Making Fitness Inclusive for Disabled Clients
As a personal trainer, you have the knowledge and resources to help clients of all genders, races, body types and ages realize their fitness goals.
But what about all ability levels?
This means clients with mobility issues, or cognitive impairments. They may live with cerebral palsy, limb loss or any number of spinal conditions, such as spina bifida. They may wear prostheses, move with the aid of a crutch, or use a wheelchair. Is your facility–are you–prepared to work with a hypothetical member of this population?
If you aren’t sure about the answer, first, say the following to yourself:
This person wants to become stronger, healthier and more confident. They want to improve their overall quality of life and they want to do it here, under my guidance.
Next, read the following 6 steps you can take to ensure that the spaces, equipment, programs, classes and culture of your facility are not only welcoming but encouraging for people with disabilities.
Go Beyond ADA Compliance
In the United States, fitness facilities must follow the regulations and standards described in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But is ticking all the boxes on the ADA checklist enough? Does it truly “remove any existing barriers which may limit the accessibility of individuals with disabilities” to exercise?
According to ADA language, exercise and gym equipment must have an “accessible route” that is adequately spaced out and designed for use by people with disabilities. Beyond how far apart your equipment is spaced, consider the following:
- Are the bars on your lat pulldown machines more than 48 inches from the floor? That’s out of reach for some.
- Are the treadmills low enough to the ground for people with lower-body impediments?
- Do you have cardio equipment that accommodates people in wheelchairs?
- What kinds of fitness equipment do you have for clients with disabilities, in general?
- Are adapted fitness classes, like adaptive yoga, seated strength training, or wheelchair-adapted boxing (see below) on the schedule?
- Do you have a dedicated space in your facility for clients with disabilities?
- Is your staff qualified to work with people with disabilities?
These considerations aren’t necessary for ADA compliance. They are, however, considerate of clients with disabilities.
Train Clients on Their Terms
When taking on an individual living with disabilities, it’s important to remember that they are not you, nor are they like your other, able-bodied clients. In fact, their goal is not necessarily to be “able-bodied,” and yours should not be to “fix them.” Their goals may vary widely, from aspiring toward Paralympics competition to simply improving flexibility and stamina. One size does not fit all.
All the above are common examples of ableism in fitness. These mistakes will discourage clients with disabilities from working out and can lead to injury. You must provide fitness instruction on their terms, according to their goals. Here are a few simple points that will help ensure a positive experience for both of you:
- Do your research. Gain a foundational understanding of a client’s disability, or disability type, before working with them.
- Take this person into a separate area at your facility when beginning training, giving them time to adapt.
- Listen closely and learn which exercises they may not be able to perform, or which ones might cause them pain.
- Keep safety at the forefront of your training.
- Focus more on what your client can do, as opposed to what they cannot.
- Avoid the “barking drill instructor” tone during training.
- Similarly, avoid a patronizing tone during training. Use the kind of encouraging language you’d use with anyone.
- Keep a log or have meetings with staff about what is working and what isn’t.
Don’t Underestimate Clients With Disabilities!
While clients with disabilities have certain limiting conditions, they are not life-sized porcelain dolls. Projecting elevated levels of fragility onto them can come across as belittling or condescending.
This tendency is usually driven by assumptions made about how injury-prone or weak clients with disabilities are. For example, a person in a wheelchair can be predisposed to osteoporosis or arthritis in the pelvis and/or hips. Concerns like this can be valid, but they aren’t always a given. Disabilities, like people, are nuanced and varied.
The cure for this is communication.
Open and honest communication is the bedrock of any positive relationship and should be established right away. Don’t let the fear of offending a potential client prevent you from asking specific questions about their injury or condition. This information is necessary to set realistic fitness goals and expectations.
Mainstream Diversity in Your Facility
To mainstream diversity means to ensure that members with disabilities feel empowered to use your facility outside of the classes, programs or separate areas that you’ve provided just for them. In making accommodations, be careful not to isolate clients with disabilities from everyone else.
When this happens, you’ve unintentionally created two separate gym communities—one for able-bodied clients, and another for those with disabilities. Remember that people with disabilities want to use the equipment on the main floor or take a class with everyone else. Find a way to integrate both populations.
Practice Universal Inclusion
An environment that is universally inclusive welcomes and treats everyone equally. Integrating both populations is a start. Next is ensuring that your staff understands the culture you’ve created and treats every client with dignity and respect.
Additionally, your marketing materials should represent people with disabilities. Fitness stock photos tend to show able-bodied individuals at their peaks. In an earlier post, we suggested using fitness photographs that depict a range of people at distinct phases in their fitness journeys. That means using images of people of different body types and ability levels. This makes it clear that physical activity is both beneficial for—and accessible to—everyone.
Obtain Adaptive Fitness Certifications
There are plenty of courses, programs and certifications for adaptive fitness (personal training for those with disabilities) out there. Here are a few:
- American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM): The Certified Inclusive Fitness Trainer (CIFT) certification. Developed by the ACSM in collaboration with the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), CIFT is designed to help trainers work with people with physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities.
- National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA): The Certified Special Population Specialist(TM) (CSPS) certification focuses on improving strength and conditioning for those with temporary or chronic health conditions.
- Certify Strong: Certify Strong offers an online certification in its CBSE Inclusive Training Model.
- Adaptive Training Academy (ATA): ATA’s Adaptive & Inclusive Trainer Certification course provides knowledge and practice principles that enable you to conduct fitness training, improve health for people with disabilities and maintain an inclusive setting.
- American Council on Exercise (ACE): ACE provides several continuing education courses focused on adaptive fitness for clients with special needs, as well as non-ambulatory individuals.
Making your fitness facility inclusive to people with disabilities shouldn’t be an afterthought. Like any good exercise, it should be done with intention and proper form. Following ADA guidelines is a start, but there is plenty more that trainers can do. Be proactive. Get educated. Help bring about positive life change for someone living with a disability.
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