a facility that will attract members with disabilities, they should try to ask themselves not only CAN people with disabilities use the facility – but also, will they WANT to use it? Can it be used independently or will it require assistance? Is it easy or cumbersome? Is it dignified or humiliating?” A good way to have this question answered is by asking a person with a disability. What works and what doesn’t? What can we do better? These reflections will go a long way towards better serving this population.

Finally, perhaps you saw the viral video of Collin Clarke’s bodybuilding competition in November 2015. The 22-year-old, who has Down’s Syndrome, began working the front desk at his local gym two years ago; the encouragement he received from his boss to start bodybuilding changed his whole life, not to mention his physique. Of being in the gym, Collin said, “When I walk through that door, I feel happy. It puts a smile on my face. I see a lot of people here that know me and I know them. It makes me feel awesome.” You’d want this transformation for any one of your members, I’m sure. It’s time to start thinking about how to include people with disabilities among those numbers. If you’ve tried this and had success, please share your experience in the comments!

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